In his roles with public school districts in Ohio and North Carolina, Ted Knapke saw firsthand how wealthy corporations and the executives in charge used political donations to curry favor with policymakers — to the detriment of students, their families, and other taxpayers. 

Access to quality public education remains a top priority for a majority of Americans. While most education policy is decided at the state and local levels, education-related special interest groups have joined the ever-increasing campaign finance game as they seek to influence education budgets through those with political power — at local, state, and federal levels. It’s another example of how unchecked campaign spending holds more weight than the wishes of we the people. 

For insight on and examples of the harm that money in politics presents to public education and the students and families it serves, American Promise spoke with Ted Knapke, Ph.D. a retired educator whose 45-year career included service as a high school math teacher, principal, superintendent, and strategic planning consultant. Knapke joined the American Promise movement three years ago after attending a panel discussion moderated by American Promise President Jeff Clements. But Ted says he first became involved with democracy reform soon after he graduated from college and learned of a then-new organization called Common Cause. Even then, he says, it was evident that campaign finance abuse presented a threat to our democracy. “It’s not as much about money as it is the power which results from control of PACs,” he says.

In the Q&A that follows, Ted discusses how he has seen money affect the public education system and negatively impact the children and families it is designed to serve. 

How have you seen growing amounts of money in politics affect public education? 

When I was on the Ohio Superintendent’s Advisory Committee, I had the opportunity to hear about the challenges that many schools were facing. They were losing students to charter schools, and when that happens they lose that student’s funding from the state. Beyond the fact that public schools were losing significant funds, there was very little accountability or oversight of charter schools.

That has just mushroomed over 25 years. In Ohio, a company called the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow (ECOT) and its predecessor had operated an online charter school that wasn’t doing what they were paid to do. The school closed abruptly in 2018 and continues to fight court battles with Ohio officials as it refuses to repay the state about $80 million for overinflated enrollment issues, and faces another $200 million lawsuit for other regulatory issues. It also faces a separate lawsuit for the lack of oversight and verification of student performance. So not only was ECOT taking money it didn’t deserve — as its predecessor had also — it wasn’t providing an adequate education to its students. 

Our advisory committee knew that the people who ran these charter schools were making millions of dollars a year, while making large campaign contributions to the then-governor and members of the state Legislature. It’s just one example of the broader corruption in Ohio politics that now has the former Speaker of the House facing indictment as part of a $60 million bribery scheme. These and other examples are why I helped start an American Promise chapter here in Central Ohio. There are now more than 700 Ohio people who want to improve our political system through campaign finance reform in a nonpartisan way.

How have you seen money in politics affect education on a national level?

On a broader scale, campaign finance abuses have harmed underprivileged students and public education, particularly in urban schools. By failing to meet the needs of preschool children in low-income families, our country puts them at a significant disadvantage as they enter kindergarten. They generally begin their school experience a year or two behind in their development, which causes many of them to conclude that they are not as capable as the children who benefitted from other preschool environments. Many quickly get discouraged with their educational experience.

A related result is the extreme socioeconomic gap, which has been exacerbated in the U.S. through Congressional favoritism toward more affluent campaign donors. Because our economic system does not provide nearly enough jobs that pay a living wage, children living in poverty can face lifelong challenges as a result. The proposed American Families Plan calls on Congress to fund universal preschool and other access to education to help address these systemic gaps.

Why do you advocate for the 28th Amendment as part of American Promise?

In the Ohio political climate, it has been extremely difficult to get a bill passed to address the excessive influence of money in politics. With party-line voting, important issues like campaign finance get lost. American Promise is nothing if not cross-partisan. We know that if we’re really going to effect change, we need to have a bipartisan bill that leads to a federal amendment. 

Look at the issues that are confronting our country. The reason we haven’t made progress on equal access to quality education, climate change, or health care costs can be traced back to campaign finance abuse. Large corporations and wealthy donors have figured out that the most effective way to spend money is on members of Congress. Under the current system, most politicians are beholden to their largest donors. Moreover, they are spending a great deal of their time on fundraising rather than solving the problems facing their constituents. 

If our grandchildren are going to live in a true democracy and we want a quality public education system for all, a liveable climate, and health care that’s a right and not a privilege, we need to resolve these issues in a nonpartisan manner. It’s a constant theme that comes back to money and the power that comes with it.