The $800,000 School Board Race

Stephanie Simon reports on a fierce fight in a Douglas County, Colorado, “which has gone further than any district in the nation to reshape public education into a competitive, free-market enterprise”:

The conservatives who control the board have neutered the teachers union, prodded neighborhood elementary schools to compete with one another for market share, directed tax money to pay for religious education and imposed a novel pay scale that values teachers by their subjects, so a young man teaching algebra to eighth graders can make $20,000 a year more than a colleague teaching world history down the hall. Conservatives across the US see Douglas County as a model for transforming public schools everywhere.

Kris Nielsen has more on the implications of today’s election:

Douglas County schools are not urban and they’re not failing — not a usual target for privatizers — and we’re seeing a different strategy at play.

The drive from the current board is to create “niche” schools, where students are tested, matched to a future career based on the scores, and then eventually placed into a niche school where they fit best, based on those criteria.  Parents aren’t okay with that.  And neither are most community members, since it is probably the least democratic way to run a school system that we’ve seen so far in this country. So, we have four challengers running for school board, and the grassroots movement to get them elected has been very active.  Hundreds of volunteers spend every hour of free time canvassing, picketing, attending meetings and forums, and speaking to anyone who will listen. Apparently, it’s working, because the “other side” is getting nervous.  So nervous, in fact, that they’ve decided to call in the cavalry.

Ravitch counts the biggest elephants:

The Koch brothers have contributed $350,000 to the free-market campaigners. They would, if they could, privatize all of what we now know as public education. The current board, fighting to maintain control, hired conservative icon Bill Bennett for $50,000 to be a consultant. It also hired Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute to write a paper praising the district’s initiatives, for $35,000.

Another top donor, Jeb Bush, makes his case in National Review:

The new board decided that striving to be the best in Colorado no longer was sufficient. Instead, it set a goal of competing “against students across the nation and the world for the most sought-after careers.” Now, Douglas County is taking on Massachusetts and Maryland, Finland and Singapore. … The lesson here is a valuable one. Our students are falling behind students from other nations in an academic race that will determine our place in the 21st-century global economy. Our children are, at best, mediocre performers on international assessments in science, math, and literacy. We have become complacent, and complacency is the bridge to stagnation and mediocrity. It can no longer be an option for kids at any academic level. Reform is often associated with turning around failing schools. But in Douglas County, it is being used to turn good schools into great schools. …

[T]he Denver Post recently endorsed all four [conservative] reformers in an editorial titled “Retain innovation in Douglas County schools.” The paper called the district’s market-based reforms “an innovative plan that respects teachers and is sure to be imitated.” You can appreciate how threatening such enlightenment is to union bosses. And the Post is hardly a conservative outlet, having twice endorsed President Barack Obama.

Update from a reader:

We lived in Douglas County until our youngest graduated from high school in 2012. Both of our sons got a damn good education. Our sons both had freshman college classes that were not as difficult as their high school classes. Over the 12 years we were there we ran into a few teachers that were not so hot, but I defy anyone to find a profession that does not have a few members who are not peak performers. On the whole, those teachers were putting their hearts, souls and knowledge to work to help my kids.

I watched this new school board come in and they made it very clear that they are against public schools. They started an experimental program to provide vouchers, assuring one and all that the schools getting the money would comply with the standards and testing required of the public schools. That went by the wayside as soon as the first religious school said “uh, no. We’re not going to comply with those standards.” The school board paid out the money nonetheless.

The school board brought in a new superintendent a couple of years ago. The only thing that they said about her qualifications was that she cut $40 million from the Tucson AZ school system budget – but she did that the year she was hired by Douglas County, so there was no opportunity to see how those cuts affected the students. It was enough that she had shown she could cut the budget. Nothing was said about quality during the announcement of her hiring (believe me: I was scoping out everything I could find from the school board).

This school board has taken a great school district, with great teachers and decimated the teaching force. When we returned for a visit this year, teachers were openly talking about getting out and how awful things were generally in the district. As my husband said “it’s not surprising they would be that open with you because you volunteered all the time and they know you. But me? They don’t know me well enough to be saying things like this.” And teachers I didn’t know well were saying the same thing.

In the end, I am so glad that my sons made it out and to college before the board went even crazier. It makes me sick to see a board that so hates public education in charge of public schools. And they are destroying what was a great school system.

And that bit about the Denver Post recommending Obama? Hey, look at who Obama was running against. It wasn’t a reach for a conservative paper to endorse Obama over Palin and Romney.