The morning of Election Day, members of the junior class Discord server (a popular message board) were greeted with a surprising post: a list from the Federal Election Commission of all political donations by Lakeside teachers in the last two years, names and amounts included. Less surprising? Every donation listed went to a Democratic candidate or left-leaning nonprofit.
Teachers at the middle and upper school donated a total of $10,482.32 since January 1st, 2019. Predictably, Biden for President and ActBlue (a liberal nonprofit) received the most money, $3871.04 and $5227.47, respectively. To the delight of the Discord, one teacher gave about $250 to Andrew Yang’s primary campaign (“part of the yanggang lmfao,” wrote a junior). Presidential candidates Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren also received donations, as well as Washington Rep. Kim Schrier and Alaska senatorial candidate Al Gross.
“I just knew to look it up,” says Zane N. ‘22, who discovered the list. “I figured it would be interesting to find.” He’d heard from classmates that the Federal Elections Commission keeps a public, searchable list of all political donors, but no one seemed to know quite where. It was easy to find the website and perform a filtered search by employer and city, and easier still to post it for the class of 2022 to see.
It’s hard to believe that all of this is public. Anyone on the internet can go to the FEC website, search for an employer, and get a list of who donated where and how much. There’s even a way to find the address of each individual donor. Federal law requires the disclosure of any donation over $200, and most under that limit appear as well (for example, ActBlue reports every donation to the FEC, regardless of size). The FEC publishes the name, employer and city of each contributor, the size of their donation, and where it went.
While all of the donations we found were Democratic, it’s certainly possible that there are Republican teachers at Lakeside who donated under $200 directly to a candidate rather than a PAC like ActBlue, in which case they would be missing from the FEC’s list. From this data, it’s safe to conclude that there is an overwhelming majority of Democrats at Lakeside, but not quite that there are zero Republicans.
Next comes the question of ethics. In a world where our perception of others is heavily influenced by politics, knowing another’s political allegiance is a powerful tool. Should this information even be public? Were students wrong to make the search?
The publication of small donations has long been controversial. In 2019, Rep. Joaquin Castro (D-TX) set off a political firestorm when he tweeted the names of 44 of his constituents who donated the maximum amount to Donald Trump — an exposure of public information not unlike what happened this month to Lakeside teachers. Political scientists have argued that while campaign finance disclosures help fight corruption by exposing large donations from corporations and the extremely wealthy, the FEC’s rules about small donors do more harm than good by compromising individuals’ privacy.
“I didn’t think about it at the time,” says Zane when asked about the ramifications of exposing the donations, “but I guess it’s public information.” While knowing his teachers’ politics may change his private perception of them, he noted, “they’re Americans. They have the right to donate to whoever they want.” He felt no qualms about having made the search.
“I wouldn’t blame a student for wanting to know that at all,” says Ms. Christy, a history teacher, “but it makes me sad to be outed, in a way.” She is a firm believer (unlike, she notes, some other history teachers) that teachers should not disclose any political beliefs to students in order to keep a fair and neutral classroom. Even so, she strongly supports transparency laws for political donations: “People should know how much money people give to particular causes.”
So what does this mean for Lakeside? It’s obvious that most teachers at the school are left-leaning, but until now, there’s never been definite evidence of Lakeside’s ideological imbalance. For James L. ‘22, who describes himself as “very much a centralist [sic]” but is more conservative than many of his peers, this discovery validates the lack of ideological diversity that Lakeside seems reluctant to acknowledge.
James says the donations are a symptom of a greater problem with open-mindedness at Lakeside. “If I share a view that people of the Democrat party don’t believe in, they’re going to attack me. And it’s, like, vicious attacking,” he says. He describes it as a “snap decision by millennials and a lot of our age group where they go, oh, you’re a bad person.” According to him, most of the judgment comes from students, not teachers, but it’s hard knowing that almost none of the authority figures at the school share his views. James feels that left-leaning teachers contribute to the “mob mentality” of Lakeside, which emboldens Democratic students.
Neither James nor Ms. Christy sees an easy solution to this problem. The Diversity, Equity and Inclusion page on Lakeside’s website states that “Lakeside is committed to creating an inclusive and equitable community in which all individuals can participate in and contribute to the life of the school, regardless of race, gender, class, religion, sexual orientation, or any other aspect of their identity.” What does that keyword, creating, mean in this context?
Now that there’s evidence that Lakeside’s faculty and staff includes almost no conservative members, is the administration required to create political diversity? Does this stated value require the school to pay attention to political identity when hiring, in much the same way that it is conscious of race and gender? It’s a somewhat paradoxical question, as, while many conservative views do align with Lakeside’s values of inclusion and diversity, some don’t. Ms. Christy notes that asking prospective teachers about their political beliefs in an interview is potentially illegal. When offered this dilemma, James said that Lakeside is obligated to diversify its political representation, but that they should hire teachers for their merit, regardless of political belief. In short, like Lakeside teachers, he’s still searching for a solution.
While neither of our interviewees felt happy about the sharing of the FEC data, this is a new level of transparency for Lakeside. Heading into a Biden presidency, it’s possible that hard evidence of Lakeside’s biases will bring self-awareness that could ultimately change our school for the better.