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The Point of No Return? Interest Groups, School Board Elections, and the Sustainment of the Portfolio Management Model in Post-Katrina New Orleans

by Richard Welsh & Michelle Hall - 2018

Context: Given the growing popularity of the portfolio management model (PMM) as a method of improving education, it is important to examine how these market-based reforms are sustained over time and how the politics of sustaining this model have substantial policy implications.

Purpose of Study: The purpose of this article is to examine important patterns and trends in the relationship between campaign contributions to local and state school board elections and the sustainability of the PMM in urban districts. We provide a descriptive analysis of the role of interest groups in education reform in post-Katrina New Orleans and document how the PMM changed the landscape of education politics, with a focus on the actors, both local and national, that sustain the PMM.

Research Design: We describe the creation of Act 35 and the evolution of educational governance changes in New Orleans to determine whether the same interest groups that played a role in the origin of the PMM also contributed to its sustainment. We analyze how these educational governance changes influenced the politics of education reform using data from the Louisiana Ethics Commission on campaign contributions to both state and local school board elections. We apply several non-board and board governance theories to examine interest group behavior. We also conduct interviews with stakeholders throughout the educational system to inform our discussion of the evolution of educational governance and the politics of education reform in post-Katrina New Orleans, as well as the categorization of candidates in school board elections.

Results: We find that in the post-Katrina era, there was a diversification of actors in the interest group landscape. These groups influenced educational governance through unprecedented levels of campaign contributions to the state and local school board elections. The influence of interest groups, especially out- of- state actors, contributed to an emerging shift in political control from “traditional” school board candidates to an increase in “pro-reform” board members.

Conclusions: The PMM is accompanied by heightened interest as well as an influx of out-of-state actors in educational policy making and the provision of public education. Unprecedented levels of campaign contributions suggest that state and local school board elections may be one of the primary mechanisms through which interest groups influenced post-Katrina educational governance. Out-of-state campaign contributions were mostly in support of pro-portfolio candidates. There appears to be tangible national support for the PMM that may play a crucial role in sustaining these reforms.

In response to consistently low-performing schools, alternative approaches to educational governance have become increasingly popular in urban districts (Henig, 2013). At the same time, “market-based” reforms in education have become more prevalent and garnered the support of nonprofit and philanthropic organizations as well as individual funders (Reckhow, 2012; Scott, Lubienski, & DeBray-Pelot, 2009). The portfolio management model (PMM), characterized by several school providers (including traditional public and charter schools) and a performance-based accountability system, has grown in prominence as a strategic approach to improving public education (Bulkley, Henig, & Levin, 2010; Henig, 2010; Hill & Campbell, 2011; Hill, Campbell, & Gross, 2013; Hill, Pierce, & Guthrie, 1997). Notwithstanding the variation in PMM across localities, school choice and charter schools are key components of a portfolio district (Hill & Campbell, 2011). Philanthropic funding has aided the nationwide expansion of the PMM and charter schools (Au & Ferrare, 2014; Henig & Bulkley, 2013; Reckhow, 2012; Scott, 2009).

These developments in education reform are occurring in the midst of broader political changes that may shape the influence of wealth and interest groups in education. In addition to the overall increase in campaign contributions (Powell, 2013), Supreme Court rulings on election funds (e.g., Citizens United and McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission) allow for greater involvement of private funds in elections for public offices. Until recently, little attention has been paid to the role of interest groups and their impact on the policy-making process amid educational governance changes and other education reforms (DeBray, Scott, Lubienski, & Jabbar, 2014; McDonnell, 2013; McDonnell & Weatherford, 2013; Reckhow, 2012). Given the expansion of the PMM as a method of reforming education,1 it is important to examine how these market-based reforms are sustained over time and the politics of sustaining this model have substantial policy implications. Typically, changes in educational policy occur in relatively frequent cycles as educators experiment with school reforms, however, sustaining changes in the provision of schooling is more challenging for various reasons, including turnover in personnel and funding (Tyack & Cuban, 1995). Most of the prior research on the PMM has focused on implementation (Bulkley et al., 2010) and the role of local, state, and national actors in the emergence of the PMM in several urban districts (Bulkley & Henig, 2015). Some scholars have raised concerns that public schooling, a key spoke in the wheel of democracy, is being taken over by wealth in the form of unelected individuals and organizations who, through financial contributions, create and maintain educational policy (Delpit, 2012). It is important to gain a better understanding of the role that interest groups play in the sustainment of the PMM.

Post-Katrina New Orleans provides an exemplary case study of a portfolio district. The passage of Act 35 in November 2005 allowed the state-run Recovery School District (RSD) to take over the majority of public schools in New Orleans (Act 35, 2005). Public education in the post-Katrina era is characterized by a decentralized, choice-based public school system (Levin, Daschbach, & Perry, 2010). The Orleans Parish School Board (OPSB) operated the overwhelming majority of New Orleans’s public schools before Hurricane Katrina but only retained 17 high-achieving schools after the passage of Act 35 (Cowen Institute, 2011). The implementation of the PMM after Hurricane Katrina drastically reshaped the agendas of various interest groups and the politics of education reform in New Orleans (Garda, 2011). In the post-Katrina era, private dollars have assisted in the election of local- and state-level school board members (Hess, 2012). The election cycles for state (2011) and local (2012) school boards attracted an unprecedented level of campaign contributions as several of America’s wealthiest individuals have deepened their involvement in Louisiana’s education system (Hess, 2012).

This article examines important patterns and trends in the relationship between campaign contributions to local and state school board elections and the sustainability of the PMM in urban districts. We provide a descriptive analysis of the role of interest groups in education reform in post-Katrina New Orleans and document how the PMM changed the landscape of education politics with a focus on the actors, both local and national, that sustain the PMM. We examine the relationship between the implementation of the PMM and subsequent changes in the behavior of interest groups. We use a combination of nonboard and board governance theories, data from the Louisiana Ethics Commission on campaign contributions to state and local school board elections, and interviews with stakeholders throughout the educational system to inform our discussion of the evolution of educational governance and the politics of education reform in post-Katrina New Orleans. The central guiding research questions are: What factors led to the implementation of the PMM (Act 35) in post-Katrina New Orleans? How did Act 35 influence interest group behavior in post-Katrina New Orleans? The rest of the article proceeds as follows. We first provide an overview of educational governance and the role of interest groups in education reform and policy making. Next, we describe the PMM in post-Katrina New Orleans before we outline data and methods used in this study. We present results and conclude with a discussion of key implications and areas for future research.


Locally elected school boards (LESBs) play a central role in the educational governance of public schools in the United States (Berkman & Plutzer, 2005; Reckhow, Henig, Jacobsen & Alter, 2016). Support for LESBs is rooted in the American belief in “democratic control,” or the notion that LESBs are the closest governing body to the people and therefore the most responsive to the influence of the electorate (Iannaccone & Lutz, 1995; Resnick & Bryant, 2008). Overall, educational governance today is a combination of its origins of local control with progressive-era reforms (Reckhow, 2012). A key feature of LESBs is the marriage between the provision and governance of public education. Critics of LESBs claim that these boards use resources inefficiently, stifle innovation, prioritize the needs of adults over children, fail to optimally meet student needs, and fail to capitalize on opportunities for economies of scale in large districts (Hill et al., 1997). Some scholars argue that large urban districts are too complex to be governed by LESBs and that general-purpose governing entities are better suited to the task (Hess, 2008a). Districts that shift away from the control of LESBs toward a general purpose governing body are likely to become less restrictive of “market-based” reforms (Henig, 2013; Reckhow, 2012). These factors, coupled with the federal government’s increased involvement in K–12 educational accountability, resulted in the expansion in the range of actors and service providers in the local provision of education (Burch, 2010).

The role of LESBs has changed amid the confluence of changes in educational governance and the entrance of new interest groups. School boards’ responsibilities have grown from administering basic operations to complying with federal and state requirements (Walser, 2009). LESBs create local policies and budgets that are funded from multiple sources, as well as hire and evaluate superintendents responsible for leading districts within a high-stakes accountability environment (Kirst & Wirt, 2009). This complex “results-based” environment for local education “relegated local boards, district officials, and site educators to a reactive, arguably subservient role in that they are required to meet the goals developed elsewhere with the resource allocations determined elsewhere or experience sanctions set elsewhere” (Malen, 2011, p. 38). Overall, the focus of LESBs in urban districts with high rates of poverty has evolved from locally designed and implemented service provision in compliance with federal equity mandates to striving to meet federal and state standards.  

