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.