This is part of the America's Future series airing on FOX News Channel, looking at the challenges facing the country in the 21st century.
LOS ANGELES — It's a storyline straight out of a Hollywood screenplay: Cutthroat competitors burning through mountains of cash in a fiercely contested election.
But this isn't a race for the White House. It's a costly drive for high office in high schools, where some kids are going all-out to buy elections, and school administrators are trying to stop them.
"As we're trying to even that playing field, one of the things we don't want ... is to have it look or appear [that you can] buy your way in" said Tim Odle, event director at Orange Lutheran High School in Orange, Calif.
Spending on student campaigns is skyrocketing in the U.S. as some high-schoolers are laying out literally thousands of dollars to become president of the student council. Now, many schools have put spending caps in place to give students whose parents don't have deep pockets a chance to reach the top.
"If you look in the past, all the people who went big won," junior Samantha Deacon told the Orange County Register in May, shortly after winning her race for "co-commissioner of spirit."
Deacon's dad paid for 275 t-shirts bearing pictures of his daughter's face, and he ordered 509 custom-baked cookies printed with her photograph in edible ink, according to the Register. The total cost was over $800 — and that was at a discount for her father, who had connections in the promotions industry.
"We have a budget of, I think, $150," said Shea Savaso, a junior who recently won the race for associated student body vice president at Orange Lutheran, one of many schools around the nation to impose the spending limits.
"My friends helped me make cupcakes that said 'Vote for Shea' on them so I wouldn't have to buy and make 100 or 300 and so many cupcakes."
At Orange Lutheran, the spending caps have forced some students to get creative to compete. Lucas Stensby dressed up as the video game character Pac-Man, while a friend came dressed as Pac-Man's ghost nemesis. Pac-Man gave chase — and ran away with the election.
"He chased me around the entire school at lunch on Friday, and our speeches were on Monday," said Stensby. "During my speech — I gave it in the Pac-Man outfit — I chased him out of the gym at the end of my speech."
"He ran under the theme of 'it's time to step up and face your fears,'" said Odle. "And a leader needs to turn and face the challenges ahead of him."
Stensby's parents are supportive, but they question the 15 hours their son put into constructing his costume and preparing for his speech.
"If he would've put as much time into studying for his tests those two weeks, that would've been really, really nice," said Danine Stensby.
Participation in student government is a strong addition to a college application, so schools don't want to discourage competition. By instituting spending caps, their goal is just to level the playing field and even the score for all kids.
That may be a good lesson to learn early in a world where even a couple of hundred million dollars doesn't guarantee you can be President of the United States.
FOX News' Anita Vogel contributed to this report.