Educational governance changes have also influenced local policy makers to expand their political allies to include nontraditional actors such as nonprofit organizations, corporate actors, charter management organizations (CMOs), thank tanks, and foundations (Bulkley & Henig, 2015; Reckhow, 2012; Reckhow et al., 2016; Scott, 2009). A new form of “experimental” and “strategic” governance is being developed, bringing these new actors into the education policy-making process with different agendas and resources (Au & Ferrare, 2014; Ball, 2008; Reckhow, 2012; Reckhow et al., 2016). This educational governance landscape, characterized by a diverse array of local and national interest groups that support market-based reforms, can be described as a policy network that has changed the political dialogue of education policy making and created opportunities to challenge traditional agencies and influence the way public schooling is governed and implemented in the United States (Ball, 2008; Henig & Bulkley, 2013; Reckhow, 2012; Reckhow et. al., 2016; Scott et al., 2009). Interest groups involved in education have expanded from issue-specific groups, such as teachers’ unions, to broader issue-focused networks, such as Grantmakers for Education, that are involved in funding education, broader social-impact investing, and shaping policy through direct influence, candidate selection, and influencing public opinion (Scott et al., 2009).

Under the PMM, the role of the governing agency is to set policies related to school choice, school autonomy, pupil-based funding for all schools, talent-seeking strategy, sources of support, performance-based accountability for schools, and extensive public engagement (Hill et al., 2013). Therefore, this model embraces the market-based ideas of education reform by making the governing body over public schools a policy setting and contracting agency working with private providers, as opposed to an operational one working within a closed public system of education provision (Henig, 2010). Bulkley and Henig (2015) investigated 10 different districts and found that only two are heavily influenced by substantial state and/or national influences: Tennessee and New Orleans. New Orleans developed its current education system through the expansion of its education service providers (Garda, 2011; Levin et al., 2010). New providers develop a distinct policy network that influences the politics of the local education landscape (Bulkley & Henig, 2015).

There is little research on campaign contributions to school boards. This is likely because contributions and expenditures for these elections are relatively small in the United States (Hess, 2008b; Rose & Sonstelie, 2010). On average, school board candidates spend less than $1,000 in their election efforts and are generally limited to self-funding or social network support from family and friends (Hess, 2008b; Rose & Sonstelie, 2010). In larger districts, candidates may spend up to $25,000 (although spending at this level is rare), and the largest proportion of contributions is from unions and businesses (Cowen & Strunk, 2014; Moe, 2005). In major cities, most candidates have broad coalitions of campaign contributors (Adams, 2008). Political scientists have long debated how contributions influence campaigns, electoral outcomes, and subsequent policy. However, most studies have focused on congressional candidates and roll call votes, thus smaller elections such as school boards and other municipal offices have been largely overlooked (Reckhow et. al, 2016). Interest groups invest in campaign contributions with the expectation of a return on their investment (Grossman & Helpman, 2001), however, scholars have struggled to provide empirical evidence to support the linkage between campaign contributions and influence in the legislative process (Powell, 2013).


We utilize a combination of several nonboard and board theories to address our research questions. We use Kingdon’s revised garbage can model to describe how New Orleans became a portfolio district. Policy making is not a rational or orderly process, and the garbage can model refers to processes where problems, participants, solutions, and choices are running concurrently, independent from each other (Kingdon, 2011). When problem recognition, policy proposal, and politics unite, a window of opportunity opens that leads to a change in policy. This model perpetuates organized chaos because it (a) distorts the decision-making process, (b) leads to several interpretations of the problem, (c) involves fluid participation, and (d) relies on self-interest (Cohen, March, & Olsen, 1972). Kingdon (2011) argued that the policy structures within the United States contribute to the aforementioned organized chaos because of its extended invitation to external actors who ultimately influence governance decisions. These dynamics are illustrated in New Orleans’ shift from a traditional district to a portfolio district because the political outcomes regarding Act 35 were catapulted by chance and the power of external forces rather than from orderly policy making in which the problem preceded the solution.

To evaluate the influence of special interest involvement on education policy making in post-Katrina New Orleans, we use two related theoretical frames: policy feedback and civic capacity theories. By combining these two perspectives, we can better understand the mechanisms behind the changes in the politics of education reform after the passage of Act 35 and explicate the expansion in the number of actors and organizations involved in Louisiana and New Orleans education politics that supported the dramatic changes in educational governance. We employ both theories to investigate how Act 35 contributed to reshaping the political landscape in Louisiana and New Orleans, as well as to analyze reform sustainability and the challenges of developing a coalition.

The theory of policy feedback is based on the concept that policies create conditions for the political environment. A new policy can influence the behavior of political actors and shape future policies (McDonnell & Weatherford, 2013; Patashnik, 2008; Reckhow, 2012). Educational research employing policy feedback has focused on the sustainability of the reform coalition (Campbell, 2003), the legal durability of the reforms (Maltzman & Shipan, 2008), the politics of the administrative structure (Moe, 2005), and the role of philanthropy in education politics (Reckhow, 2012). The sustainability of reforms is dependent on the interest, backing, and ability of supporters to retain reforms until they become entrenched (Patashnik & Zelizer, 2013; Stone, 2001). Prior studies have found that sustainability of market-based reforms is more likely not only when the political system is redesigned but also when there is investment in the continuation of that redesign (Patashnik, 2008; Reckhow, 2012). Institutional changes result in differential interest group mobilization. In policy feedback, interpretation of a policy defines how people and organizations will respond politically (McDonnell & Weatherford, 2013). When individuals and groups interpret policy positively, it results in the mobilization of the policy’s beneficiaries to reinforce and possibly expand institutional changes. When interest groups interpret policy negatively, the outcome is an attempt to contract or terminate the institutional changes created by the policy (Grossman & Helpman, 2001; McDonnell, 2009). Thus, how community members interpret a policy contributes to the extent of mobilization. In school board elections, members of a community may mobilize to support or reject a policy through the proxy of voting for or against school board members (Berkman & Plutzer, 2005).  

Another possible contributing factor in policy change is civic capacity, or the ability of various actors in the community—including educators, parents, policy makers, for-profit and nonprofit organizations, and others—to work together to support a community-wide ideal (Stone, 2001). Civic capacity requires participants to consider what they identify as “good” for the community as a whole (Stone, 2001) and to design and execute effective engagement with the public realm to promote that ideal (D. R. Williams, Shinn, Nishishiba, & Morgan, 2002). Scholars examining civic capacity in education argue that if only traditional education actors are engaged in politics, sustainable reform is unlikely (Stone, Henig, Jones, & Pierannunzi, 2001). Therefore, in order to develop sufficient civic capacity to sustain a policy, new stakeholders must invest and remain engaged in the education reform (Reckhow, 2012).

We use two board governance theories to interpret our findings of changes in board governance: dissatisfaction theory and decision-output theory. The two theories are complementary—each focuses on, and explains a different dimension of, the politics surrounding school boards (Lutz & Iannaccone, 2008).  

The dissatisfaction theory posits that a stable political environment will exist so long as the policies designed and implemented by the controlling elite align with the wishes of the general public (Lutz & Iannaccone, 2008; Rada & Carlson, 1985). When citizens are satisfied with current board decisions, their participation in elections is limited, whereas when citizens are dissatisfied with education policies, voter turnout increases (Alsbury, 2008; Kirst & Wirt, 2009; Lutz & Iannaccone, 2008). In essence, the voting tendencies of communities in school board elections reflect their values and beliefs. A misalignment between board values and community values occurs when community values change (often due to demographic shifts), resulting in voters voting out incumbents in favor of new members who share the new community values (Alsbury, 2008; Lutz & Iannaccone, 2008). These new board members produce more aligned policies, leading to increased voter satisfaction as demonstrated by diminished voter turnout (Lutz & Iannaccone, 2008). Additionally, the dissatisfaction theory predicts that when voters are dissatisfied, there will also be superintendent turnover (Alsbury, 2008; Rada & Carlson, 1985). Indeed, correlations between incumbent board turnover and superintendent turnover are a central component of the dissatisfaction theory and indicative of community influence (Alsbury, 2008). In sum, demand for new policies, higher voter turnout, and incumbent and superintendent turnover are viewed as evidence of the dissatisfaction theory.

Several studies have provided empirical evidence to refute and support the predictions of the dissatisfaction theory (Alsbury, 2008; Lutz & Iannaccone, 1986; Ledoux & Burlingame, 1973; Rada & Carlson, 1985; Weninger & Stout, 1989). Earlier research found significant correlations between school board defeat and superintendent turnover, whereas more recent studies reveal less supportive empirical evidence (Alsbury, 2008). For instance, Lutz and Iannaccone (1986) found that several years of citizen dissatisfaction eventually led to the defeat of an incumbent board member and the subsequent turnover of the incumbent superintendent, whereas Alsbury (2008) found that “school board and superintendent turnover occurs regularly in the absence of community dissatisfaction” (p. 362). Other studies highlight the nuances of the relationships between the different elements of the theory. For example, Rada and Carlson (1985) found that dissatisfaction led to an 18% increase in school board turnover but argued that community demands were more reflective of community dissatisfaction with schools rather than the decisions of board members (Rada & Carlson, 1985). In sum, the dissatisfaction theory holds true under certain conditions; the predictions of the theory regarding correlations between board turnover and superintendent turnover do not always hold true. Overall, the extant literature highlights the importance of involuntary (political) board turnover and voluntary (apolitical) board turnover (Alsbury, 2008), the socioeconomic status of districts (Lutz, 1975), community members withholding their dissatisfaction (Alsbury, 2008), the timing of the examination of political processes (Weninger & Stout, 1989), and the nature of community demands and the focus of the community dissatisfaction (Rada & Carlson, 1985).

