CASTLE ROCK – A four-year struggle pitting Douglas County conservatives and national school reform backers against some of the most powerful liberal organizations in the nation is nearing the homestretch, as voters began casting votes for the hotly contested school board race.
School board races are usually mundane affairs – but not this year and not in Douglas County.
Some spectators are calling the school board race “one of the most important to take place in America in 25 years.”
On one side of the high-profile contest are four union-endorsed candidates who have railed against the sweeping commitment of Douglas County Schools to school choice, performance pay for teachers and Douglas County Schools’ get tough class requirements.
The union-slate – Bill Hodges, Julie Keim, Barbra Chase, and Ronda Scholting – have received an official endorsement and benefited from “an undetermined amount” of indirect financial support from the local affiliate of the AFL-CIO, according to union officials. In the final weeks of the race, the union-ticket also received the key endorsement from the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) one of the country’s most outspoken left-wing groups, and a strident opponent of “choice scholarships.”
“We never had to worry about the school board before,” said Kevin Leung, the ACLU’s lead plaintiff in a lawsuit challenging Douglas County’s choice scholarship program.
Like Leung and the ACLU, most of the pro-union candidates have been loud critics of the parental choice program, and most watchers believe the plan will be repealed if all four liberal-backed candidates prevail.
The nation’s leading critic of charter schools was even more critical of the direction of Douglas County Schools, a school district that currently oversees charter schools that educate more than 10,000 students.
“(M)any parents and public school advocates in Douglas County view the reforms of the School Board as harmful,” said Diane Ravitch, founder of the liberal advocacy group Network for Public Education, which has earned national note for urging for a crack-down on charter schools.
“The policies initiated by the School Board have had teachers’ unions and school communities up in arms… Earlier this month, we announced our strong endorsement for Ronda Scholting in the Douglas County race. She is a candidate who will fight to protect public schools from harmful corporate reform policies.”
But supporters of school reform aren’t without their own arsenal of high-profile backers.
“The most important school board election fight in the nation – and one of the most important to take place in America in the last 25 years – is occurring right now in your backyard,” read a letter penned by local Republican Representatives Frank McNulty and Polly Lawrence, as well as long time school choice champion Senator Ted Harvey.
“Four conservative school board candidates — Doug Benevento, Meghann Silverthorn, Jim Geddes and Judi Reynolds — all believe in the reforms that have taken DougCo schools from good to great. All four are sensible conservatives –common sense people who care about kids, and doing what’s right for our community.”
The Douglas County Republican party have united behind Benevento, Silverthorn, Geddes and Reynolds, endorsing the reform-committed foursome in late summer.
Pre-eminent school reform backers at the national level are also standing up and taking notice about Douglas County’s march.
“Douglas County has put the tenets of contemporary reform to work–but with an unusual, and unusually ambitious, twist,” read a report from the American Enterprise Institute, a well-known national think-tank that supports shaking-up the education status quo.
“The district’s distinctive aim of going from good to great, rather than from poor to passable, is remarkable in the annals of contemporary school reform. For Douglas County, school choice is not seen not as a ‘ticket out’ of failing schools, but a way to encourage customization and to offer more paths for students to choose,” the report added. “Teacher evaluation is viewed less as a tool to weed out poor performers than as a tool for helping good teachers get better and to help reward outstanding performance.”
Good to great is common theme among DougCo supporters. Bill Bennett, who was hired by private grants through the Douglas County Schools Foundation to help refine school board policies, said during a recent swing through Colorado that DougCo was successfully transitioning from “good to great .”
Bennett, a conservative commentator and former Secretary of Education for Ronald Reagan, was rebuked by unions, who said the school foundation had no business consulting with the noted education expert.
The DougCo Foundation brushed off the attack, saying the use of private grants to hire high powered thinkers like Bennett to help implement school reform policies, was entirely appropriate.
Bennett was undaunted.
“(P)erhaps the most promising array of education reforms underway in America today are occurring in the Douglas County School District,” the former education chief in the Reagan Administration said. Bennett compared DougCo’s good-to-great charge as in league with the efforts Jaime Escalante, the teacher famously featured in the movie “Stand and Deliver.”
What Escalante was to under-performing inner-city schools, DougCo is to school reform in suburban school districts that have become content with mediocrity, he says.
“Douglas County’s reforms are large, ambitious, and almost all encompassing,” according to Bennett. “It is a venture forward in education to uncharted waters. It’s bold, courageous, and daring.”
While liberal and conservative intellectuals spar over the wisdom of DougCo’s choice and teacher pay for performance plans, the real fight that matters is the one on the ground, as the election nears the homestretch.
Education unions and supporting local groups have hosted a series of headline-grabbing protests. Their candidates and a union-affiliated organization calling itself Douglas County Classrooms, meantime, is canvassing neighborhoods and funding automated phone calls to support union candidates.
While a sophisticated ground campaign supports their candidate’s, critics of Douglas County school reform have also taken to soaping the names of Scholting, Keim, Chase and Hodges on cars. The painted windows have become a rallying point of defiance for union forces.
Supporters of the conservative candidates take a different view.
“I think the window painting is quote creative, but the liberals should spare us the fiction that their campaign to hijack Douglas County Schools is grassroots,” said Franceen Thompson, an enthusiastic school reform backer who hasn’t been shy about going toe-to-toe with union operatives. “Instead of the four union candidates’ names, they should paint the words AFL-CIO, ACLU, and liberal partisans instead because that is who will be running the school district if they win. Let’s call the window painting what it really is – a clever tactic by liberal community organizers that is part of a far more sophisticated campaign to seize control of the school district,”
Thompson added. “If they were really honest about it, these folks would have kept the Obama stickers on their car too.”
Reform supporters are out with their own barrages in the final days, leafleting neighborhoods and sending mailers to reinforce the conservative credentials and Republican-backing of Silverthorn, Geddes, Benevento and Reynolds.