The five things this election taught us about education politics
Our congratulations go out to new and re-elected board members in Denver and Aurora: Lisa Flores (NW Denver), Happy Haynes (Denver At-Large), Anne Rowe (SE Denver), Monica Colbert (Aurora At-Large), Dan Jorgensen (Aurora At-Large), and Cathy Wildman (Aurora At-Large). We look forward to working with all of you in the coming years.
Tuesday’s election provided an important snapshot on the state of voters’ perception of public education in Colorado. Here are our five key takeaways:
1. Buy Local. While education politics is increasingly influenced by national organizations and trends, local politics, policy and practice matter more. Diane Ravitch, the Koch brothers, the national teachers unions, Democrats for Education Reform, and other national education players can influence local education elections, but they do not trump the local conditions. “Reformers” won in Denver while “reformers” (please see #2 for definition) lost in JeffCO and DougCO.
2. “Education Reform” is a Rorschach. While the term once referred to a fairly specific set of changes, it now means different things to different people. For some Republicans, it’s shorthand for vouchers. For lefty Democrats, it means destruction of traditional district-managed schools. “Education Reform” has been so poorly defined and misused to further various agendas, we think it is time to retire the description altogether, and talk instead about specific changes to policy and practice and what they will mean for kids.
3. Personal experiences matter. Voters care about what their neighbors, friends, and kids say about their school experiences. Policy conversations are too impersonal and parents typically don’t engage where they won’t see immediate changes. School improvement efforts must engage families in ways that allow direct benefits for their children, rather than focus on what can seem like nasty, politically-charged policy debates. We suspect that the pendulum swings in JeffCo, DougCo, and Thompson have more to do with the real or perceived impact on families, than whether voters support policy strategies like charters, vouchers, or pay-for-performance compensation systems.
4. Money increasingly matters in school board races. More money from all sides and places-- locally, regionally, and nationally-- is playing a role in school board races. On the plus side, many school board races will no longer be sleepy affairs where candidates can just “care about kids.” On the negative side, regular folks unconnected to political machines are increasingly shut-out of running in these races, and it could mean that school board members become more beholden to their funders. All of this compounded by the fact that the role of school board members in big districts is similar to being a city council member with responsibility for overseeing even larger budgets and more employees than most cities. Maybe it’s time to consider paying board members of large school districts as we do city council members to ensure that we have a larger pool of quality candidates and board members govern accordingly.
5. In good economic times when needs are well articulated, Colorado voters pass school bonds. Even in more conservative school districts, voters will support tax increases if convinced there is a need for them and that the money will be well spent. We were pleased to see communities support school bonds in places like the Roaring Fork Valley and Brighton that have not always voted in favor of such measures. This bodes well for districts like Aurora assuming the need for the bond and the benefit for kids is clearly defined.
This election season proved once again that it is a challenge to have honest debates about the best means to improve educational outcomes for all our kids. We hope that we can now refocus on understanding what works and does not in public education, so that we can pursue practices and policies which will improve student learning and outcomes.