Decision-output theory examines the relationship between inputs (demands and resources) with outputs (policy and programs) (Alsbury, 2008; Wirt & Kirst, 1992). Education policy making is innately political; LESBs must employ value preferences to select between demands, and the decision-output theory posits that democracy is a measure of whether the governing entity responds to citizens’ demands (Alsbury, 2008). Resources are limited, and demands may be misaligned with school/community values and conflict with state and federal requirements. If the school board output is acceptable, there may be minimal stakeholder feedback, whereas if the output is unacceptable, there will be significant and multifaceted community feedback. Ideally, in a democratic system, policy decisions align with the interests and/or demands of the people; however, outputs (policies) are rarely what the public demanded, thus the governance process of local schools is usually undemocratic (Alsbury, 2008; Iannaccone & Lutz, 1995). In sum, decision-output theory acknowledges citizens’ ability to catalyze policy change; several factors, such as the political dynamics within local school districts, differing perceptions between the LESBs and stakeholders, and weak voter participation, contribute to the erosion of democracy within education governance (Iannaccone & Lutz, 1995; Wirt & Kirst, 1992).

Similar to the dissatisfaction theory, empirical evidence on the decision-output theory highlights the nuances of explaining political processes in public education. Wirt and Kirst (1992) found that, because of disproportionate or misaligned inputs, school outputs are not reflective of public interests and/or demands and attributed the lack of democracy in education decision making to voters not exerting their power to change things. Other scholars attribute policy changes, or lack thereof, to the (a) citizens’ choice to oppose change and (b) collation of individuals (i.e., teachers, students, citizens, and administrators) who hinder school change (Iannaccone & Lutz, 1995). Lee and Stedrak (2013) found that school board members defined their efficiency via aspirational performance criteria, whereas community members utilized less standards-based and more opinionated forms of evaluation (Lee & Stedrak, 2013). Alsbury (2004) posited that the disconnect between school boards and the communities reflects discrepancies between what voters actually want and what board members believe voters need or want. Although citizens’ demands may be reflected on school board agendas, decisions reflect board members’ values, hence the disconnect between what boards deem as effective and how citizens view their effectiveness (Iannaccone & Lutz, 1995). Fisher (1991) found that dissonance between board and citizen perceptions was less common in communities with high socioeconomic status; communities with high socioeconomic status experienced little to no involvement from interest groups, whereas communities with low socioeconomic status experienced “more dissent, political activity and interest group involvement” (p. 19). These findings suggest that involvement from outside parties may be most prevalent and influential in poorer communities. The presence of outside actors complicates the political process because the policy outputs may not be democratic or reflective of community demands.

In New Orleans, changes in educational values and/or policy demands within the community created an avenue for implementing drastic school change and shifting governing authority (Kirst & Wirt, 2009). The passage of Act 35 took place at a time of physical disruption of New Orleans; few teachers or community members had returned to the devastated area, thus they were less available to influence policy change. Following the implementation of the PMM, voters may be dissatisfied with the PMM and school choice policies, or, alternatively, voters may be dissatisfied with the policy decisions of the local school board. This dissatisfaction and the demands of the community shape the sustainability of the PMM over time and may be reflected in board and superintendent turnover at the local level (OPSB) and the state level (RSD and BESE). It is also possible that community values, socioeconomic status, outside influence, and gaps in perceptions of board effectiveness may interact in nuanced ways. This study contributes to the nascent literature on the PMM by examining the role of local, state, and national interests in the sustainability of this emergent model of urban education. Our study adds to the extant literature on school board elections by examining the role of nontraditional actors involved in school board elections in the PMM. It is important to better understand the theoretical implications of empirical research on school boards as a way of converging research on educational governance and school boards as well as systematically expanding the theoretical frontiers and extending governance models. We describe the data and methods used in our analysis in the following section.



Table 1 provides details our data sources. This study draws on four main data sources: interviews, campaign contribution data, document analysis, and observations. The data were collected during an 18-month time frame, March 2013–August 2014. The data collection was limited to political activities surrounding the campaigns, elections, and educational governance changes at the state and local level, along with policy implementation of the BESE and OPSB. Document data collected ranged in size from 140 characters for a single tweet to 666 pages for NCLB, with a document mean of approximately 17 pages.


Table 1. Description of Data Sources

Data Source




(2) Teachers; (2) Orleans Parish School Board District officials; (2) Charter Management Organization (CMOs) leaders; (2) New Schools for New Orleans officials; (1) Recovery School District officials; (1) Research Organization staff


Document Data

(56) 990s; (5) federal, (7) state, and (3) local laws; (22) regulations; (24) speeches; (12) public addresses; (13) Twitter feeds; (43) media accounts; (5) government testimonies; (137) candidate, district(s), state, governor, legislative, interest group, and campaign contributor websites; and (63) published reports from federal department of education, state of Louisiana, Governor’s office, State Recovery School District, Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, Orleans Parish School Board, New Orleans School District, Charter Management Organizations that operate schools in New Orleans, (49) Charter School Operators, interest group reports, think tanks, and universities


Campaign contribution data

Louisiana F-102 forms



32 BESE and OPSB meetings during the 17-month timeframe; 6 candidate and board member speeches; 8 candidate debates broadcast over radio, television, and YouTube


Note. 990s are IRS forms used by tax-exempt organizations, nonexempt charitable trusts, and section 527 political organizations required by section 6033 of the U.S. Tax Code; Louisiana F-102 forms are official forms required to be filed multiple times during and after the campaign process by the State of Louisiana for any candidate running for public office who receives $2,500 (after 2012); $5,000 (prior to 2012); or more in campaign contributions.

We conducted interviews with leaders of the education community in post-Katrina New Orleans, including representatives from CMOs, research institutes, advocacy organizations, school board members, teachers, and RSD staff members. A stratified purposeful sample that represented the various subgroups of interest in the education community of New Orleans was selected based on our first round of data collection and analysis of interviewees (Hatch, 2002). Special attention was paid to ensure that each of the various subsectors of educational governance, from the state to the local level, was included in the sample. The interviews took place in person with follow-up conversations by phone between 2013 and 2014; each interview was between 30 and 90 minutes in length. The interview protocol was designed to gain a richer understanding of the organizational perspectives on the development of the PMM in New Orleans and the return to local control of the schools within that model. Thus, we focused on how interviewees perceived the ways in which the pre-Katrina Orleans Parish school district was governed. Second, interviews were focused on the post-Katrina developments in New Orleans educational governance and explored the interviewees’ perceptions of the changing roles of interest groups in public education policy making. Interviews were recorded, transcribed, and coded using the denoted coding structure. We then analyzed the interview data to identify the perceptions of state-, district- and school-level actors in education to inform our discussion of the major trends observed in New Orleans’s educational governance since 2007 and the evolution of interest group involvement in education politics and policy making.

We used data on all reported campaign contributions from candidate filings through the Louisiana Ethics Administration Program for three BESE (2003, 2007, 2011) and OPSB (2004, 2008, 2012) elections. By law—the Louisiana Campaign Finance Disclosure Act—candidates are required to submit campaign finance disclosure reports. Prior to August 2012, all candidates for major office were required to file campaign finance disclosure reports if the candidate spent more than $5,000 per election. After August 2012, this expenditure amount was reduced to $2,500 per election. We make the assumption that candidates with no filings either (a) dropped out of the race right after submitting their paperwork, or (b) did not raise more than the legal amount for reporting contributions. The usefulness of the reported data on campaign contributions is a noteworthy limitation. The reliability of the data can be undermined in many ways, including underreporting or mistakes in the data collection and administration process. In some years, we do not have data for all the candidates. For instance, the state of Louisiana has reported contribution data on only two candidates in the 2008 OPSB elections even though the field comprised 22 candidates.

We used document and observation analysis to develop an understanding of policy leader (legislative and school board member) positions as they pertained to support, or lack thereof, for the PMM in New Orleans. We employed document analysis of a range of sources, including budgets, 990s, and audited financial statements; federal, state, and local laws; requests for proposals; speeches; public addresses; research reports; policy briefs; blog posts; Twitter feeds; social media accounts; government testimony; and websites. Broadly, the document analysis was used to capture the positionality of candidates (pro-traditional or pro-portfolio) and the amount of contributions in their campaign for public office in Louisiana’s education system, and who contributed to each candidate’s campaign. We also used these documents to provide information about candidates and the policy process, triangulate evidence, and either confirm or probe further data acquired from other sources.

