A Good Night For School Reform

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March 2014 Citizen Magazine

If all you knew about an election is that one side outspent the other by about 70-1, which side would you expect to win?

Not the one that won in Colorado last November—to the delight of school reformers both within the state and nationwide.

There, teachers' unions had made an all-out push for Amendment 66, a complex school-funding overhaul that would have led to a sizable tax hike for residents. But despite a multimillion-dollar campaign—backed by the likes of Michael Bloomberg and Bill Gates—voters rejected the proposal by a 2-1 margin.

And in school-board races in multiple districts, voters backed school reformers over union-favored candidates—both holding the ground the reformers had gained in previous elections and taking new territory.

In Douglas County, a pioneering board that has promoted policies like school choice and competitive pay overcame lavishly funded challengers—who garnered hundreds of thousands of dollars from state and national unions eager to derail those policies before they catch on and spread to other districts.

Meanwhile, reformers swept into office in two other districts, winning by a wide margin in the Thompson and Jefferson County districts—the latter being, at the time, the largest district in the state.

It's no coincidence these victories came in the same election, says Pam Benigno of the Independence Institute, a Golden-based think tank which supports school reform.
"I believe Amendment 66 was a gift," Benigno, director of the Institute's Education Policy Center, tells Citizen. "It brought out the voters who both opposed tax hikes and supported education reform."

While all these wins came in one night, they didn't come overnight. They're the product of years of grassroots work by Benigno and others to build a movement capable of taking on the public-education establishment—and winning.

'The Most Interesting School District in America'

The successes of Colorado's education reformers had their roots in a seeming defeat.

In 2003, then-Gov. Bill Owens signed into law a school-voucher program that had the potential to become one of the largest in the nation. But the program soon was overturned, with the Colorado Supreme Court saying "the statewide system of school finance is designed to preserve local control over locally raised tax revenues."

So reformers refocused their attention on what they could do at the local level. Benigno and her colleague Ben DeGrow, a senior education policy analyst at the Institute, put together a series of papers on innovative local programs that expand parental choice and improve teacher effectiveness.

"For the past five election cycles, Ben and I have held briefing sessions with school-board candidates across the state," Benigno says. "We've tailored these briefings to the local districts, focusing on what each of them can do in their own circumstances."

The candidates listened and learned. And in 2009, reformers made their first big breakthrough: They won a majority on the school board in Douglas County—which, with 65,000 students, is the third-largest district in the state.

Douglas, a Denver suburban district, was an unusual spot for major changes—not an urban center badly in need of reform, but an already high-achieving suburban district. The new board, however, thought they could do better. As a result, they've given rise to what American Enterprise Institute scholars Frederick M. Hess and Max C. Eden call "the most interesting school district in America."

Members wasted no time getting to work. They adopted a market-based pay system, with higher pay for the harder-to-fill positions. They developed more demanding academic standards and assessments, based on input from hundreds of teachers.

And they made one move which could have far-reaching implications: They voted to partner with numerous private and religious schools in a groundbreaking school-choice scholarship program. Using the state's charter-school law, Douglas County set up a charter school which lets enrolled students' families take 75 percent of the state's per-pupil funding to any school that has contracted with the charter school to provide instruction.

What happened next, as Hess and Eden summarize in the Sept. 17, 2013, National Review:

The ACLU sued over the program, and while the district triumphed in appellate court, the program remains on pause while Douglas County awaits a date with the Colorado Supreme Court. If the district prevails there, it will offer a voucher model that almost any school district could emulate. The Wall Street Journal has noted that this "could transform the debate about vouchers nationwide" by making them relevant "for families who want more than even high-performing public schools have to offer."

"We just believe that you should have a wide range of school choices," then-school board President John Carson tells Citizen. "We've been bringing market principles into public education; we believe that will lead to better academic results."

That approach won praise in unexpected places: The Denver Post named the board and Carson among its "top thinkers of 2012" for "having the courage to break the death grip of teacher unions on public education."

"What that board did really ignited interest in running for school boards across the state," Benigno says—adding that, for the 2013 elections, the Independence Institute had 47 candidates from 27 districts attend its briefings.

"We've had people drive literally across the state for these events," she says. "And we've had that for years now."

Money Isn't Everything

While all this was going on, Colorado education groups with a very different agenda were organizing to overhaul the state's school-financing system.

"They wanted a lot of groups in their coalition," DeGrow tells Citizen. "They even invited us to join—but we were told we'd have to support a tax increase."

The Independence Institute declined the offer, and the rest of the groups pressed ahead in the legislature. What emerged from the General Assembly was very long (about 140 pages), very complex—and cost nearly a billion dollars in new taxes.

But one obstacle remained: Thanks to Colorado's Taxpayer Bill of Rights—passed by popular referendum in 1992—the constitution requires that any state tax increases must be approved by voters.

That's what Amendment 66 would have done.

Its supporters were rolling in money, much of it from national sources. Out of just over $11 million in reported funding, $4 million came from the National Education Association and its state arm, the Colorado Education Association. Then-New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg donated $1 million, and so did the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

And the money raised by opponents of the measure? A bit under $160,000.

So how did they win—much less win by a wide margin?

For starters, Coloradans don't like high taxes. "That's why they passed a Taxpayer Bill of Rights in the first place," DeGrow says. "For all the money Amendment 66 supporters had, they were pushing a huge boulder uphill."

Then there was the suspiciously long, tangled nature of the education-funding measure, and whether it really would deliver money to the classrooms, as supporters promised—or whether much of the funding would go to the education retirement fund and to bureaucratic functions.

