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Koch group, unions battle over Colorado schools race
It isn’t often that the Koch brothers’ political advocacy group gets involved in a local school board race.
But this fall, Americans for Prosperity is spending big in the wealthy suburbs south of Denver to influence voters in the Douglas County School District, 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 U.S. see Douglas County as a model for transforming public schools everywhere. But with four of seven seats on the board up for grabs in Tuesday’s election, reformers find themselves fending off a spirited challenge from a coalition of angry parents and well-funded teachers unions. The race has been nasty and pricey, too; spending from all parties is likely to hit at least $800,000.
Americans for Prosperity has begun investing more heavily in local elections in the past two years, including statehouse races in Arkansas and Kansas, judicial contests in Florida and North Carolina, and mayoral ballots in Lakeville, Minn., and tiny Coralville, Iowa. Promoting education reform has emerged as a priority, spokesman Adam Nicholson said — so AFP headquarters “fully supported” its local chapter’s decision to engage in the Douglas County race.
The AFP Foundation’s Colorado chapter will spend more than $350,000 on the school board campaign, State Director Dustin Zvonek said.
“Douglas County has started to show that you can shake up the status quo” even in a successful suburban school district, Zvonek said.“We don’t want them to go backward.”
Douglas County would seem an unlikely place for an education revolution. One of the country’s richest counties, with a median household income above $100,000, it’s a deeply conservative stretch of suburbia, blanketed with look-alike homes in muted earth tones. Its schools are well-regarded and parent satisfaction has traditionally been high. Yet since the reformers took control of the 65,000-student school district in 2009, the changes have come fast and furious.
The board’s first step was to abolish tenure. Then it sidelined the local teachers’ union by refusing to negotiate a collective contract, instead working out deals one-on-one with each employee. “That really freed us up,” said Doug Benevento, a board member running for reelection on the reform slate.
The board launched the first voucher program in the U.S. to subsidize private and parochial school tuition for wealthy families in a top-ranked public school district. (The schools, including some touting a Bible-based, creationist curriculum, received a down payment of funds in 2011, but the program is on hold pending court challenges.) Douglas County has also added more charter schools and directed public funds to subsidize books and classes for home-schooled children.
Pushing the free market farther still, the board has urged district elementary schools to compete with one another for enrollment, rather than simply serving all students in the neighborhood. Principals are encouraged to budget creatively so they can develop a marketable niche, a practice that has left some schools without art or music teachers as they build up science programs or bring in foreign-language classes. Then there’s the market-pay system, in which a first grade teacher is valued, and paid, more than a second grade teacher and teaching physics far outweighs teaching art.
Politicians and educators from as far as Arizona, North Carolina and Texas have looked to model their own reforms on Douglas County.
But parents dismayed by the changes see Tuesday’s election as their best chance to reverse course. They have put up four candidates and promoted them in scores of house parties. These insurgent candidates haven’t raised much money on their own, but have been buoyed by independent expenditures of at least $150,000 from the American Federation of Teachers and its Colorado affiliate, plus $70,000 from a committee that has not identified its donors.
The reform slate — two incumbents and two allies running for open seats — has its own prominent backers.
Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, who has donated $1,000 to each of the reform candidates, not only endorsed the board at his national education summit earlier this month, but also urged the crowd to contribute. Colorado Secretary of State Scott Gessler, a Republican who is running for governor, directed his own campaign machine to spend the week working for the Douglas County reform slate.
The Americans for Prosperity spending has boosted their cause. And the reformers have raised more than three times as much as the insurgents, thanks to $140,000 in donations from two wealthy Coloradans who have long been active in promoting vouchers.
The board’s policies also received a boost — and a splash of national publicity — from two conservative scholars hired as consultants by the Douglas County Educational Foundation, a nonprofit organization that raises funds for district schools. Former Education Secretary William Bennett, who was paid $50,000, produced a laudatory paper praising the board’s actions as “perhaps the most promising array of education reforms underway in America today.”
Fredrick Hess, a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute who was paid $35,000, entitled his paper “The Most Interesting School District in America?” and promoted it in an online discussion last month with Bennett and the Douglas County superintendent, Elizabeth Fagen. The district also emailed Hess’ report to tens of thousands of parents.
Hess didn’t disclose in the paper that he was paid by the Douglas County foundation, but said he didn’t see a conflict in calling attention to the board’s “ambitious and energetic” reforms, especially since he wasn’t passing judgment on their efficacy. “It’s a huge open question,” Hess said, “whether this is going to work.”
Most available metrics show the district’s academic performance, already high, has at least held steady during the reforms.
District scores on state math, reading and writing tests are stable, and science scores have improved, even though the county has absorbed an online school serving 3,0000 low-performing students. On the other hand, Douglas County no longer outperforms the state by as much as it used to, as other Colorado districts have made bigger strides.
The high school graduation rate is up, though that could be in part because the board cut the number of credits required for a diploma. (Douglas County used to require more credits than neighboring districts; now it’s on par.) ACT scores have inched up. More students are taking Advanced Placement tests, but the pass rate has dipped. Class sizes have grown.
The Americans for Prosperity ads focus on the positive metrics. The tagline: “It’s working.” The ad from the union-backed Committee for Better Schools counters, “Under this school board, we’ve fallen behind.”
But performance data isn’t all that matters to parents like Stefania Scott, who has two children in Douglas County elementary schools. To her, the reforms’ biggest impact has been the splintering of her community.
Five years ago, Scott said, all the kids on the block walked together to the local elementary school. Now, each family goes their own way — some to charters, some to private schools and some to public schools across town that have successfully marketed themselves as worth the drive. She has stuck with her neighborhood school, but often thinks of pulling up stakes.
“It’s truly broken up the community,” Scott said, “and it’s sad.”
If the reformers retain control of the board, more jolting changes are likely.
The district has revamped its curriculum and no longer considers “knowing and understanding large amounts of information” a key goal for students.
Instead, teachers are told to focus on nurturing “21st century skills” like creativity, communication and critical thinking. One high school is even talking about abolishing traditional classes and instead having kids with common hobbies get together to explore topics — so avid skateboarders, for instance, might study physics by deconstructing their best stunts.
The district is also developing a huge new database to track students’ and teachers’ progress. Principals will be able to upload videos of teachers at work and photos of student projects to help determine which educators deserve raises. Student assessment data will be entered as well — not just test scores, but also teacher evaluations of skills such as creativity and collaboration.
Fagen, who was hired by the board in 2010 and is the highest-paid superintendent in the state, with a base salary of $270,000, said she believes most in the community back the reforms. But she is prepared for continuing dissent, no matter the election’s outcome.
“I don’t think anyone expected to change a 100-year-old institution as dramatically as we have,” she said, “… and not experience some turbulent waters.”