Campaigns for state school board are typically quiet affairs, eliciting only modest interest from the public and even less from political donors. But the race last fall for the District 2 seat on Louisiana’s board of elementary and secondary education was a remarkable exception.
The contest attracted the attention of education activists and politically connected individuals around the country—and it unleashed a torrent of spending, which flowed overwhelmingly to one candidate: Kira Orange Jones, the executive director of Teach For America of Greater New Orleans and a first-time office-seeker.
State records show that Ms. Orange Jones raised about $478,000 for her campaign, an amount that financially buried her main opponent, incumbent Louella Givens, who finished second to Ms. Orange Jones in an October primary and then lost to her in a November runoff. While most of Ms. Orange Jones’ contributors were from Louisiana, donations ranging from $5 to $10,000 came from individuals and organizations in at least two dozen other states.
National education advocacy organizations have made a determined push to shape the outcomes of elections in recent years, in some cases while battling teachers’ unions, and at least one such group—Democrats for Education Reform—backed Ms. Orange Jones, too. But her fundraising prowess also shows the rewards that come to candidates who can tap into broad and informal networks of individuals and education advocates, whose interests may be only tangentially related but who can bring considerable political and financial heft to a campaign.
Ms. Orange Jones, though only 33 years old, was able to capitalize on connections across the landscape of politics and education.
New York City-based DFER promoted her candidacy by email to its members. She also had the backing of a number of politically connected people with ties to Louisiana, such as Democratic strategist James Carville and former state school board member Leslie Jacobs, both of whom Ms. Orange Jones credits with nudging donors to help her.
“It was a multi-tiered approach,” Ms. Orange Jones said in an interview. Her fundraising success, she said, stemmed from a “strong local base” and “longtime relationships” with individuals and organizations across the country.
“I was able to leverage a lot of those networks,” she explained, “and expand the net even further.”
Ms. Givens, a two-term board member, had the backing of the state’s two major teachers’ unions, but raised only $9,000 and was outspent by a ratio of roughly 50-to-1. She says the influx of campaign cash, which paid for a wave of voter outreach on Ms. Orange Jones’ behalf, ultimately stifled any message the incumbent hoped to present to voters in the working-class electoral district, which includes part of New Orleans and communities west of the city.
“It made all the difference in the world,” Ms. Givens said of the challenger’s campaign war chest. “She was able to capitalize on the media blitz” and “use money to create a public persona, to influence the outcome of an election.”
Seven of the eight elected positions on Louisiana’s 11-member board of education were contested and on the ballot in 2011. The outcome of those races was expected to have major implications for education policy in the state, traditionally one of the nation’s lowest academic performers.
The elections were also closely watched by Gov. Bobby Jindal, a Republican, who appoints three members of the state board and was counting on a newly reconstituted panel to select his preferred choice for state schools superintendent, John White. At the time, Mr. White, now the state chief, was leading the Recovery School District, a state-run school system composed of academically struggling schools, many of them in New Orleans.
$5,000 to $10,000
CEO, Netflix, Inc.
Major education philanthropist, founder of Broad Foundation
Revocable Trust associated with New York City mayor
CEO of TurboSquid, New Orleans-based 3D company
$1,000 to $4,999
Author, president and CEO of the Aspen Institute
Harvard professor, political commentator
Democratic political strategist
Owner, New Orleans Saints
Less than $1,000
Teach For America founder and CEO
Chief of office of human capital, D.C. schools, former national Teacher of the Year
Chancellor, District of Columbia schools
Co-founder, Rocketship Education, charter school network
SOURCE: Louisiana Board of Ethics
The governor endorsed six board candidates on the ballot. Though he did not officially back either Ms. Orange Jones or Ms. Givens, both of whom are Democrats, Ms. Orange Jones’ positions on education were widely regarded as more compatible with the governor’s than were those of Ms. Givens.
Mr. Jindal had vowed to press for big changes to the state’s education system—last month he signed into law a statewide expansion of private school vouchers and restrictions on teacher tenure, among other changes. While the governor’s proposals required the approval of the GOP-controlled legislature, the state board has policymaking power, which includes a role in setting the school funding formula.
The elections were also cast as a referendum on the board’s efforts to improve schools statewide and in the RSD, which included promoting charter schools and granting schools greater autonomy. Ms. Orange Jones campaigned in support of many of those efforts. Ms. Givens was skeptical of some of them, arguing, for instance, that too much focus was being placed on charter school growth, with too little accountability to the public.
Ms. Givens received support in her campaign from the Louisiana Association of Educators and the Louisiana Federation of Teachers—affiliates of the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers, respectively—which each contributed at least $2,000 to her re-election effort. She also lent her campaign at least $10,000, according to records from the Louisiana Board of Ethics, which oversees candidates’ financial reporting.
But the unions’ contributions were dwarfed by those flowing to Ms. Orange Jones, who harvested donations from the worlds of education, business, and philanthropy.