"There were a few good things in there, but the more you dug into it, the more confusing it became," DeGrow says.

"We hit the speaking circuit and talked to anyone who would listen, showing them that all this money supposedly going to the classroom was a promise (Amendment 66 supporters) just couldn't keep."

The more people learned, the more problems both conservatives and moderates had with the bill.

"Especially in conservative places, the argument that this was a redistribution-of-income measure brought out a lot of voters," DeGrow says. "And when we showed suburban, middle-of-the-road voters that there was no real education reform in here, it was a real turnoff for them too."

Adding to the measure's problems, some of its most powerful supporters also turned out to be lightning rods for opposition.

Bloomberg recently spent heavily to get Colorado to pass gun-control measures which were so widely unpopular that they later cost several of the legislators who'd backed them their jobs.

"On Amendment 66, Bloomberg's involvement ended up working against them because of the role he played in the gun debate," DeGrow says. "He may have done more harm than good for his side."

All those factors together added up to a resounding result: Amendment 66 went down, 65-35 percent.

But not every election was such a landslide: One was a real nail-biter.

Neighbors Calling Neighbors

In Douglas County, the last few years' reforms have faced ongoing resistance from the local union, the Douglas County Federation of Teachers. So when the union's contract with the district ended in 2012, the board let it expire.

That's when the union—and its parent group, the American Federation of Teachers (AFT)—went to war, putting up its own slate of school board candidates and pouring in huge amounts of money for a local race.

On Nov. 1, the Committee for Better Schools Now—the group supporting the union-backed candidates—filed its only campaign-finance report with the Colorado secretary of state. It reported $230,500, the lion's share furnished by AFT's national ($110,000) and state ($40,000) groups.

Charcie (pronounced Shar-see) Russell of Castle Rock, Colo., had seen the clash building since the reformers were elected in 2009. She'd attended school board meetings and seen how the board's opponents regularly showed up in force.

So Russell—a former outreach coordinator for U.S. Rep. Tom Tancredo, R-Colo.—decided to let the board know it had allies too. She and several others formed Great Choice Douglas County, gathering petition signatures backing school choice and otherwise rallying behind the board's policies.

"It was important to have parents and citizens banding together to say ‘We really like this,' " Russell tells Citizen. "As individuals, we may write a letter or two, but we don't have the same influence as when we're in a group. We need to have a presence in the community and a voice in the media. That gets your message on the 10 o'clock news."

Russell's was the first of several groups that coalesced to back school reform. So as the 2013 elections approached, those groups went to work getting the voters out. And they found they had helpful allies.

"The reforms had great support from the local Republican Party volunteers, who contacted individual voters to remind them to vote. I can't tell you how much that helped," she says. "We had neighbors calling neighbors. It made a big difference."

For all their work, though, Russell credits prayer—which she and some other reform supporters gathered for regularly—as a decisive factor. Especially going into the final weekend, when the election looked tight.

"We got together to pray, and after the prayers, there was just a surge of activity—I have no other way to describe it. People calling, knocking on doors, making sure our voters got their ballots in."

The final result: The board's pro-reform candidate slate won by a 52-48 percent margin.

"When we look at what God did for His people in the Bible, we see that He fights for us," Russell says. "We didn't have the strength of the (unions), but we could tell our prayers were being heard."

Carson, whose last term on the board ended in 2013, is gratified that the reforms he presided over will continue with his successors.

"We had a target on us," he says. "This election, they threw everything at us. They spent hundreds of thousands, but we still prevailed. This was an example of how to take on a union and win."

Under the Radar

While the unions focused their attention on Douglas County, school reformers were making gains in other places. One was Jefferson County, where a reform-minded slate of candidates won by a roughly 20-point margin.

"A lot of people were surprised," DeGrow says. "This race flew a little below the radar. The unions didn't know what hit them."

But Sheila Atwell of Evergreen, Colo., wasn't a bit surprised. As the executive director of JeffCo Students First, she'd been there for the setbacks—including an unsuccessful attempt in 2011 to elect a school board not supported by the union. But she kept at it—going to school board meetings, finding likeminded parents, building a volunteer base.

"It's important that parents not feel alone—that they have somebody to talk to, to ask tough questions" Atwell tells Citizen. "We started to collect those parents and to talk to some sympathetic teachers."

Learning lessons from the last election, Atwell and her allies were better able to build their resources and target their efforts.

"This time, we were better organized than in the past," she said. "We had three terrific candidates, and they were better funded."

They also had another campaign issue. It went by the innocuous name InBloom, an educational computer program funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. But its substance—gathering huge amounts of data on students to share with for-profit corporations, without parental consent or opt-out provisions—raised alarms among many parents.

The school board seemed inclined to favor the program, but changed its mind after strong parental objections.

"That issue came up late in the campaign, but it helped get people's attention," Atwell says. "In the past, the board would have signed off on that. But people stood up and said, ‘We want a board that listens to the community.' "

Atwell is enthusiastic about the results of the election and hopes they're part of a larger trend of parents and citizens pursuing education reforms together.

"We'd like to see this happening across the country," she says. "School board meetings aren't terribly exciting, but they sure are important."

enigno sees evidence that it's happening. "We’ve seen the energy going on (among education reformers) lately," she says. "It's just been a fabulous couple of years." And, she adds, the Independence Institute is eager to lend assistance.

"People who run for school board need information and moral support, and after they're elected, they need guidance," Benigno says. "We're here to provide that."


If you're interested in education reform, visit i2i.org/education.php for more details.


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