Finally, we conducted direct observations by watching all BESE and OPSB meetings conducted within the aforementioned time frame. We also watched all publicly available debates and discussions in which the candidates participated. We used candidate debate data, public speeches and interviews, and school board meeting observations conjoined with document data to identify candidate positionality in regard to support, rejection, or no position regarding PMM, and local control. A protocol was followed in documenting each observation, and observation data were subsequently coded using the referent-coding method.


At the beginning of the coding process, we identified typologies as described by Hatch (2002). These typologies led to data being coded to develop an understanding of (a) category of candidates, pro-portfolio or pro-traditional; (b) sources of funding and support; (c) linkage between funds received by the candidate and candidate positionality; and (d) identified candidate campaign contributions by either in-state or out-of-state. This coding and convergence of multiple data sources led to a triangulation of the data to form themes and increased the validity of the findings and trends. To check for interrater reliability, each researcher coded the same interviews and documents before proceeding to further coding and analysis to ensure consistency across the coding.

We coded all candidates in the post-Katrina school board elections as either “pro-portfolio” or “pro-traditional,” with the exception of a handful of candidates labeled as “no platform” (Table 1A in the online appendix details the criteria used to classify candidates).2 We began the categorization process after our first round of data collection and analysis. We identified the expressed ideas in the candidates’ platforms, statements, debates, or campaign material that support either a pro-portfolio or pro-traditional model of education. We then compared the classification with our existing and subsequently collected data, including follow-up interviews, documents, and observations such as candidates’ public statements to the media, public debates, interviews, and candidates’ websites.

We classified candidates based on both documents and observations, including candidates’ public statements to the media, public debates, interviews, websites, and incumbent voting records. There were broad differences between these two types of candidates along several educational governance and accountability dimensions. For instance, with regard to school assignment, pro-portfolio candidates supported parental choice and open enrollment policies, whereas pro-traditional candidates tended to favor attendance zones, by which students are assigned to schools based on residence. On the matter of school operation and management, pro-portfolio candidates supported the development of the portfolio model in New Orleans and envisioned the locally elected school board as the governing body, leaving the operational responsibilities to charter schools. Pro-traditional candidates supported a school district with a locally elected school board that both governed and managed the majority of all public schools.

Because of the active debate in the community and media focus on the role of governance in New Orleans schools, most of the candidates demonstrated clear support for one position or the other. For example, statements in the OPSB election, such as, “The Orleans parish school board should be allowed to run more schools traditionally” (J. Williams, 2012), would be coded as pro-traditional. Other statements, such as, “In the current landscape with autonomy, we feel it is beneficial for the community to look into why it may be beneficial to be a charter… over time people will make the commitment to own and operate their schools independently” (J. Williams, 2012), would be coded as pro-portfolio. Similarly, statements by a BESE candidate such as “I am a big proponent of our families across this district having choices, really good choices” or “I believe that should be an absolute right for families to have many options to choose from” (Jones, 2011) we would place in the “pro-portfolio” category. In sum, we utilized multiple data sources to identify a position or lack thereof for each candidate in the local and state school board elections in the post-Katrina era.


Figure 1 illustrates how New Orleans became a portfolio district using Kingdon’s (2011) garbage can model. In sum, a highly visible problem of underperforming schools destroyed by a natural disaster, coupled with the political sponsorship of a reform-minded governor (Kathleen Blanco) and a BESE member (Leslie Jacobs), led to the passage of Act 35. The interaction of federal requirements and incentives with the physical and fiscal decimation of New Orleans schools and a few key actors turned ideas into policy.

Figure 1. How New Orleans became a portfolio district


At the end of the 2004–2005 school year, 64% of the public schools in New Orleans were labeled “academically unacceptable,” compared with 13% of the public schools across the state (Cowen Institute, 2011). Months before Hurricane Katrina, the New Orleans school system was on the verge of bankruptcy because of district and OPSB financial mismanagement (Cowen Institute, 2009). There were myriad accusations of impropriety, and the Federal Bureau of Investigation set up an outpost in the district office, resulting in felony fraud convictions of school district officials for bribery and embezzlement. Some scholars have suggested that the state legislators and the public had a lack of faith in the local school board as well as growing concerns about the ability of the OPSB to effectively govern schools (Garda, 2011). In essence, pre-Katrina New Orleans was characterized as a school district in academic, financial, physical, and ethical crisis (Garda, 2011; Holley-Walker, 2007).

Prior to Katrina, political actors at the state level repeatedly failed to gain control over the struggling New Orleans public school system (Cowen Institute, 2011; Garda, 2011). In New Orleans, significant opposition to Act 35 existed; local opponents had concerns over its implications, including increased state control over local tax dollars, limited details about the state’s plan for school improvement, and the experimental nature of the takeover (Cowen Institute, 2011). Eleven of the 20 state legislators representing New Orleans voted against Act 35, citing concerns with how it was rushed through the legislature, the lack of community input, and the loss of local revenue (Cowen Institute, 2011). Two key “policy entrepreneurs” played critical roles in the passage of Act 35: former BESE member Leslie Jacobs and Governor Kathleen Blanco. Initially elected as a member of the OPSB (1992–1996) and later as a member of the BESE (1996–2008), Jacobs was instrumental in shaping and supporting Act 9 in 2003, which created the RSD,3 as well as Act 35 in 2005, which facilitated the RSD’s takeover of New Orleans public schools. Governor Blanco supported the reforms enabling state intervention in New Orleans that contributed to the remaking of the post-Katrina school system (Garda, 2011).

Two main factors have made charter schools a significant component in implementing Act 35: the federalization of accountability requirements for public schools through NCLB and federal and state laws allowing charter schools to become alternatives to failing traditional public schools (Holley-Walker, 2007). By requiring various alternatives for students in schools deemed failing, NCLB was the first use of significant federal funds to promote parental choice in public schools, including charter schools (Levin, 2004). In the immediate aftermath of Katrina, the U.S. Department of Education provided a $20.9 million grant to Louisiana to establish and open charter schools (Dingerson, 2006). Louisiana state laws regarding charter schools were changed to take advantage of this federal support. Governor Blanco issued an executive order waiving portions of the state’s charter school law, including eliminating the need for school faculty and parental approval before a school can be converted into a charter (Garda, 2011).

We argue that the educational landscape in Louisiana was shifting prior to Act 35. Some scholars have posited that the politics of education reform changed dramatically as a result of Hurricane Katrina (Buras, 2011; Klein, 2007). These studies identify Hurricane Katrina as the primary cause of the transformation of the politics of education in New Orleans. Similar to Klein (2007), we identify Hurricane Katrina as a significant contributing factor to the passage of Act 35. However, we posit that the reform train was already on the track when Hurricane Katrina made landfall. We contend that Hurricane Katrina created the window of opportunity for political actors who had been involved in New Orleans education politics prior to the storm to address the underachieving school system in a more direct way through Act 35. Thus, we see the governance shifts and subsequent politics in the educational landscape of New Orleans as greatly accelerated by the disaster, yet we identify the policy itself, and not the disaster alone, as contributing to the changing politics in New Orleans. It is important to note that Hurricane Katrina resulted in changes in the demographic composition. Between 2000 and 2010, there was approximately a 7% decrease in African American residents, a 5% increase in White residents, and a 2% increase in Hispanic residents of New Orleans (U.S. Census Bureau, 2010). The changes in the racial makeup may also intersect with income because the poorest minority families did not return immediately after the storm for housing and other reasons. Indeed, lower achieving students in the pre-Katrina period returned to the city later in the post-Katrina era (McEachin, Welsh, & Brewer, 2016). Some scholars have posited that race is pivotal to understanding the emergence of the PMM in New Orleans (Buras, 2014), thus, the change in demographic composition is an important factor in understanding the changes in the politics of education.  


Evolution of an almost full charter school district has reshaped the landscape of interest groups in New Orleans. Interviewees noted that the OPSB’s failure to renew the collective bargaining agreement largely reduced the role for teachers’ unions, ensuring there were “not loud voices saying this is completely the wrong direction.” In this ecosystem of interest groups, there are new players with various supporters fighting for different stakes. As New Orleans moved to a system of nearly all charter operators, the stakes in the allocation and treatment of charter schools were raised. A range of nonprofit organizations, from national CMOs such as Knowledge is Power Program (KIPP) to human capital provider Teach for America (TFA), are significant players in the post-Katrina education. Nonprofits are involved at multiple levels beyond charter school operators. Other nonprofit organizations, such as New Schools for New Orleans (NSNO), provide crucial support for charter schools and have gained credibility among funders, including major foundations. As noted by an interviewee, RSD charter schools “would not have a shot” without supporting organizations such as NSNO.

