Could Douglas County, Colorado make school choice mainstream?

Casey Given Editor, Young Voices
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Following Tuesday’s gubernatorial vote, the national limelight continues to shine on Chris Christie and Terry McAuliffe’s victories and the major implications they may have on 2016’s presidential landscape. As a result, another important electoral result west of the Mississippi has sadly been overshadowed by the post-election punditry. What just happened in one local Colorado school district could have major implications on the future of education reform across the country.

Tuesday night, the voters of Douglas County, Colorado reelected all four incumbents of their school board. While such a news story may seem like just another commonplace occurrence of local politics confined to the front page of the Denver Post, this election was anything but typical. It’s not every school board race that hundreds of thousands of dollars are donated from major national players like Jeb Bush, Michael Bloomberg, and the American Federation of Teachers. But that’s precisely what happened in Douglas County when union interests attempted to oust four board members whose education reforms can only be described as historic.

Why is Big Labor so upset? There are a number of reasons, not the least of which being the fact that the school board refused to renew a teachers’ union contract for what seems to be the first time in American history. The underlying theme is that the Douglas County School Board dodged all of the obstacles commonly thrown at education reformers to successfully extend school choice to every child in its jurisdiction.

It all started back in 2009. After a $17 million mill levy override allocated paltry sums to the district’s charter schools, education reformers galvanized voters to sweep four of their own onto the school board. Two years later, the mighty new board started flexing its muscle for school choice. In 2011, they approved Colorado’s first opportunity scholarship program that awarded 500 vouchers to students to attend the private school of choice. Unsurprisingly, the school board was quickly sued by the American Civil Liberties Union, and the program is still being defended on appeal by the libertarian Institute for Justice.

But, by no means did this speed bump slow the school board down. They instituted a new merit pay program the same year, tying teachers’ compensation to their performance evaluations and students’ test scores. As a result, teachers could get a raise of up to 8 percent for improving student performance, incentivizing academic excellence.

Two years later, the school board only seems to be accelerating its reforms. This past summer, the members unanimously adopted a new curriculum for their schools to complement the Common Core State Standards with one they describe as “more rigorous, more thorough, and more directly tailored to the needs of Douglas County students.” Finally, they allowed the Douglas County Federation of Teachers’ contract to expire after negotiations went awry, allowing individual teachers the freedom to choose their collective bargaining representative.

This last action (or rather, inaction) turned out to be the straw that broke the union bosses’ back. With the four board members up for reelection this November, Big Labor poured hundreds of thousands of dollars to halt what has perhaps been the quickest and most effective chain of school choice reforms America has ever seen. Fortunately for the county’s schoolchildren, the unions were ultimately unsuccessful, and all four incumbents were reelected to the board Tuesday night.

Most remarkable about the results is the fact that that Douglas County doesn’t exactly appear to be a prime candidate for education reform. As Frederick M. Hess and Max Eden of the American Enterprise Institute explain in their recent report on Douglas County, “In the past decade, the hotbeds of school reform have generally been high-poverty Democratic cities focused on closing achievement gaps in reading and math.” Furthermore, such urban school choice programs like opportunity scholarships have historically had strict requirements restricting voucher eligibility to students from low-income families or failing schools.

Douglas County, to the contrary, is an affluent suburban community with over 65,000 public school students, and its charter schools and voucher program are open to every one of them. Consequently, the school board’s reelection is not just a victory for Douglas County’s education reformers; it may be indicative of a growing demand for school choice to reach the American mainstream.

This theory is accentuated by the fact that Colorado has been a Petri dish for political reform for decades. From the Taxpayer Bill of Rights spending limit of the early 1990s to the innovative electioneering that turned the red state blue in 2008, conservatives and liberals alike have used the Centennial State as a laboratory for new ideas to be tested and later replicated across the country. If what happened in Colorado truly spreads to the rest of America, choice may soon be coming to a schoolhouse near you.