Standing Up for Real Reform in Colorado

by Jeb Bush

Teachers’ unions want to use a November 5 election to stop education reform in a top suburban district.

Douglas County, Colo., may not sound familiar if it isn’t your home, but if you have been to the Centennial State, the location — about halfway between Denver and Colorado Springs — is probably familiar.

It’s a wealthy suburban area, and not surprisingly, it has one of the highest-performing school districts in Colorado. Students tend to excel and go on to college. Even so, the residents of Douglas County came to a very enlightened conclusion in 2009.

They decided that good wasn’t good enough.

And so voters overwhelmingly elected reformers to the school board. The new board decided that striving to be the best in Colorado no longer was sufficient. Instead, it set a goal of competing “against students across the nation and the world for the most sought-after careers.”

Now, Douglas County is taking on Massachusetts and Maryland, Finland and Singapore.

To achieve this, the district moved quickly to enact a bold set of reforms, unprecedented in a suburban school district with 65,000 students. It has aggressively pushed policies that give parents choice, reward and retain the best teachers, bring technology into education, and hold students to the highest expectations.

The lesson here is a valuable one. Our students are falling behind students from other nations in an academic race that will determine our place in the 21st-century global economy. Our children are, at best, mediocre performers on international assessments in science, math, and literacy.

We have become complacent, and complacency is the bridge to stagnation and mediocrity.

It can no longer be an option for kids at any academic level.

Reform is often associated with turning around failing schools. But in Douglas County, it is being used to turn good schools into great schools.

A pair of American Enterprise Institute researchers recently wrote: “Douglas County is serving as the site of what may well prove to be a critical chapter in the story of contemporary school reform, and the nation should pay close attention.”

To achieve its reforms, Douglas County let its collective-bargaining agreement with the teachers’ union expire. This allowed the district to implement a market-based pay system for attracting and rewarding top teachers.

The district understands that it makes no sense to pay all teachers the same when there is a glut of them in one subject area and a critical shortage in another.

It makes no sense to base higher teacher salaries on advanced degrees instead of student achievement.

It makes no sense to pay teachers according to how long they’ve been on the job instead of how well they do their job.

And in the case of Douglas County, it certainly made no sense to take $300,000 a year out of the education budget to pay union officials who never set foot in the classroom.

Teachers are not interchangeable wrench turners on an assembly line. They are professionals whose individual efforts matter tremendously in the lives of children. By treating them as such, and paying them accordingly, Douglas County plans to become a magnet for the best teachers in Colorado.

The union warned of dire consequences, of teachers fleeing the district in droves.

That has not happened. A statewide survey of teachers shows that those in Douglas County are more satisfied overall than teachers in the rest of Colorado. There is a tall stack of applications from teachers seeking jobs there.

Good people gravitate to where they are appreciated and quality is rewarded.

The school district also gave parents more choice with the nation’s first suburban voucher program, the Choice Scholarship Program, which the ACLU is trying to block. It is ironic that an organization that professes to champion individual liberties opposes giving parents a choice in where to send their kids to school.

It is vital that these reforms continue as a national model, and now this model has become the next battlefield of reform.

Four reform candidates are on the school-board ballot next Tuesday, November 5. They are incumbents Doug Benevento and Meghann Silverthorn, and newcomers Jim Geddes and Judith Reynolds.

The union is doing everything it can to defeat them. It is desperately trying to reestablish itself before time and progress render it an afterthought and anachronism.

But the Denver Post recently endorsed all four reformers in an editorial titled “Retain innovation in Douglas County schools.” The paper called the district’s market-based reforms “an innovative plan that respects teachers and is sure to be imitated.”

You can appreciate how threatening such enlightenment is to union bosses. And the Post is hardly a conservative outlet, having twice endorsed President Barack Obama. Putting students first isn’t a conservative issue or a liberal issue. It’s about our obligation to children and to the nation’s future.

I hope all reformers will join me in supporting Douglas County and the members of its school board who dare to put kids first.

— Jeb Bush is the former governor of Florida.