One of the most-watched school board elections in the country, especially in conservative education circles, is right here in Colorado.
The Douglas County race has attracted attention from news outlets like the Wall Street Journal and the National Review. The suburban Denver contest is also bringing hundreds of local parents into the streets.
In September, parents waving signs lined busy roadways during a week of rallies. They’re frustrated with changes brought in by a Republican-dominated school board four years ago.
Those changes included vouchers for students to go to private schools, and paying teachers differently based on their performance and on whether the subject they teach is in high demand.
Cindra Barnard started a group that fought the vouchers when her children were attending Douglas County schools. She says those types of policies are usually enacted in districts where urban poverty is high and test scores are low.
“But then you take these reforms into Douglas County, one of the wealthiest counties in the country, [with] all high performing schools…if it can happen in Douglas County it can happen anywhere,” she said.
The future of these policies hangs in the balance this November, with four out of the board’s seven seats up for grabs. Parents at the protests say the current board’s agenda is being shaped by forces outside the county.
National groups that favor market-based approaches in public education are paying attention during this election cycle. William Bennett, Secretary of Education under Ronald Reagan, was in Lone Tree recently, speaking to business leaders and praising district initiatives.
“They are almost a laboratory for every serious thoughtful education reform on the conservative side,” said Bennett, speaking on KOA’s The Mike Rosen Show.
The Colorado chapter of Americans for Prosperity, a conservative political advocacy group, launched a series of TV ads supporting the school board and condemning its critics. They state that Douglas County schools are “an incredible asset,” and that “the unions are fighting Douglas County’s plan to pay teachers based on performance.”
Susan Meek, with the group Douglas County Parents, is concerned about the outside ads, but she’s even more disturbed that the school district’s own non-profit fundraising foundation paid Secretary Bennett $50,000 for his Lone Tree appearance.
“I think probably what’s most concerning right now is, we’re actually seeing money that would have gone directly to the students being diverted away to pay for outside speakers to try to convince the public that it’s working,” she said. “You wouldn’t have people standing out here on the street corner if things were really working.”
The district’s foundation, which typically spends money on classroom programs, has also paid several high-profile education consultants. One of them authored a white paper heralding Douglas County’s policy changes. The school district emailed it to 52,000 parents.
School board member Doug Benevento defends paying the consultants.
“We think that if a private foundation wants to give us money to have somebody come in and take a critical look at the work that we’re doing and validate it or not, that’s of value to us,” he said.
Parents participating in the rallies last month said new issues have come up since the fights over vouchers and teacher pay. Stefania Scott complains the district is paying for expensive niche projects like student personality tests, when her children’s school can’t afford an art teacher.
“It’s not just teachers, but we’ve cut educational assistants,” she said. “Parents have to fundraise for the basic needs in our school, including curriculum. Why we are we paying for a program like this that’s been untested, unproven?”
These parents say things have gotten worse since the new board took over in 2009. There are 10% more students in the district, but 1% fewer teachers. A controversial schedule change in high schools has reduced instructional time for each course by 10 hours.
School board member Doug Benevento, however, says the changes at high schools are working.
"Our [state] TCAP scores are higher in high school,” he said. “Just about every measurement you want to look at, our scores are better in high school than they were, and I think it’s because classes are smaller and kids are getting quality instruction time."
Critics point out that class sizes outside of high school have ballooned 11% since 2009, and that state test scores in almost every grade and subject have dropped. It's now up to the voters to decide whether the district continues on its current path or new board members come in and slow the pace of change.