CENTENNIAL, Colo. — For most Coloradans used to the biennial barrage of television ads, phone calls and door-knocking canvassers with armfuls of door-hanger leaflets, this fall has been a welcome break from the incessant political noise.
Except in Douglas County.
Here, there has been no break to the noise — honking horns from sign-wavers at curbside protests, political ads in heavy rotation on the local cable airwaves — as the country’s most hard-fought, high stakes school board race comes down the stretch.
No school board in the country has gone as far with as many controversial education reforms — the nation’s first suburban school district voucher program, subsidizing private and parochial school tuition for wealthy families, tops the list — as the seven-member majority solidified four years ago in this conservative suburb.
And no other local school board election anywhere in the country has so galvanized parents and politicos and attracted national attention and the financial resources of outside groups, all convinced that Tuesday’s votes here can be an inflection point in the national debate around an education, a critical test case of just how far reform can go.
“Vouchers are just one flashpoint,” said Craig Hughes, the Democratic operative who ran President Obama’s Colorado campaign last year and is now helping a slate of four candidates trying to stop the board’s current conservative majority from going even further.
“This board has just been too overtly agenda-driven. It’s not about kids and teachers, it’s about politics.”
The conservatives on the board have effectively cut out the teachers union, ending collective bargaining, imposing a pay-for-performance model that also values teachers by their subjects, so a math instructor might make thousands more than colleagues who teach history.
“Teachers have lost their voice,” said Brenda Smith, the director of the Douglas County Federation of Teachers. “Morale has plummeted. You have a lot of really great teachers leaving the school system, going to other districts.”
Douglas County has also added more charter schools and directed public funds to subsidize books and classes for home-schooled children.
“I’m very confident that parent and teachers in Douglas County support pay for performance and support parental choice and they support less bureaucracy and more money in classrooms,” John Carson, the board’s president, said last month.
The slate of conservatives seeking to continue the board’s policies — incumbents Doug Benevento and Meghann Silverthorn and newcomers Jim Geddes and Judith Reynolds — have received contributions from a host of national donors and groups on the right.
Most of the support has come from the group Americans For Prosperity, the main advocacy arm of the conservative billionaire brothers David and Charles Koch, which has spent around $350,000 trying to convince voters that the reforms are working, mostly via television ads.
“In Douglas County, what you have is a school board that in the past few years has pursued a number of free-market reforms, and we want to see those reforms continued on,” said Dustin Zvonek, who runs AFP Colorado.
“The unions have really waged a year-long misinformation campaign to say, hey the school district’s not doing well, the reforms aren’t working. That’s why we’re involved. We want to make sure the residents of that district know that the reforms that have been put in place, that they are working.”
Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and Aspect Energy CEO Alex Cranberg, both ardent supporters of vouchers, have also contributed heavily to the campaign supporting the conservative board members and candidates.
Even the Colorado Republican Party has devoted its resources to preserving the current school board majority in Douglas County.
“They’ve politicized our school board, and it shouldn’t be about politics,” Smith lamented. You’re not talking about a local school board race anymore. You’re talking about outside influences coming in and trying to change the direction of a local school board race that should be nonpartisan.”
The union has largely financed the campaign in support of the four challengers vying to upend the conservative majority — Barbra Chase, Julie Keim, Bill Hodges and Ronda Scholting — contributing $150,000.
An outside group that isn’t obliged to disclose its donors has also kicked in $70,000.
But upset parents, galvanized by the board’s reforms, insist the swell of opposition to the board isn’t simply union-driven.
“This is real anger. We’re just three moms who came together,” said Jody Lyman at a rally last month. We’re angry and we are ready to take our schools back and help our teachers and ultimately, our kids.”
For both sides, the election is a critical inflection point — for Douglas County schools and families and for education policy around the country.
Conservatives, and even a Democrat, former state senator Peter Groff, now an education reform advocate working in Washington, DC, believe that the board’s reforms can serve as a model for other districts to follow.
“I’ve been very impressed with what they’ve done in terms of opening up every avenue of choice that gives parents the unique opportunity to pick what’s right for their kids,” Groff said.
But will it last?
“I think there are a lot of school districts who would like to take on these reforms they’ve done in Douglas County but they’re afraid the teachers unions are going to do exactly what they’re doing in Douglas County,” Zvonek said.
Smith and those who want teachers to have more of a voice on the school board are less concerned with the national implications than the impact on their community and its schools. They worry that Tuesday’s election may be their last real chance to stop the reform agenda freight train before it gains more speed.
“The conversations that should be happening down here — with teachers — should be about what’s good for kids and what’s good for classrooms,” Smith said. “And I think they’ve shifted that focus away.
“We’ve seen the decline of teacher morale, we’ve seen teachers leave the district. If another four years of this continues, you will continue to see the results of that.”