Yesterday’s elections delivered a mixed bag for education reform. Here’s a rundown of the key developments:
The big news for the day was out of Colorado. In Douglas County, the 65,000-student school district that may be the nation’s most interesting had a crucial board election, in which the reformers earned a knockout victory. County superintendent Liz Fagen, with the support of a unanimous board, has moved to reimagine teacher pay radically, create a universal voucher program, and rethink curricula and testing. Pursuing reforms inconceivable in big cities where unions hold sway, Fagen and the board have sidelined the local teachers’ union and charged forward. This has earned the enmity of the American Federation of Teachers and Colorado Democrats. But in a crucial referendum on the Douglas County effort, the four reform candidates all won, with 52 to 54 percent of the vote, ensuring that the reformers will retain unanimous control of the seven-member board.
One more piece of good news from Colorado: The Denver Public Schools board majority that backs hard-charging superintendent Tom Boasberg won out. The most interesting race was the at-large contest in which former lieutenant governor Barbara O’Brien, a pro-reform Democrat, claimed a seat on the board. One intriguing note on the Denver/Douglas County contrast: The same consultants who backed the Denver “reform” slate also backed the Douglas County “union” slate – and the positions were largely consistent. In other words, the Douglas County reformers are doing things that reform-minded Democrats won’t even consider.
Back east, the news was bleaker. In New York City, as expected, Bill de Blasio swept to victory in the mayor’s race. In the priocess of returning the mayor’s mansion to Democratic control after two decades, de Blasio has not been shy about making his intentions known. He’s denounced much of the Bloomberg-Klein reform agenda, wants to make life tougher for New York’s charter schools, and is seeking a big tax increase to fund pre-K education (though it’s not clear Albany will give him the requisite green light for the tax boost). The most interesting development to keep an eye on in New York is growing chatter that Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers (and previously head of the influential New York City local), may emerge as de Blasio’s choice to become chancellor of the New York City schools.
There was one more promising piece of news from back east. New Jersey governor Chris Christie, in coasting to reelection, showed that it’s possible for governors to take on the teacher unions, public spending, and the education establishment even in the bluest of states — if they’re fighting for real, substantive change. That’s a lesson well worth heeding.
— Frederick M. Hess is director of education-policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute.