By Joy Pullmann | The Heartland Institute
A fierce battle over a Nov. 5 election resulted in suburban Colorado voters confirming they want market-based education in their school district.
Douglas County, a wealthy suburb near Denver, has perhaps the most innovative school district in the country. Its School Board has, since 2011, voluntarily chosen policies most districts regard with horror: the country’s first district-run vouchers (now tied up in court); a market-based pay scale for teachers; dropping their teachers union contract; rejecting national education standards and tests for locally decided, higher goals; and sponsoring materials and activities for home-school families.
This year, the ousted local union decided to attempt a comeback.
It sponsored a slate of four candidates seeking a majority on the seven-member board to reverse the district’s pioneering efforts. The race caught national attention and campaign donations, including from former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush. The union candidates lost.
Conventional wisdom says suburban voters don’t feel a need for education reform, believing the local schools they pay higher housing costs and a property tax premium for are high-quality, despite the evidence showing otherwise.
To be sure, with high turnout, nearly half of Douglas County voters voted against the pro-market candidates, so clearly not everyone in the district likes the new policies. But typically effective union political organizing still failed against a board willing to risk innovating beyond the status quo.
The election demonstrates that organizing by parents and local citizens can be as effective as unions’ efforts. Douglas County’s School Board flipped pro-reform in 2009 after a deliberate campaign by politically conservative parents under the name Parent-Led Reform.
The parents were sick of contract negotiations held behind closed doors, plans to build schools for nonexistent students under contracts granted to a sitting board member and repeated requests to raise taxes. This sort of behavior is routine for school districts. Rather than rail at national politics they had little chance of influencing, Douglas County residents decided to go local.
Their campaign strategy and favored policies now have a strong track record — three election wins in a row — and Parent-Led Reform is looking to show other grassroots groups how to replicate their success.
As many have acknowledged following President Barack Obama’s election and re-election, conservatives don’t play the political ground game as well as progressives.
A network of government-financed nonprofits, community organizations and political groups such as unions are powerful, high-touch forces against more atomized and politically broad counterparts like chambers of commerce and churches. The results of progressive politics are now so obviously rotten — see the Obamacare rollout and the nation’s horrifying, child-enslaving fiscal condition — that some conservatives have turned to drastic, politically implausible national initiatives such as a constitutional convention.
It’s easy to understand the desperation for a quick fix when big government ruins more and more lives every day. But it has taken our nation 250 years to get into this mess, and one election or attempt to amend the Constitution or a pander-fest to illegal immigration will not get us out.
Shifting our culture back toward individual liberty and personal responsibility will require at least an entire generation of sustained effort, on myriad fronts small and large. For one, America’s statist education system cannot help but produce statists, and that has to change.
The Douglas County election results can and should sow similar efforts around the country to reclaim local institutions to protect freedom and demonstrate effective self-government. There’s never been a more pressing time.