The expansion of charter schools through the implementation of the PMM in post-Katrina New Orleans created two opposing political alliances: pro-portfolio and pro-traditional. Act 35 was interpreted in two main ways: either by reinstating the traditional structure (“negative” interpretation), or supporting and entrenching the reform efforts (“positive” interpretation). Those who were not supportive of institutional changes or who held a negative interpretation resulting from Act 35 included the teachers’ unions and local opponents such as New Orleans-based legislators. The political supporters, or those with a positive interpretation of Act 35, were pro-portfolio interests such as policy entrepreneur Leslie Jacobs and Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal. The institutional changes that emerged from Act 35 created incentives for the pro-portfolio interests to organize politically to retain charter school funding and autonomy.  

Interviewees provided useful insights on the future role of the RSD, whether the RSD and OPSB can co-exist over time, and the future of educational governance in post-Katrina New Orleans. These factors also play a pivotal role in the ongoing process of returning schools to local control. There was a sense among interviewees that there was consensus about the short to medium-term role of the RSD, but the long term remains uncertain. Interviewees had mixed opinions on whether the RSD and the OPSB can coexist. On the one hand, an interviewee highlighted that “having two school districts in one city is too problematic in that there has to be some sort of centralized body who is responsible for every kid in this city.” On the other hand, other interviewees cited the harmonious relationship during the tenure of RSD superintendent Patrick Dobard and evidence of the RSD and the OPSB working together, such as the central hearing office for disciplinary infractions and expulsions. There was consensus among interviewees that future educational governance in post-Katrina New Orleans is uncertain. Community demands are key determinants of the long-term educational governance structure. One interviewee noted, “I don’t see much changing unless the community really demands it. They are going to have to demand it.” In essence, the shift in educational governance away from LESBs has placed even greater importance on who governs and expands interest in the provision of public education. Whether it is a governor, a mayor, an elected/appointed school board, or a combination thereof, these individuals and entities will be deciding what schools will open and close, who will be operating those schools, and how much public funding they will receive, and setting the standards for success and failure of students, teachers, administrators, and schools alike. Thus, it matters who contributes to the campaigns of democratically elected local and state education governing boards that retain authority because ultimately, the winners of those campaigns will have considerable control over the provision of public education.


In Louisiana, campaign contributions to the state and local school boards from pro-portfolio and traditional interest groups influenced elections by helping to fund advertising and get out the vote campaigns for their candidates. Table 2 summarizes campaign contributions by affiliations and election outcomes from the BESE elections in 2003, 2007, and 2011. The voter turnout in BESE elections declined over time, from 41.6 % in 2003 to 24% in 2011. The majority of BESE members had no contributions to their election campaigns prior to Hurricane Katrina. The overall sum of campaign contributions, average contribution amount, and number of contributions increased appreciably with each BESE election in the post-Katrina period.  

More candidates contested the 2011 election than in 2007, and there were fewer unopposed candidates in 2011 than in 2007 and 2003. There were also more runoffs in 2011 than in 2007. The results imply an increase in competitiveness in BESE elections over time, especially between the 2007 and 2011 elections. Additionally, the dramatic increase in state school board campaign contributions between 2007 and 2011, as well as the sizable differences in pre- and post-Katrina campaign contributions, suggests that after Act 35, there was a marked increase over time in special interest group focus on BESE elections.

Table 2. Campaign Contributions by Affiliation and Election Outcomes: BESE 2003–2011 and OPSB 2004–2012




Election Winners

Election Losers

Total Contributions

State school board





$1,200 ($1,200)

$31,420 ($483)





$6,906 ($144)

$6,908       ($141)

$62,696    ($3,483)



$2,848,854 ($2,475)



$2,735,336 ($2,231)

$460,615 ($564)


Local school board





$9              ($5)




$47,533 ($897)



$53,533 ($956)

$12,700 ($363)



$407,930 ($1,277)



$285,655 ($587)

$194,909 ($392)


Note. Extended versions of candidates, election outcomes and campaign contributions for the state school board elections (Table 2A) and local school board elections (Table 3A) are available in the online appendix at https://coe.uga.edu/directory/profiles/rowelsh.

* indicates a candidate with no platform included in the total campaign contributions ($12,700).  Average contributions are indicated in parentheses.

Pro-traditional candidates outnumbered pro-portfolio candidates in both the 2007 (9 vs. 6) and 2011 (12 vs. 9) BESE elections. However, pro-portfolio candidates had substantially higher campaign contributions than pro-traditional candidates. For instance, in 2011, pro-portfolio candidates had nearly $3 million from just under 1,200 contributions, compared with less than half a million from just under 900 contributions for pro-traditional candidates. More important, there was a trend of pro-portfolio candidates replacing pro-traditional incumbents over time. In the 2007 BESE election, three pro-traditional incumbents successfully fought off challenges from mostly pro-portfolio or no platform candidates. In only one of these contests did the pro-traditional candidate raise more money than the pro-portfolio candidate. In the 2011 BESE election, three incumbents retained their districts, and four incumbents lost. Specifically, the tide turned decisively pro-portfolio. Pro-portfolio incumbents such as Jim Garvey in District 1 successfully fended off pro-traditional challenges while pro-traditional incumbents lost to pro-portfolio candidates.

Pro-portfolio candidates were supported by local interest groups that wanted to entrench and expand Act 35. Proponents of the PMM included organizations such as Alliance for Better Classrooms (ABC), a Baton Rouge-based political action committee started by Lane Grigsby, a politically active businessman who supports education reform, and the Louisiana Federation for Children, which is part of a national group that promotes the use of school vouchers. Pro-traditional candidates were largely supported by the Coalition for Public Education, a group that included teachers’ unions, organizations of school board members and administrators, and other education groups. The Louisiana Association of Educators and its associated political action committee also worked to financially and politically support pro-traditional candidates.

Prior to Hurricane Katrina and the implementation of the PMM, the overwhelming majority of campaign contributions in state school board elections came from the within Louisiana. The number and amount of out-of-state contributions has markedly increased in the post-Katrina period. In the 2003 BESE election, about 2% of the total campaign contributions amount came from outside Louisiana, compared with just over 5% in 2007 and 10% in 2011. In 2003, the only out-of-state contribution came from Texas, and in 2007, four contributions came from two different states (Florida and Virginia). However, in the 2011 BESE election, out-of-state campaign contributions in the state school board elections grew exponentially. There were over 200 contributions from more than 30 states. The top campaign fundraisers typically raised nontrivial amounts of money from contributors in at least five different states. However, roughly two thirds of the total number of out-of-state campaign contributions were to candidates in District 2. The results imply that national reform special interests are playing a greater role in state school board elections in Louisiana in the post-Katrina era.

There is also evidence that the growth in out-of-state contributions mostly benefitted pro-portfolio candidates. About 90% of the total amount of out-of-state contributions in 2011 was made to pro-portfolio candidates. As Table 2 illustrates, on average, less than 1% of pro-traditional candidates’ total campaign contributions in the 2011 BESE election came from out-of-state sources, compared with over 8% for pro-portfolio candidates. There is some degree of variation in the level of out-of-state contributions among pro-portfolio candidates. Some candidates received less than 5% from out of state, whereas others received up to a quarter of total campaign contributions from outside Louisiana. Moreover, some of the largest campaign contributors from outside Louisiana came from major supporters of the school choice or market-based education reforms nationally, including Michael Bloomberg, Alice and Jim Walton, and John and Laura Arnold (Cunningham-Cook, 2012).


Table 2 also summarizes campaign contributions by affiliations and election outcomes from the OPSB elections in 2004, 2008, and 2012. Unlike the BESE elections, voter turnout in the OPSB elections has increased over time, from 29.6 % in 2004 to 63.4% in 2012.4 Similar to the state school board elections, the total campaign contributions and number of contributions increased considerably with each OPSB election in the post-Katrina period. Unlike in state school board elections, the average contribution amount in post-Katrina OPSB elections declined, from just over $700 in 2008 to just under $500 in 2012. It is also important to mention that roughly two thirds of the total number of campaign contributions in the 2012 OPSB election went to District 3, where pro-portfolio incumbent Brett Bonin was challenged by pro-portfolio candidate Sarah Usdin and pro-traditional candidate Karran Harper Royal.  

The total number of candidates in OPSB elections decreased over time, from 29 in 2004 to 23 in 2008 and 17 in 2012. In 2008, 6 of the 23 candidates received campaign contributions, as compared with 13 of the 17 candidates in 2012. In the 2004 OPSB election, on average, there were four candidates in each district contest, compared with three candidates per contest in the 2008 OPSB election and two candidates per contest in the 2012 OPSB election. In both the 2008 and 2012 OPSB elections, there was only one unopposed candidate. The results can be interpreted as an increase in competitiveness in OPSB elections over time, with fewer candidates participating in more hotly contested battles.  

