By Ben DeGrow | Special to Colorado Watchdog
The U.S. presidential election may be only four weeks away in one of the prime swing states, but some national players are getting primed for a high-profile 2013 school board election.
On the south side of the Denver metro area, Douglas County has drawn attention for the bold actions of its reform-minded school board. In 2011, reformers prevailed for the second consecutive time at the ballot box, only months after adopting and getting sued for the groundbreaking Choice Scholarship Program.
While the local American Federation of Teachers union worked behind the scenes to shut down the program, it wasn’t until union negotiations were brought out into the open that the hornets’ nest was truly stirred. The union fought tooth and nail to keep its position as the sole bargaining agent and continue district collection of AFT dues.
So the Dougco School Board bid the union adieu and moved on. Now district leaders are pressing forward with developing and implementing a new teacher evaluation and performance pay system, to be accompanied by a battery of balanced assessments to give a fuller picture of student learning than state tests provide.
If the anti-reform forces weren’t focused on an all-out strategy to take back the Dougco School Board in 2013 before the Sept. 6 decision to formalize the end of monopoly union power, they certainly have been since.
Last week AFT national president Randi Weingarten appeared in Denver to tout a union-backed school nutrition program. Several miles away from Douglas County, she nonetheless stepped forward as the face of the opposition to the cutting-edge reform strategies. She attacked the Dougco School Board as being “only interested in its own power” and carrying out a “malevolent” plan that “has undermined the (local) public education system.”
Perhaps it all makes sense to someone who has confused union power with “public education” itself. Anyway, the gloves clearly have come off. But in so many ways Dougco is not Chicago, the home of a highly publicized September strike by another AFT affiliate.
Fighting in the fray this week comes the national group Center for Union Facts with its I Stand for Dougco Kids campaign. As reported by Ed News Colorado, several weeks of TV and radio ads are being run with the clear message that the union is “fighting to block the school board’s education reform proposals.”
The fact that the group is buying precious ad time during a heavily contested presidential election should give a hint at the stakes involved in an off-year school board campaign still more than 12 months away. So does the fact that reform opponents have set up an independent expenditure committee “Douglas Families” with local Democratic activist Stephen Catterall as registered agent.
Both sides are too invested to let time go to waste.
For now, the teachers union in Dougco is out of power. And the next major hearing in the Choice Scholarship Program case, before the Colorado Court of Appeals, isn’t slated to occur in Denver until Nov. 19.
But the battle in Colorado’s third largest school district rages on under the bright lights. Education reformers, union leaders and concerned parents — not to mention other school boards — are paying attention. November 2013 may bring the “most important” election of another kind.