Chalkbeat, an education news organisation, reported that political committees on both sides of the dispute channelled at least $1.65m into the school-board races that took place on November 7th in Denver, nearby Aurora and Douglas County. Other areas have seen even more expensive contests. In Los Angeles, where three board seats came up for election earlier this year, outside groups poured nearly $15m into canvassing and advertisements on behalf of the candidates. Much of the money came from California Charter Schools Association, which supports charter schools and received nearly $7m from Reed Hastings, the co-founder of Netflix, in the run-up to the election, and United Teachers Los Angeles, a union which opposes charters. According to Carol Burris, the executive director of the Network for Public Education, an advocacy organisation, outside money has also fuelled school-board fights in Louisiana, Minneapolis, and Perth Amboy, a town of just 52,500 in New Jersey.
It is not just the volume of cash being poured into school-board elections that is striking. So is where it comes from. As with political contributions in general, the origins of donations in school-board races are being obscured. The elections in Colorado illustrate how. Political action committees (PACs), which pool contributions from members and put them towards campaigning for or against candidates, are required to disclose their donor rolls. But social-welfare organisations, also referred to as 501(c)4s after the section of the tax code that describes them, are not. Those who wish to fund local races anonymously can direct their money to amenable 501(c)4s, which in turn donate to the PACs. In Colorado, for instance, a PAC called Raising Colorado, which supports the campaigns of charter-school champions, has received donations from only one source: Education Reform Now Advocacy (ERNA), the 501(c)4 arm of a non-profit organisation with its headquarters in New York City and Washington, DC. Who has donated to ERNA is a mystery.