As Douglas County leaders continue charting the nation’s boldest course for local education innovation, political foes have taken the fight to a different front. Charges against the reform-minded school board fail in the light of truth but have the chance to catch on with many voters.
“There is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in its success, than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things,” Machiavelli wrote in his 500-year-old classic The Prince. The Florentine political philosopher keenly recognized the challenges of undertaking any kind of major reform project.
A conservative area like Douglas County is no exception, where the grievances of displaced interest groups have helped to forge a focused and empowered political opposition. In 2011, two years after reformers swept a majority of seats, Dougco’s school board became the nation’s first to adopt a local private school choice program. The action triggered a costly (but privately funded) lawsuit and the beginnings of a resistance.
Antagonism grew the following year, when the Douglas County Federation of Teachers (DCFT) lost the privilege of automatic membership dues collection and was negotiated out of a job. The loss of local monopoly power, unprecedented for one of America’s 100 largest school districts, fired up state and national union leaders who don’t want to see the movement spread.
As DCFT and its labor allies have receded from center stage, front groups like the Strong Schools Coalition (SSC) have risen in hopes of restoring the old order and its lost privileges. SSC and their favored candidates cleverly avoid talk of school choice or union issues when pitching their platform to parents and others in places like Parker, Highlands Ranch, and Castle Rock.
The forward-thinking reforms Dougco leaders have championed into reality are popular with voters. An Independence Institute survey found strong majorities in favor of the groundbreaking Choice Scholarship Program, performance pay for teachers, and ending the union’s formal monopoly power.
Instead of talking about such changes, opponents paint a picture of fiscal mismanagement and declining educational quality. The picture may frame an appealing message, but inconveniently clashes with the facts.
Perhaps most loudly and frequently repeated is the line that district leaders have hoarded money. SSC says Dougco is sitting on $83 million, a balance that would far exceed legal requirements and sound judgment.
A closer look at financial documents belies the claim. SSC’s cited amount includes a host of dollars spent down to pay out old promises to departing teachers, and discretionary savings accounts controlled by individual principals. The actual balance stands at about $31 million, which is made up of a constitutional TABOR reserve and an additional 4 percent held back for rainy days.
In fact, the board’s fiscal responsibility has earned the district a high AA+ bond rating. Millions of dollars in financing costs are saved each year and directed instead to educational programs.
Some SSC-backed school board candidates further have pledged to help preserve the district’s property values. It’s not the first time anti-reformers have suggested the real estate market is suffering as a result of the current board’s agenda. Unfortunately for them, all indicators show the Douglas County market is strong as ever, with home sales and values growing.
Opponents also assert a top-heavy and bloated district payroll. However, this attempt to gin up voter outrage completely inverts reality. From 2008 to 2013 Dougco reduced annual spending on central administration by more than 20 percent. Nearly a quarter of the cuts represent tax dollars saved from no longer underwriting unaccountable union officer salaries.
The anti-reformers won’t regain power by sharing their true heartfelt complaints. Thus, they also spin a story of academic collapse. “Dougco’s accreditation rating is falling,” they proclaim. Omitted from the tale are the extensive changes in the state’s new Educational Accountability Act that clearly caused the 2010 change from “Accredited to Distinction” to “Accredited.”
State assessment scores in Dougco have remained high in recent years, and ACT scores have inched upwards among high school juniors. The number of state-recognized Schools of Excellence has grown from 14 to 19. Meanwhile, on-time graduation rates climbed from 83 to 87 percent in two short years under current leadership.
In response, board critics have pointed to an alleged drop in graduation requirements, a claim that contains scarcely an ounce of truth. Previous board leaders in 2009 approved a small decrease from 25 to 24 credits needed for graduation. Even so, Dougco and Denver share the highest standards of any metro area school district.
The irony extends further. Not content with relatively good test scores common to suburban affluence, Dougco leaders have developed higher academic standards. Those standards now help determine the evaluations, compensation, and career opportunities of professional educators. The district also may be the nation’s first to institute a market-based pay system that differentiates salary opportunities based on a licensed position’s demand.
A statewide teacher survey conducted earlier this year found significantly more enthusiastic Dougco teacher participation and satisfaction than in 2011, putting the district head and shoulders above its peers. Citing a handful of questions where Dougco teachers registered greater discontent, though, a vocal minority of critics predicted a mass exodus of classroom instructors.
It never materialized. Numbers reported by Dougco and by the state show teacher turnover rates in line with previous years and with neighboring districts—a somewhat remarkable feat given the fast-paced fundamental changes occurring. To top it off, thousands of well-qualified applicants came knocking in search of 480 teaching positions.
No one ever promised Douglas County that moving into uncharted waters would provide smooth sailing. In the short run, undertaking major reforms creates more passionate enemies than loyal friends. Seeking to shift power from central office bureaucrats and union leaders to parents and classroom professionals is fraught with genuine risks and challenges.
Despite attempts to derail progress with spurious claims, though, perseverance on the path of reimagining K-12 education holds out high hopes for the next generation of Douglas County students.
Ben DeGrow is senior education policy analyst for the Independence Institute, a Denver-based free market think tank. He served on the Douglas County School District’s 2010 School Choice Task Force and currently holds the title of chairman of the district’s Choice Scholarship School board, part of the program currently under injunction and pending before the Colorado Supreme Court.
This article originally appeared in the Colorado Observer on August 21, 2013.