Contributors included many Louisianans and others with connections to the state, including Ms. Jacobs, who gave her campaign $10,000; Mr. Carville, who donated $1,000; and Tom Benson, the owner of the New Orleans Saints football team, who chipped in $2,000.
The lineup included out-of-state donors like Eli Broad, the founder of the Los Angeles-based Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation and a major education philanthropist, who gave at least $5,000; Reed Hastings, the chief executive officer of Netflix Inc., and a former president of the California state board of education, who also contributed at least $5,000; Walter Isaacson, a best-selling biographer and the president of the Aspen Institute, a Washington think tank, who contributed $2,000; and David Gergen, a Harvard University professor, political commentator, and adviser to a number of presidents, including Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton, who gave at least $2,500, campaign-finance records show.
Another prominent donor was the Michael Bloomberg Revocable Trust, which is associated with the New York City mayor and financial media magnate, which gave Ms. Orange Jones $10,000. (Mr. White, the Louisiana state chief, once worked for Mr. Bloomberg as a deputy chancellor of the New York City schools the mayor oversees.)
The size of the money flow came as a jolt to the teachers’ unions, which soon realized they would struggle to keep up.
“I had a conversation with my national union, and they said, ‘We see Bloomberg’s giving money in that race. What in the hell is going on, and what’s the plan to win?’ ” recalled Steve Monaghan, the president of the 21,000-member LFT. “The kind of money being spent [was] enough to raise anyone’s eyebrows.”
Ms. Givens’ chances also may have been hurt by other factors. She was arrested early last year on suspicion of driving while intoxicated, a case that is still moving through the courts; there was also a New Orleans Times-Picayune report that the Internal Revenue Service had placed a lien on her property for unpaid taxes. Ms. Givens did not respond to Education Week for comment on those issues, but last fall she said publicly she was fighting the DWI charge and disputed the IRS report.
The money flow and the overall attention paid to the full slate of board elections were especially surprising, given the panel’s long-standing reputation as a political “backwater,” said Pearson Cross, an assistant professor of political science at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. Board members serve four-year, unpaid terms.
But he said the scope of those campaigns also underscored the board’s potential to hinder, or support, Gov. Jindal’s vision for schools.
The governor needed to “make sure the pieces were in place to pass his education agenda,” Mr. Cross said, so that “his changes got implemented.”
Ms. Orange Jones said no single network triggered her success in fundraising. She credited Ms. Jacobs and Mr. Carville, among others, with marshaling political and financial support for her campaign. She said she knew some of her donors through Teach For America, where she once worked as a teacher and now has a leadership role. (Mr. Gergen is a member of TFA’s board.) She said other contributors knew her through the Aspen Institute—Mr. Isaacson’s group—where she was a fellow. Others were personal friends, a description that applied to Mr. Hastings, a spokesman for the Netflix CEO said.
Those contributions, and others, helped Ms. Orange Jones pay for political consultants, advertising, mailings, phone banks, signs, pushcards, lapel stickers, and other outreach, state records show. Ms. Givens’ campaign, by contrast, was able to spend only a small fraction of that amount on such efforts.
In an Oct. 22 primary, Ms. Orange Jones finished first in a four-person race, about 8 percentage points ahead of Ms. Givens, who took second. Because no candidate won 50 percent of the vote, the election went to a runoff, and on Nov. 19, Ms. Orange Jones coasted to victory with 57 percent of the vote, to Ms. Givens’ 43 percent. Some 55,000 votes were cast.
Five of the six candidates endorsed by Gov. Jindal won their races, and those political victories seem to have paid dividends.
In January, the board of education voted 9-1, with one abstention, to approve Mr. White’s appointment as superintendent, with Ms. Orange Jones backing the selection. In February, the board approved a change to the state’s school funding formula to include support for an ambitious public and private school choice system, presaging the legislature’s passage this spring of the choice law championed by Mr. Jindal.
Both Ms. Orange Jones and her opponent acknowledge the role that the first-time candidate’s fundraising played in the race. But they disagree on what Ms. Orange Jones’ success in that area revealed about her campaign, and whether she played the role of the underdog, or the behemoth.
Ms. Givens said that even attempting to keep pace with her opponent’s spending would have required asking residents of her district, many of them impoverished, for donations.
“My constituents are recovering from Hurricane Katrina. It’s difficult to raise money among people who don’t have money,” Ms. Givens said. Ultimately, she said, the race left the board with “one less voice who questioned the so-called reform measures coming before us.”
But Ms. Orange Jones said aggressive fundraising was necessary to overcome the power of Ms. Givens’ incumbency, and the strength of the teachers’ unions.
“I was running against an institutional system,” Ms. Orange Jones said. “I was running against a machine. I had no name recognition. I had to be aggressive in getting my name out.”
Pointing to her final margin of victory, she said of her New Orleans-area constituents: “There was a clear mandate. The reality is that the majority of people in this city wanted this change.”
A version of this article appeared in the May 23, 2012 edition of Education Week as Jackpot for Insurgent in Louisiana Contest