Guest Commentary: Now is the time for reform in Jefferson County

April 28, 2014

Dustin Zvonek is the Colorado State Director of Americans for Prosperity.

Dustin Zvonek is the Colorado State Director of Americans for Prosperity.

Jefferson County voters said “yes” to change last fall when they elected a reform-minded group to the school board. It was an exciting and hopeful moment for the county and school district.

While it’s only natural that new board members would take a few months to get acclimated to their new jobs before plunging in, it’s also important for board members to begin taking action on the mandate voters gave them – and to strike while the iron is hot.

Controversy is almost inevitable when you attempt to alter the culture of a major institution — especially one as mired in bureaucratic inertia as the government-run public education system.

We’ve already seen a preview of knee-jerk opposition from the old guard, as many of those comfortable with the old system have begun to register protest and, in some cases, depart.

But an aversion to making a few people uncomfortable cannot be an excuse to walk away from the need for reform.

Reform is what voters demanded when they made their choices last fall, and policymakers should follow through with bold action.

What new board members should know is that a new poll commissioned by our sister organization, Americans for Prosperity Foundation, found that the public isn’t only paying close attention to what the new board is doing – it also revealed strong support for moving ahead with a number of common sense reforms, like promoting funding fairness for charter schools and developing a merit pay system which links better documented performance to higher pay for teachers.

While there’s little doubt that even these modest innovations will draw some fire and flack from special interests and those resolutely resistant to change (such as the powerful teachers’ union), board members can and should begin exploring and debating such options with little fear of alienating the public at large.

Indeed, board members perhaps run a bigger risk, in terms of turning-off parents, by seeming to be passive, risk-averse or intimidated by the shrill voices of a tiny, anti-reform minority.

It’s worth noting, in this regard, that parents and voters in Douglas County — where some really dramatic and exciting reforms have been instituted or attempted — gave those efforts another strong vote of confidence last fall, despite a no-holds-barred effort by teacher unions to reassert dominance in that district.

No amount of union-generated controversy or reactionary rhetoric prevented parents from seeing that these experiments really have been good for the schools and the students.

Results in the classroom spoke louder to voters than those yelling anti-reform rhetoric. But you can’t get results on the ground unless you set some goals and start moving forward.

Naturally, getting the early steps right is important, in terms of building confidence for both board members and the public. So begin with something almost everyone can agree is sensible and fair, like ensuring that charter schools – which are as public as any other public school – receive the same per-pupil funding as non-charters do.

Another reform that polls well, because it just seems to make sense, is creating a merit pay program for the district that rewards teachers based on performance and outcome measures – a common practice in the private sector that for some reason has been taboo in the union-dominated government sector.

Pay for performance is a relatively novel concept in public education, but there are case studies to which the board can look, in trying to determine which approaches are the best fits for the district.

Let’s be frank about it: teacher unions are the biggest single obstacles a reform-minded board faces. It’s a shame that’s the reality, because unions could do so much more good for themselves, in terms of public perception, if they would act as partners for positive change, rather than consistently defending a status quo that fails so many students and families.

Just imagine the benefits schools and communities would see if unions became agents, rather than adversaries, of innovation.

But until unions get aboard, if they ever do, their obstructionism can’t be a reason or excuse to delay or abandon the forward progress voters were endorsing last fall.

There are plenty of potential reforms on which to begin working, aside from the ones I mentioned. But the time for reform is now.

Dustin Zvonek is the Colorado State Director of Americans for Prosperity, the nation’s largest free-market grassroots advocacy group.

Comments made by visitors are not representative of The Colorado Observer staff.

3 Responses to Guest Commentary: Now is the time for reform in Jefferson County

  1. Gregory Peterson
    September 24, 2014 at 6:15 am

    On Tuesday, hundreds of students from high schools across the Jefferson County school district, the second largest in Colorado, streamed out of school and along busy thoroughfares, waving signs and championing the value of learning about the fractious and tumultuous chapters of American history.

    “It’s gotten bad,” said Griffin Guttormsson, a junior at Arvada High School who wants to become a teacher and spent the school day soliciting honks from passing cars. “The school board is insane. You can’t erase our history. It’s not patriotic. It’s stupid.”

  2. George L. Johnston
    September 24, 2014 at 2:20 pm

    Should the Ludlow Massacre be excluded from Colorado history taught in the schools?

    Should that decision be left to the Koch brothers and their minions?

    George L. Johnston

  3. Mark Willis
    September 24, 2014 at 8:37 pm

    Dear Mr. Zvonek:

    Please tell your climate-change denying, government-buying, history-whitewashing paymasters at Koch Industries that their fascist makeover of the educational system did not go over well. Take your paycheck, give David and Charles your best straight-armed salute, and tell them you tried your best.

    Americans for Reality


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