Similar to the BESE elections, there were more pro-traditional candidates in the 2008 (12 vs. 7) and 2012 (9 vs. 8) OPSB elections than pro-portfolio candidates. However, pro-portfolio candidates had significantly higher total campaign contributions than pro-traditional candidates. In 2008, pro-portfolio candidates raised a total of $47,533 from 53 contributions, compared with $6,000 from 3 contributions for pro-traditional candidates. In 2012, pro-portfolio candidates had a total of $407,930 from 643 contributions, in contrast to $72,634 from 348 contributions for pro-traditional candidates. In both the 2008 and 2012 OPSB elections, in all but one contest, candidates with the most campaign contributions also won the elections.

In the 2008 OPSB election, one pro-traditional and one pro-portfolio candidate successfully fought off challenges. A pro-portfolio wave appeared to be ascending, with the majority of the winners from the 2008 OPSB election being pro-portfolio (by our categorization, five of the elected members were pro-portfolio and the remaining two pro-traditional). In the 2012 OPSB election, several incumbents were replaced by pro-portfolio candidates: four retained their districts and three lost. It is worthy to note that two pro-traditional and two pro-portfolio incumbents retained their districts. More important, three pro-portfolio incumbents lost to pro-portfolio challengers.    

Similar to the state school board elections, out-of-state campaign contributions have played a more prominent role in the local school board elections in the post-Katrina era. In the 2004 OPSB election, there were no out-of-state campaign contributions. In the 2008 OPSB election, there was an increase in campaign contributions from outside Louisiana. Nevertheless, the level of out-of-state funding was limited, and funds came from less than a handful of states. However, there was a marked increase in out-of-state campaign contributions in the 2012 OPSB election. For instance, in the 2008 OPSB election, none of pro-portfolio candidate Brett Bonin’s contributions were from out of state, relative to nearly 4% in the 2012 OPSB election. The overwhelming majority of out-of-state contributions (more than 80%) in the 2012 OPSB election were to District 3 candidates.     

Pro-portfolio candidates were also disproportionately supported by out-of-state contributors, whereas pro-traditional candidates relied more on local support. Consider the hotly contested election for the District 3 seat. Sarah Usdin, a supporter of charter schools and the founder of NSNO, had total campaign contributions of more than $190,000, with nearly half of total campaign contributions coming from outside Louisiana. Some of Usdin’s largest contributions came from pro-portfolio supporters, such as Michael Bloomberg, Leslie Jacobs, and Sheryl Sandberg. Brett Bonin, who ran as an incumbent pro-portfolio candidate but tempered his support for charter schools by promoting the idea that more charters should be community based, had total campaign contributions of just over $50,000, mainly from local donations. The pro-traditional candidate, Karran Harper Royal, had campaign contributions totaling only around $10,000, with roughly 40% from small out-of-state donors. Harper Royal was also supported by the Service Employees International Union Committee on Political Education (SEIU-COPE), a political action committee funded with donations from the Service Employee International Union members.

It is also interesting to note that there was a pattern of associated donations among campaign contributors to pro-portfolio and pro-traditional candidates in the most recent state and local school board elections. For example, pro-portfolio candidates, Sarah Usdin (OPSB), Nolan Marshall Jr. (OPSB), Jay Guillot (BESE), James Garvey (BESE), Glenny Lee Buquet (BESE), Russell Armstrong (BESE), and Kira Orange-Jones (BESE), all have campaign contributions from Michael Bloomberg. Similarly, Act 35 “policy entrepreneur” Leslie Jacobs contributed to the campaigns of Charles Roemer (BESE), Holly Boffy (BESE), James Garvey (BESE), Glenny Lee Buquet (BESE), Kira Orange Jones (BESE), and Nolan Marshall Jr. (OPSB). In another example, the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry made campaign contributions to Glenny Lee Buquet (BESE), Kira Orange Jones (BESE), Carolyn Hill (BESE), Jay Guillot (BESE), Charles Roemer (BESE), James Garvey (BESE), and Russell Armstrong (BESE). In essence, these campaign contributors are part of the expansive civic capacity that includes pro-portfolio actors both inside and outside New Orleans and Louisiana who wish to sustain the PMM in post-Katrina New Orleans. We found that the SEIU-COPE supported both pro-portfolio and pro-traditional candidates, including Woody Koppel, Cynthia Cade, Karran Harper Royal, Ira Thomas, Nolan Marshall Jr., Kira Orange-Jones, and Donald Songy.


This article addresses an important topic in educational policy, namely the influence of politics and interest groups on the provision and control of urban education. Our results illustrate how the politics of education reform changed when a school district was transformed from a traditional urban district to a portfolio district. There were tectonic shifts in the interest groups landscape. Act 35 resulted in the loss of political power by some special interests and the introduction of new interests. Essentially, the politics of education reform transformed from a previously union-driven structure to a policy network. We posit that Act 35 also triggered a policy feedback to either roll back or entrench the changes in educational governance that accompanied the implementation of the PMM and influenced the behavior of these interest groups in post-Katrina New Orleans. Unprecedented levels of campaign contributions to the BESE and OPSB elections in the post-Katrina era suggest that state and local school board elections may be one of the primary mechanisms through which interest groups influenced post-Katrina educational governance. However, the dramatic expansion of political activity is not solely a result of a few interests donating a lot of money. In the post-Katrina era, there are more dollars and interests in the school board elections.

Campaign contributions illustrated a clear pattern of differential mobilization of interests in the post-Katrina era. The expansion of the role of out-of-state actors in education politics in Louisiana was evidenced by the increase in out-of-state contributions to both state and local school board elections. Moreover, out-of-state campaign contributions were mostly in support of pro-portfolio candidates in both the 2011 BESE and 2012 OPSB elections. Pro-portfolio interests in New Orleans have been successful in joining their efforts with national reform supporters to elect candidates on both state and local school boards. Similar pro-reform interest groups have been identified supporting charter school expansion in school districts in New York and Los Angeles (Reckhow, 2012; Reckhow et al., 2016). We identified some of these national pro-reform supporters along with local and state reform proponents, as well as similar union-backed pro-traditional funders participating in local and state school board campaigns in New Orleans and Louisiana. Influencing the composition of school boards appears more feasible to accomplish at the state level and more challenging at the local level. However, we acknowledge the difficulty in measuring the causal impact of political interests on education reform, and thus our results are largely descriptive. Finally, prominent actors in the pro-reform movement from organizations such as TFA were entering the BESE and OPSB elections. For example, Sarah Usdin and Kira Orange Jones now hold seats on the OPSB and BESE, respectively.

Some scholars have argued that in both the pre- and post-Katrina era, national reform groups led by well-funded neoliberal think tanks reframed the education discussion of New Orleans by focusing the political debate around education away from the lack of resources, the institutional history of racism and discrimination, disinvestment, and abandonment, and toward one of individual responsibility and market-based solutions (Akers, 2012). These scholars posit that the education reform policies in districts such as New Orleans were the result of neoliberal political ideals formulated outside the districts in which they were implemented. It is apparent that the overwhelming majority of out-of-state donations went to pro-portfolio candidates, and out-of-state donors with the largest contributions to the pro-portfolio candidates publicly identified as supporters of the PMM. It is important to note that interest groups also played an important role outside of school board elections. Specifically, we found that some of the same pro-portfolio campaign contributors also donated directly to organizations that support the PMM in New Orleans. These organizations and individuals have also been identified in prior studies as supporters of market-based reforms in education (Reckhow, 2012; Scott, 2009).

There is evidence of evolving distinctions in the definition of reform as the percentage of pro-portfolio candidates increases. For example, in the 2012 OPSB elections, there were multiple pro-portfolio candidates in several of the contested districts, such as District 3. Subtle differences in the stances of pro-portfolio candidates on issues related to school governance and accountability challenges the notion of a monolithic pro-portfolio or pro-reform camp and lends credence to an umbrella of education reform ideas with room for variations in position. There seems to be an emerging, dynamic spectrum of positions instead of a rigid dichotomy of pro-portfolio and pro-traditional candidates.

There were also a few differences between the local and state school board elections. In the post-Katrina era, the number of candidates in the BESE elections increased, whereas the number of candidates decreased in OPSB elections. The BESE elections attracted a greater number of contributions and a greater total contribution amount than those for the OPSB. Whereas the results of elections shifted the BESE to a solid voting block of pro-portfolio interests, the OPSB is still a somewhat unpredictable mixture of reform-minded and traditional members. This mixture of pro-portfolio and pro-traditional interests leaves the OPSB in a state of flux. Regardless of the differences between state and local school board elections, there is a marked increase in interest in schools and more attention given to public education.

