The Ohio House of Representatives just proposed to restructure oversight of K–12 public education by shifting much of the state Board of Education’s power to the governor through a newly formed cabinet-level position.
This would be a serious overhaul, so it’s no surprise that it’s garnering strong reactions. I’m sensitive about reducing the role of a publicly elected board—in no small part because I ran for a seat on it two years ago.
Supporters of the change argue that the board’s current hybrid governance structure—wherein the pubic elects eleven members and the governor appoints eight—is ineffective; they think the governor should be responsible for the direction of education policy and held accountable by voters accordingly. Critics of the proposal contend that reducing the authority of the partially elected board would subvert the will of the voters and replace it with “party politics,” the last thing they want for K–12 public education.
Democracy is rightly one of America’s core principles. But, as Robert Kennedy, Jr. said “Democracy is messy. And it’s hard.” Indeed, running for the state education board laid bare some of its imperfections—and not just because I lost. Elections are sometimes portrayed as ideal forms of democracy, yet the role of money and endorsements complicate them. Voters may not be well informed, especially about down-ticket races, or may skip voting altogether for the nonpartisan seats. In Ohio this includes judgeships, state education board seats, and more.
My campaign occurred in 2016 in a five-way race to represent a three-county district comprising Knox, Delaware, and most of Franklin. These elections typically fly under the radar. The predominant response I heard on the trail was that most voters couldn’t name their current representative, and many didn’t even know such a board existed.
In these lower-profile state and local elections, three factors can throw a wrench into whether the leaders that are elected truly end up representing people’s interests: money, voter knowledge, and voter turnout.
Show me the money!
I was of course aware of money’s role in elections, yet its influence became realer than ever when I needed to raise cash—as much of it as I could—to be even remotely competitive. I had never asked someone for money in my life, except when I once petitioned to buy community yoga mats. But there I stood at the beginning of a ten-week campaign cycle during which I hoped to raise between $40,000 and $50,000. Yowza.
Money matters. You need money to purchase yard signs, t-shirts, radio ads, and billboards. You need money for digital outreach. In a race to represent an area populated by hundreds of thousands of voters spread across hundreds of square miles, you need more than you think because you simply cannot walk door to door.
Enter powerful interest groups. With the ECOT saga in full view, there has been a large spotlight on contributions from the school’s operator into campaign coffers. But less talked about are teachers’ unions’ sizable contributions. For statewide elections, the contribution limit when I ran was around $12,500. That means that candidates earning both teachers’ unions’ endorsements immediately have $25,000 to work with. In school board races that don’t usually have other organized interest groups to serve as a counter weight, the union contributions make a big difference.
So do political parties. Despite the fact that these races are technically nonpartisan, parties often pony up contributions and endorse candidates, which places them on a party’s “slate card” on which voters often base their selections on down-ticket races.
I ended up talking to both the teachers’ unions, but I did not earn their endorsements. Nor was I endorsed by a major party. (I did earn the endorsement of the Stonewall Democrats.) I was able to secure contributions that kept me competitive and ultimately helped me earn second place. And I worked together with Leadership for Educational Equity, a national group that supports teachers and former teachers to run for office.
Shortly after I lost, however, smart folks who were well-schooled in politics suggested that I would never successfully earn a major endorsement unless I did it the “right” way: Go through the proper channels and let the inner circle of special interest groups and political parties tell me when it was my turn to run.
If powerful interest groups—no matter what side they’re on or what sector they come from—are hand-selecting amenable candidates who will likely do as they say, how independent are our elected representatives?
Call me naïve, but this up-close experience of money and influence in politics still surprised me. And I think most laypeople would feel that way upon realizing that the cash in candidates’ pockets and the groups backing them matter as much as—probably more than—the ideas in their heads or their ability to accomplish them.
The implication of this is clear: Ohio teachers’ unions—and other large interest groups that occasionally do get involved with education elections—have enormous influence. And this is most true in down-ticket races on which voters have little information and those aforementioned slate cards hold immense influence. Which brings me to my next point.
Voter knowledge and turnout
Many Ohioans view the latest governance proposal as a blatant removal of voter control. But that argument’s unconvincing considering how few people cast votes for education board seats, know who their representatives are, or even know what the board is. It also rings a bit hollow considering the state doesn’t have comparable policymaking boards in other domains like health, taxation, the environment, etc.
Roughly 95 percent of voters I spoke with seemed to know little or nothing about the seat for which I was running. They didn’t know what the education board did. The most powerful and resonating talking point I used was that I was the only candidate running who had K–12 public school teaching experience. At the time, only three sitting members had worked in a public school, and folks were receptive to getting another teacher on the board because they recognized the value of educators’ insight and knowledge. Yet most voters didn’t realize that wise policy decisions require other knowledge, too. Teaching kindergarten didn’t prepare me to serve on the board. But working in Ohio education policy for nearly a decade, and studying policy for my master’s degree, did.
Perhaps the most alarming lesson was about name recognition. Politically savvy friends or acquaintances would tell me I had a leg up with an Anglo-sounding name like “O’Leary.” Irish names do well in elections here in central Ohio, apparently. And so can gender neutral first names.
By the end of my campaign, after having drilled down talking points into tiny blurbs I could deliver at an OSU game to passersby, or during 30-second radio spots, the policy wonk in me felt a bit deflated. Folks didn’t seem to care much about policy details on education with so many other statewide and federal races on the ballot. Most admitted they voted in whatever way their party’s slate card instructed them to, having done little to no research on candidates independently, even for races that are meant to be non-partisan.
Moreover, it’s typical in races like mine for voters to skip the bottom of the ballot altogether—where lesser known seats are up for grabs. So even in a presidential election year, which no doubt boosts turnout, people voting for major federal and statewide candidates still often ignore the lesser-known contests.
All in all, it was a valuable experience for me try my hand at running for office. I got an insider’s view of the campaign cycle. And it’s a story that’s especially worth telling now that the state education board may be stripped of much of its authority.
In a perfect world, I wouldn’t want that to happen. I say that out of principle. I’m a person who thinks that local representation matters, just as I believe in the value of local food, local shopping, and vibrant local communities.
My experience showed me, however, that money and special interests dominate elections and that voters know very little about the board or the candidates running to serve on it. As Ohio leaders continue to debate governance in the coming days, I hope we’ll abandon Pollyanna notions that our current arrangement is a bastion of perfect democracy that represents the people, or that overhauling it would plunge us deeper into partisan politics than we already are. Neither is true. Instead, we owe it to ourselves—and our kids—to engage in thoughtful debate about how best to move education policy forward.