A Teaching Moment: Why Reformist School Board Challengers Got Clobbered In Illinois – Wirepoints
By: Mark Glennon*
You perhaps thought that reformist challengers would perform well in last week’s local school board elections held across Illinois.
Many parents are livid over closed schools and remote teaching, political indoctrination in the classroom and fiscal mismanagement that leads to high property taxes.
Plenty of qualified challengers were on the ballots, and plenty of incumbents indeed deserved to be tossed out.
But the challengers got trounced.
Across the state, local news mostly reported similar stories – establishment incumbents won, with very few exceptions.
The Daily Herald has a particularly good and representative story linked here about some Chicago suburban races.
The answers are also mostly consistent across the state and the lesson is clear:
Cleaning up school boards requires far more than putting good candidates on the ballot who appeal to parental discontent.
The road to victory in school board elections is long and sometimes dirty, and wins typically go to establishment insiders skilled at each part of a process that’s not as transparent as you might think.
Future challengers would serve themselves well by recognizing the obstacles early.
Here are the key parts of that process:
Teachers unions hold immense power.
According to the Daily Herald, The Illinois Education Association’s local union chapters vetted and endorsed candidates in 38 school board and college trustee races statewide.
Of 132 union-backed candidates, 107 were elected, according to unofficial results.
They wield that power for several reasons.
First, despite growing discontent with them, many voters “still trust educators most when it comes to school-related matters,” as the IEA itself says. Its endorsements therefore matter. That element of voters still believes the IEA when it’s president, Cathy Griffin, says things like “We are a bipartisan organization. … We are Republicans, Democrats and independents.”
Well, they may be bipartisan in the sense of having no official connection to either party, but they are joined at the hip with the Illinois Democratic Party, and they are far left.
Second, the teachers and other public unions or labor groups will fund candidates who face serious challengers.
One example is a name known to many Wirepoints readers, Elizabeth Bauer, a pension actuary who writes often for Forbes.
She lost to incumbents in an Arlington Heights school board race.
Those incumbents got campaign contributions from teacher, custodian and school support unions or groups. [Look for names of unions and candidates on the Illinois State Board of Education, but, if less than $5,000 was spent or raised, there will be no report needed.]
Heaven forbid they let somebody who understands pensions ever get on a school board.
That’s also an example of another obstacle challengers face, which is the legalized corruption represented by campaign support from those who that have contracts with the schools.
There’s no easier way to buy your way off to a good contract for teachers, builders, and other workers than sending money to the school board members who are responsible for negotiating it.
It’s a blatant conflict of interest, but that’s the way it works.
The League of Women Voters also often has significant influence through candidate endorsements.
[I am not aware of the local League endorsing any candidate officially.]
It, too, claims bipartisanship, which historically was its hallmark. In recent years, however, at least in Illinois, it has gone overwhelmingly left.
In that connection, you can only laugh at this line from the Daily Herald article:
“Political groups trying to influence local school board elections is cause for concern, say leaders of the nonpartisan League of Women Voters.”
The league is precisely that – a political group trying to influence elections.
[Anyone who has attended a candidates’ forum and submitted a written question to a screening committee knows embarrassing ones don’t get asked.]
Then there are the mysterious local “caucuses” which are extremely influential in some communities but less important or nonexistent in others.
[McHenry County does not have this caucus system.]
A good description of one caucus system, for Western Springs, is here. They are creatures of Illinois election law and are theoretically nonpartisan.
In practice, however, they often become star chambers dominated by partisan activists.
This is where the unions, ideologues and the political establishment excel.
Give them credit for that – they do their work early and are organized.
Anybody could show up early enough in the caucus process to have their influence felt, but reformist newbies rarely do.
The end result is a list of caucus-endorsed candidates that seems official and is assumed by many voters to be based on qualifications instead of ideology, but in fact is anything but that.
All the above then plays out in elections where turnout is low, and that was especially true last week.
Voter turnout was typically just 16% and as low as 6% in some counties.
Media coverage is minimal during campaigns, so it doesn’t take much for establishment incumbent to use the process and their incumbency – and the votes of teachers themselves — to get the few votes needed for a win.
Here’s the end result:
If you were hoping local school board elections would help reopen Illinois schools (less than half voted are fully in person today) or would take radical political ideology out of the classroom, forget it.
The same crowd still rules.
Nor should you expect them to begin showing any fiscal discipline.
That’s a topic we at Wirepoints hope eventually to address in more detail.
Each district is different, but from all we’ve seen school boards rarely have either the training or inclination to manage their financial affairs properly.
That’s especially true when it comes to labor contracts that are not properly negotiated.
And here are the two lessons:
First, for the next election cycle, anybody interested in reform better start early and recognize the hurdles they face.
Second, Mark Twain was right.
= = = = =
Boldface emphasis has been added.