It is likely that a combination of factors contributed to the mobilization of interests observed in the state and local school board elections. One plausible link between educational governance issues and campaign contributions is the influx of new interest groups into the ecosystem of educational policy making and provision, including intermediary organizations such as NSNO. The implementation of the PMM in post-Katrina New Orleans resulted in a new interest group landscape with a host of new organizations that support charter school expansion and act as intermediaries with local and state policy makers. The reforms in New Orleans also attracted funding from local and national individuals, nonprofit organizations, and foundations. The strong links between organizations supporting the PMM in New Orleans such as TFA, KIPP, NSNO, and national networks of educational policy makers spurred confidence in the sustainability of these reforms. In essence, supporters of the PMM, both locally within the state and nationwide, bonded together to solidify the split between educational governance (regulation of schools) and provision of public education (operation of schools). Previous studies have found that these interest groups play a large role in the dissemination of research and empirical evidence consumed and used by policy makers (DeBray et al., 2014). Interviewees highlighted that these groups have gained the confidence of local and national funders. The strong association of private nonprofit organizations with reforms in post-Katrina New Orleans, coupled with their national networks and good standing with funders and foundations, may partly explain the differential mobilization of interests in the state and local school board elections. Civic capacity, or the ability to attract outside supporters, played a significant role in sustaining the PMM, and these intermediary organizations played a crucial role in fostering this civic capacity.

In addition, it appears that the state and local school board elections acquired even greater significance around 5 years after the reform. This is an important time in the reform cycle because the effectiveness of initiatives is estimated and debated, and voters provide feedback on the policy through school board elections. The stakes involved in school board elections increase and are made more apparent over time. Thus, the mobilization of interests in the state and local school board elections may reflect a confluence of factors, including heightened attention to the efficacy of the PMM and issue of the return to local control.

Several factors may have contributed to the differences between the mobilization of interest groups in state school board elections before and after Katrina. The election of the pro-reform candidate for governor Bobby Jindal in 2007 added to the political focus on the BESE. Governor Jindal had a lengthy education reform agenda, wanted to hire a reform-minded state superintendent, and needed the support of the BESE (Vanacore, 2012). The governor’s educational policy agenda is even more relevant in the state school board elections than in local school board elections, given that 3 of the 11 BESE members are appointed by the governor. Furthermore, endorsement from the governor in state school board contests may also have significant political capital; in the 2011 BESE election, only one candidate opposed by Governor Jindal won (Lottie Beebe). The diminished role of the teachers’ union and the growth of out-of-state contributions are also key explanatory factors. In the 2003 BESE election, the United Teachers of New Orleans (UTNO) was one of the most prevalent traditional special interests on contribution documents. As a result of Act 35, it appears that the UTNO lost most of its ability to contribute large sums of money to state school board campaigns. Act 35 also led to heightened interest in the provision of public education in post-Katrina New Orleans in the national education reform discourse. Another contributing factor may be the issue of returning schools taken over by the RSD after Hurricane Katrina back to the jurisdiction of the OPSB.

The political, economic, and racial context of New Orleans is a pertinent consideration in the changes in the interest group landscape that have accompanied the PMM. New Orleans has a lengthy experience of political conflicts over public education in a tense, racial environment. Over the first half of the 20th century, New Orleans developed a segregated school system with gross inequities. There were more White schools that were better financed and in better physical conditions than Black schools that had fewer resources and overcrowded classrooms (Cowen Institute, 2007). Louisiana spent less on a Black child than a White child, Black teachers were paid significantly less than their White counterparts, and the teacher–pupil ratio in Black schools was nearly double that of White schools (Cowen Institute, 2007). In 1960, New Orleans became the first large city in the Deep South to desegregate after the Brown v Board of Education ruling (Holley-Walker, 2007). By the mid-1970s, public schools were mainly populated by Black students from households below the poverty line (Holley-Walker, 2007). As Whites and upper-middle-class Blacks abandoned the public school system, school conditions and the demographics of the school population became disproportionately Black, poor, and at risk. The limited economic resources of the New Orleans school community constrained the civic capacity of the district residents to contribute large sums of money to support political campaigns.


The post-Katrina New Orleans case offers a few policy implications and directions for future research. Indeed, post-Katrina New Orleans and Louisiana may be a forerunner of massive shifts in the politics of education reform and the provision of public education that have substantial implications for urban school districts nationwide. Post-Katrina New Orleans is widely considered a model for prominent education reforms such as the PMM, and it illustrates how changes in educational governance have given rise to new influences on policy making. Policy makers who are considering the PMM or who have already implemented it should acknowledge that implementation of the PMM is likely to increase the importance of campaign contributions in state and local school board elections. In other words, the PMM is accompanied by heightened interest as well as an influx of out-of-state actors in educational policy making and the provision of public education.

Even though Hurricane Katrina was arguably a unique triggering event for Act 35, the trend of increasing funds and out-of-state money in state and local elections is burgeoning nationwide (Reckhow et al., 2016). Although districts may differ in the origins of policies such as Act 35, there may be similarities in how these policies shape educational provision and policy making across a variety of governance contexts. The case of Louisiana’s Act 35 and the subsequent policy feedback may offer a window into the evolving civic landscape of education policy nationwide.

There appears to be tangible national support for the PMM that may play a crucial role in sustaining these reforms. The New Orleans case suggests that reforms may originate locally but are sustained nationally. In essence, engaging national networks and allies plays an important role in sustaining the PMM over time. It is also plausible that money matters more in the politics of education reform in the post-Katrina era. Before the implementation of the PMM, there were hardly any campaign contributions to the state and local school board elections. Moreover, money appeared not to be a significant factor at the pre-Katrina campaign contribution levels. For instance, in the 2003 BESE elections, two of the three candidates who received campaign contributions did not win (the other was elected unopposed). As interest groups contribute more money to school board elections, it is likely that the influence of those campaign contributions will increase. In the 2011 BESE elections, those who received the highest campaign contributions tended to be the winners in the elections. The New Orleans case implies that money matters more as the PMM matures and positions in support or against the PMM structure evolve.  

The results of this study also raise several questions about the broader political agendas behind the PMM, including access to decision makers and the role of private money in the politics and policy of public education, entrenchment of the PMM and strengthening of momentum for market-based reforms nationwide, and possible decreased opportunities for local democratic participation in the governance of public education. The New Orleans case is now used as a justification to implement a variety of market-based reforms, including elements of the PMM. It can be argued that similar interests supporting reforms nationwide may indicate the slow erosion of democratic ideals because more money in educational politics ultimately leads to the agenda of a rich few outweighing the voices of many poor. The concentration of political money may not be in the interest of a buoyant democracy. The possibility of broader underlying political agendas in the support for market-based reforms nationwide may be indicative of early signs of a democracy trending toward plutocracy. It compels a recommitment to the ideal that democracy should not be for sale, and these trends may pose threats to the voice of ordinary citizens in having a say in how public funds are used to educate society. Simply put, the voice and interests of the electorate may be superseded by moneyed special interests when the survival of a democracy is dependent on the voices of citizens. In sum, in addition to contributing to the spread of reforms that increasingly places the responsibility for public education in the hands of private providers, the PMM in New Orleans also raises fundamental questions about the role of democracy in public education and the appropriate roles of the market and government.

It is plausible, especially given the rapid growth of contributions accompanying market-based reforms, that campaign contributions are seen as investments in sustaining or creating opportunities for special interest groups. These investments may be expected to result in public policies that generate high returns for private investors. The nature of the returns is unclear, but the extent of the investment is apparent when one examines the contributions to local and state school board elections over time. The operative concern among many regarding the influx of campaign contributions by pro-portfolio interests is whether these special interests are intent on hijacking school board members and whether these elected officials will have to repay contributors in some shape or form. One of the plausible long-term implications is the de-democratization of public education that may accompany market-based reforms such as the PMM. In essence, campaign contributions may provide capacity to influence the rules of the provision of public education and lead to blurred lines as public funds may be appropriated in ways that may not best serve students.

The results also have a few theoretical implications. First, our findings support Reckhow’s (2012) findings that civic capacity to sustain reforms must involve new stakeholders, including nontraditional stakeholders who both invested and remain engaged in the education reform. There was substantial financial support designed to execute pro-PMM policies that focused on building civic capacity, which in turn influenced community support for the expansion and sustainment of the PMM. This financial support was provided at the exclusion of financial or political support of pro-traditional candidates, potentially hindering the ability of pro-traditional community members to increase their civic capacity. Thus, increasing civic capacity may have been a contributing factor to sustaining the PMM.

