Reflections on the Election in Douglas County

This week’s election of a teachers’ union-backed slate of school board candidates in Douglas County, Colorado is a major setback for school choice. After a six-year court battle over the district’s voucher program, the stage seemed set for a major victory. The U.S. Supreme Court had asked Colorado’s high court to reconsider its ruling that the program ran afoul of the state’s “Blaine Amendment,” which prohibits public funds from flowing to religious schools. The case could’ve dealt a major blow to Blaine Amendments, which pose legal hurdles to choice in 38 states. Now the board will drop the case, and Blaine will remain on the books for the foreseeable future.

But this 18-point landslide election was not about vouchers. That was the angle drew national attention to this local race, but the key issue was how to help the district schools move beyond failed reforms backed by the previous board majority. What happened in Douglas County is an illuminating case study in the failure of the traditional education reform agenda.

Somewhat paradoxically, Douglas County is an atypical school district that tells the story of national education reform writ small. The richest county in America that doesn’t orbit the D.C. beltway, Douglas County leans Republican by a two-to-one margin. In 2009, the county GOP decided to endorse a slate of school board candidates, who cruised to victory and felt a mandate for reform. So this Republican-backed board decided to push from the bottom up the same agenda the Obama administration was pushing from the top down: higher standards, test-based teacher evaluations, and more school choice. The voucher program was never implemented in Douglas County, but the districts reforms were. They yielded resentment rather than results and produced unprecedented political polarization.

Former superintendent Elizabeth Celania-Fagen viewed the Obama reform agenda as too timid. Her team would go above the “Common Floor” of the Common Core with their own “Guaranteed and Viable Curriculum” aligned to “World-Class Outcomes.” Dismissing Colorado’s assessment and teacher evaluation framework as insufficient, her team created their own assessments and a “Continuous Improvement of Teacher Effectiveness” evaluation system, which would be the basis for merit pay for teachers. It was certainly unusual for an affluent, high-performing suburban district like Douglas County to aggressively pursue a mix of policies mix primarily designed for poor, low-performing urban districts. The experiment failed.

According to district staff surveys, the percent of staff who felt that the district was moving in a positive direction plummeted from 77 percent in 2007-08 to 14 percent in 2011-12 to 6 percent in 2014-15, when only 1 percent expressed confidence in the superintendent. Annual teacher turnover nearly doubled under Fagen’s tenure. And whereas 17 and 10 principals left in the two years immediately preceding Fagen’s hiring, 37 and 42 left in her last two years. Douglas County lost its “accredited with distinction” status with the Colorado Department of Education, and 11 schools were put on turnaround plans for poor performance. In 2015, the three reform board members were swept out of office by almost a 60-40 margin. And even after Fagen resigned and no board members associated with her ran for reelection, the fresh-faced reform slate just lost by about the same margin.

What should we make of all this? Quite frequently, education reformers will rationalize failure by arguing that rather than reform being tried and found wanting, it was found hard and left untried. Yet in Douglas County, it was certainly tried and certainly found wanting. Reformers will also quite frequently point to a place like Washington, D.C. and say that reforms, such as to teacher evaluation and merit pay, “worked” there. But that’s just the thing: those reforms were explicitly designed to work in low-performing urban districts like D.C. Then when reformers got into power, in Douglas County or in the Oval Office, they took those ideas off the shelf and pushed them out.

It should be no surprise that reforms intended for places like D.C. don’t work when pushed by a school board in a place like Douglas County, or by the Department of Education nationwide. And just as Republicans and Democrats in Congress teamed up in 2015 to end the era of federally-driven reform in the form of the Every Student Succeeds Act, a heavily Republican Colorado district just elected a teachers’ union-backed slate by 18 points to end the era of locally-driven reform. This election was a repudiation not of vouchers or school choice, but of district-driven reform.

In fact, perhaps the most interesting aspect of this race was that the union-backed candidates sounded a lot like Betsy DeVos when it came to charter schools. Now-board member Chris Schor declared at a candidates’ forum that “I adamantly support public choice using public dollars. This includes public charter, public neighborhood schools, magnets, alternative schools and online schools.” What’s more, the union-backed slate promised to continue to share 100 percent of local mill-levy funds with charters. But their full-throated support is less surprising when you consider that 20 percent of Douglas County students attend charter schools. It does, however, pose a telling contrast to the school board race in Denver where candidates carried the day on overt charter antipathy.

Taken together, these races should scramble the conventional political narrative about charter schooling. That narrative says that charters are really supposed to be for failing urban districts, that suburban parents don’t want or need them, and rather than expand charters to the suburbs to bolster Republican support, advocates should rather work on their rhetoric. But choice creates constituents who will defend their interests, and who will have a far easier time doing so when their neighbors are ideologically sympathetic. If the Douglas County school board moves to harm charters, there will be a significant political cost.

The headlines suggest that the election was all about vouchers. But the deeper story here is that Douglas County is a compelling case study in the collapse of the traditional education reform agenda. That agenda was a philosophically uneasy fusion of bureaucrat-driven reform and parent-driven choice. Bureaucrat-driven reform wasn’t truly designed for places like Douglas County, but advocates push it there (and everywhere else) anyway. Parent-driven choice could take root anywhere, but advocates tended to view it as not really for a place like Douglas County. While district reform collapsed, and claimed the court case on the never-implemented voucher program as collateral, charter parents will ensure that school choice carries on in this Colorado suburban county.

— Max Eden

Max Eden is a Senior Fellow at the Manhattan Institute.

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