A Down-Ballot DC Education Race Draws Big-Dollar Donations

It’s a race at the very bottom of the District’s ballot, but the contest to elect new members of the D.C. State Board of Education is drawing attention — and beaucoup bucks — from across the country.

Donors from more than two dozen states are cutting checks to candidates for the D.C. education board, a News4 I-Team review found. Despite maximum donations being capped at $200, 10 candidates have raised well more than $200,000 collectively — all for a shot on a nine-member board that has relatively little authority.

Some say the election has become a proxy war between traditional district school and charter school advocates, especially as the D.C. City Council contemplates expanding the board’s power. Others reject the narrative as too simple a way to define candidates and say the high-dollar hauls reflect the realities of modern campaigning.

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“It’s an arms race,” said Emily Gasoi, an educator who has raised about $31,000 for a shot at the open Ward 1 seat. “It should be about local concerns, and local contributions, and that's not what's happening.”

Gasoi told News4 she had no idea when she declared her candidacy just how competitive it would become. She’s facing off against businessman Jason Andrean, who has raised a whopping $65,000, and former teacher Callie Kozlak, who has raised more than $16,000.

Gasoi, who has been endorsed by the Washington Teacher’s Union, is among those who see the contest as a battleground between traditional public school and charter school interests. Her daughter attends a Chinese-immersion charter in the District, but she said she’d consider capping charter growth.

Andrean has the backing of the D.C. chapter for Democrats for Education Reform (DFER), a powerful pro-charter group for which he’s a former board member. But he said the district versus charter debate is not what this race is about.

"I've never made this about charter versus traditional schools. I’m pro-kid," said Andrean, who raised more than any other board candidate this cycle.

Kozlak acknowledged via email that the charter-versus-district public school narrative is prevalent but called it "ironic” as she and her competitors “have not drawn a hard line in the sand around charters.”

Kozlak added, “We all recognize that charters are a big part of the D.C. landscape, but not a panacea, nor something we would want to extract.”

Ward 1 is the most high-profile education race this cycle, but similar battles are playing out across town — with the teacher’s union and DFER taking sides.

In Ward 5, union-backed Zachary Parker has raised nearly $45,000, according to the latest campaign filings, while DFER-backed candidate Adrian Jordan has raised about $18,500.

And in Ward 6, incumbent Joe Weedon has raised five times as much campaign cash as he did in 2014 — about $15,500 — but lags behind Jessica Sutter’s roughly $21,000.

Asked whether the high-dollar donations reflect a battle between opposing educational forces, Weedon, who noted he’s received the support of the teacher’s union and some local parent-teacher organizations, demurred.

“I hate that narrative, that I’m the public school champion and my opponent is supporting charter schools or that I don’t support all students,” he said. “I work hard every day to make sure our kids have multiple high quality options, but that only begins when we have quality choices in our neighborhood.”

Sutter, who received the endorsement of the local DFER, has taught and worked with charter schools. She said that makes her an honest broker for voters wondering where she stands.

“I support the choices families make for charters but I’ve also seen where charters go wrong and the kinds of changes we need to make,” Sutter told News4, adding, “But most importantly, we need to pay attention to the fact that 50 percent of students go to charters. This isn't some fringe element.”

In a statement to News4, the D.C. chapter of DFER rejected the notion it's solely a pro-charter political action committee, saying it chose candidates who have a record for "fighting for kids ... regardless of the governance structure of their public schools." Earlier this year, the national organization announced it will spend around $4 million in races across the country.

Reported by Scott MacFarlane, produced by Katie Leslie, shot by Steve Jones and Tony Pittman, and edited by Steve Jones.

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