by David Safier
The Douglas County School District near Denver broke campaign laws by paying a scholar to write a "scholarly" puff piece about the district just before the school board elections. The TUSD connection is, the Douglas district's superintendent is Elizabeth Celania-Fagen, who was TUSD supe before John Pedicone. What makes the connection less than trivial is, Fagen is one of the few public school superintendents in the nation to embrace vouchers, and the recent school board elections pitted her pro-voucher, anti-union candidates against a more progressive slate. (The progressives lost.) Meaning, we may have been lucky that Fagen chose to leave Tucson.
Also part of this story is, national conservative money poured into the elections on the pro-voucher, anti-union side. Both the Koch Brothers and Jeb Bush supported the "reform" candidates, with direct contributions to candidates and by funding independent campaigns. School board elections are being nationalized, mainly by big money conservatives, because the "school reform" movement is both pro-privatization, anti-government and anti-union, a three-fer for conservatives. Schools are a political battlefield, now more than ever.
While the conservative money flowing into a local school board election is perfectly legal, the district buying a "scholarly report" before the election isn't, according to a Denver judge. The report was written by Rick Hess, a somewhat respected conservative educational scholar working with the American Enterprise Institute, who should now lose whatever respectability he currently has. He got $30,000 to write about how wonderful and innovative the school district is.
In an email no serious scholar should write, Hess asked the people who paid him what they wanted to hear: "We would prefer it if you would tell us what you want us to focus on, what is most worthy of attention, what you'd like to see written about and what your general angle on it (and the paper) is." The paper included profiles of incumbent school board members and wrote about the importance of having "a unified board with a coherent vision." It was then promoted in a district newsletter that went out to 85,000 recipients — before the school board elections. The judge's ruling, of course, won't change the outcome of the elections. Fagen's preferred solidly conservative board is in place.
William Bennett, Reagan's Secretary of Education, also wrote a puff piece about the district before the election for $50,000. But because his piece was funded by a non-profit district foundation that's not part of the district itself, the transaction is legal.
Expect to hear more in Arizona about national money, especially conservative money, trying to influence education policy. A large money drop came to Arizona to fight the recent one cent sales tax initiative that went down. I haven't heard about national money in school board elections. Yet.