Second, our findings support the dissatisfaction theory in local school board elections and refute the theory in the state school board elections. Increases in voter participation in local school board elections can be attributed to the notion that local school boards provide the closest example of democracy for Americans, and local elections provide a means to directly impact policy in a way that elections at the state level do not. Even though there was a decrease in voter turnout in the state school board elections, the changes in the number of contested districts provide suggestive evidence of the dissatisfaction theory. The results suggest that other factors (e.g., the perception of lack of variety in campaign platforms among candidates, voter apathy, or “outsiders with deep pockets”) may have contributed to citizens being dissatisfied with changes in education governance but discouraged from voting at the state level. The results also suggest that there may have been some voter dissatisfaction with BESE output in specific districts, which may have contributed to the increase in contested elections for some BESE seats, while other voters in noncontested districts remained satisfied with BESE policy output. Additionally, our findings also raise questions about the strong relationship between incumbent turnover and superintendent turnover because there is some divergence in these two phenomena in the post-PMM political landscape.5

Third, our findings support the decision-output theory; the political outcomes at the state and local levels were (a) reflective of the interests driving the agenda and (b) undemocratic. The policy outcomes in New Orleans were not controlled by the interests and/or demands of the people but by moneyed interest (especially out-of-state) that provided support to pro-portfolio candidates. However, increased voter turnout in the local school board elections suggests that policy changes occurred in part because voters were motivated to effect change. An alternative interpretation of our findings supports some elements and refutes others. Changes in the community’s demands in the aftermath of Act 35 Louisiana promoted a misalignment between school board members who did not support a PMM and the pro-PMM supporters (polls by the Cowen Institute highlight an increasing favorability toward school choice over time). As a result, once the board outputs (policies supporting PMM) began to align with the inputs (the demand for a creation of a sustainable PMM), there were fewer of pro-traditional candidates and an emerging spectrum of pro-portfolio candidates. This is congruent with the results of local and state school board elections that bolstered the sustainability of the PMM.

Overall, the findings of this study add to a growing body of research that illustrates that in public education, local elections are no longer local. The dissatisfaction theory and the decision-output theory (to a lesser extent) does not adequately account for the growing role of outsiders in local elections. These actors may affect voter turnout as well as incumbent and superintendent turnover. Decision output seems to explain the growing role of outsiders to a greater extent than the dissatisfaction theory. This theory may explain why policies changes when communities don’t. Outside actors may influence the community (state and local values) by framing issues in public education through campaign contributions to nontraditional candidates—dismal test scores are the problem, and test-based accountability and market-based accountability is the remedy. Thus, changes in the perception of the community and value realignment may not largely be due to the changes in the composition of the community. We posit that these theories largely focus on change rather consolidation of policies. Our findings imply that in some cases, the divergence of incumbent and superintendent turnover may reflect the sustainment rather than switching of policies. The timing of school board elections and the policy implementation cycle is also an operative consideration. It is conceivable that elections after major reforms are a referendum on the policy rather than the superintendent. Thus, incumbent turnover may lead to the sustainability of reforms.


The New Orleans case highlights the need for further research on the new actors in the special interest landscape, particularly intermediary organizations that support charter school expansion. In addition to the relationship between local and state policy makers, the interplay of state and national actors as education reforms are implemented and further expanded or scrapped is another area worthy of further investigation. Indeed, nonprofit and intermediary organizations, as well as national pro-reform supporters, organized to solidify the institutional changes wrought by the implementation of the PMM.

It is also necessary to rethink the language and terms used in considering education reform. Over time, nuanced differences have developed among pro-reform candidates, and stratification within the pro-reform movement has begun to emerge. The hard dichotomy of “reform versus traditional” has given way to a spectrum of positions that warrants greater attention to accurately capture the granular policy and ideological differences. With the confluence of policies such as Common Core, reform is now being defined in ways that highlight subtle but key distinctions in accountability and governance issues between policy makers.

The trends in the state and local school board elections in Louisiana may be indicative of underlying processes beyond the influence of Act 35 that warrant further investigation. In particular, shifts in the national political environment, especially the rules for campaign contributions, may affect these election outcomes, educational policy making, and ultimately the provision of public education across the nation. The case of post-Katrina New Orleans raises questions about the significance of the Citizens United ruling and the growing role of private and out-of-state funds in local and state school board elections. Although candidates supporting the traditional provision of public education (organized by attendance zones, with schools operated by a locally elected school board) experienced an increase in campaign contributions, the lion’s share of the growth of campaign contributions went to pro-reform candidates. Even though we cannot make causal claims about the impact of the differential in campaign contributions between pro-traditional and pro-portfolio candidates, it is plausible that the additional resources contributed to the favorable elections outcomes for pro-portfolio candidates.

Finally, it is worthwhile to examine other districts in Louisiana outside of New Orleans to learn more about patterns in campaign contributions at the local and state level. Future research that examines the differences in campaign contributions across BESE districts, as well as how trends in the OPSB elections compare with other local school board elections in Louisiana, will contribute to a deeper understanding of how educational governance changes have shaped educational policy through the politics of education reform.


1. It is important to note that the increasing popularity of the PMM over the past decade is occurring simultaneously with a decline in mayoral control of public schools. The state takeover of public schools in post-Katrina New Orleans is different from mayoral control; the RSD is a single-purpose governance vehicle whose source of accountability is the election of the BESE and the governor. However, the RSD bears a resemblance to mayoral control because the governor appoints the state superintendent with the approval of the BESE, and the state superintendent supervises the RSD. Additional similarities include a strategic system focus on performance outcomes, and direct intervention in low-performing schools. Thus, the RSD is a less localized form of single-purpose governance with decreased lines of democratic accountability and increased involvement from external actors rather than a form of integrated governance.

2. Online appendices are available at https://coe.uga.edu/directory/profiles/rowelsh.

3. In 2003, the Louisiana legislature was joined by 60% of the electorate to pass a constitutional amendment, Act 1293, that gave the BESE the option to take temporary control and operate or provide for the operation of schools that had been determined to be failing. Congruently, Act 9 passed in the legislature. Act 9 redefined a “failing school” as a school for which the school board had not submitted a reconstitution plan, one whose reconstitution plan had been rejected by BESE, one that had failed to comply with the BESE-approved reconstitution plan, or one that had been labeled Academically Unacceptable for four consecutive years. In essence, the Louisiana legislature passed Act 9 to create the RSD to take over the operations of failing schools. The legislation was signed into law by then-governor Kathleen Blanco. Thus, policy entrepreneurs were able to influence policy and educational governance changes in New Orleans during two separate windows of opportunity. The first window opened in 2003 following the passage of NCLB, and the second occurred in 2005 after Hurricane Katrina.

4. It is important to note that over time, voter turnout declined in state school board elections but increased in local school board elections. Dramatic events may spur voter interest in specific elections, and then, over time, voter interest may decline, which may indicate a return of voter satisfaction with school board policies (Alsbury, 2008; Campbell, 1960; Lutz & Iannaccone, 2008). It is plausible that the campaign to get Act 9 passed in 2003, coupled with the changes caused by the Act itself, may have led to heightened voter turnout in the 2003 BESE election. A possible contributing factor to the increase in voter turnout in local school board elections was that a Democratic president (Barack Obama) was on the ballot (2008, 2012). New Orleans is a Democratic district and has been very supportive of the president, thus voter turnout in local school board elections may be partly attributed to the larger political environment. Another plausible explanatory factor is the level of perceived choice and competition in state versus local school board contests. For instance, voters may see little choice between the candidates or may be indifferent in certain contests, leading to variation in voter turnout in these elections. If the candidate selected generally implies no real alternatives, then the interest in the election (for e.g., voter turnout) is often weak, whereas if there are stark choices, interest in the election is likely to be much higher (Campbell, 1960).

 5. Our findings imply that incumbent turnover did not lead to superintendent turnover in the OPSB, RSD, or the BESE. Superintendent vulnerability was somewhat low in post-Katrina New Orleans. The OPSB had three superintendents (one interim) in the post-Katrina era: Darryl Kilbert (2006–2012), Stan Smith (interim, 2012–2015), and Henderson Lewis Jr. (2015–current). Interviewees highlighted that the OPSB couldn’t agree on a superintendent, and there were several failed searches to replace interim superintendent Stan Smith. It was not until the OPSB had sufficient pro-PMM votes that a new superintendent was hired. Thus, at the local level, incumbent turnover led to superintendent turnover because there was consensus. The RSD had four superintendents. Robin Jarvis served as interim superintendent for the RSD from 2006 to 2007. In 2007, Paul Vallas became the RSD superintendent. In 2011, Vallas was replaced by Jim White, who later became the BESE superintendent in 2012. Patrick Dobard succeeded White in 2012 and still serves as the current RSD superintendent. Similarly, the BESE had four superintendents (one interim). Cecil Picard held the title of BESE superintendent from 1996 until her death in 2007. Paul Pastorek became the superintendent in 2007 but resigned in 2011. Ollie Tyler was the interim superintendent from 2011 to 2012. John White took office in 2012 and still serves as the current BESE superintendent.


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Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 120 Number 7, 2018, p. 1-38
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 22116, Date Accessed: 1/20/2022 12:26:51 AM

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  • Richard Welsh
    University of Georgia
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    RICHARD O. WELSH, Ph.D., is an assistant professor of educational administration and policy at the University of Georgia. His research focuses on the economics of education, K–12 education policy, and international comparative education. Recent publications include “School Hopscotch: A Comprehensive Review of K–12 Student Mobility in the U.S.” in the Review of Educational Research.
  • Michelle Hall
    University of Southern California
    E-mail Author
    MICHELLE HALL, Ph.D., is a postdoctoral research fellow at the University of Southern California. Her research focuses on education leadership, education politics, policy reforms, and community engagement.
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