Politics & Policy

The Most Interesting School District in America?

A suburban Colorado county tests the limits of education reform.

When it comes to K–12 education, the nation’s most important election this November may be in Douglas County, Colorado. While most of today’s eye-catching education fights involve high-profile contests in big cities, one of the nation’s most significant struggles may be playing out, largely unnoticed, in this affluent Denver suburb. Here in Colorado’s third-largest school district, with 65,000 students — an enrollment larger than Washington, D.C.’s and as large as Detroit’s — the superintendent and board are pursuing perhaps the nation’s boldest attempt at suburban school reform.

The Douglas County School District is trying to do something truly new. An all-Republican school board has created the nation’s first suburban school-voucher program, introduced market-based pay, allowed its teachers’ union contract to expire, and developed a regimen of home-crafted standards and assessments in lieu of the Common Core (which superintendent Liz Celania-Fagen dismisses as the “Common Floor”). Former Reagan secretary of education William Bennett has opined that Douglas County is “trying to do all the good reforms at once.”

For Douglas County, a critical election looms this fall. Four of the school board’s seven members are up for election, and the Douglas County Federation of Teachers (DCFT) would dearly love to sweep them out and claim the board majority. School-board president John Carson says: “The teachers’ union would like to return to the days of big payouts for union officers, . . . ending choice for students, and rewarding bad performance. This election presents a clear choice between union interests versus what is best for our students.”

For a decade or more, school reform has been an urban tale, dominated by cities with high rates of poverty and dismal academic achievement. Since the urban communities in question tend to be lopsidedly liberal, reform has been largely a Democratic family affair. While debates between teachers’ unions and reform-minded Democrats have been sharp, the permanence of contracts and the inevitability of union influence has been assumed.

Douglas County provides a stark counterpoint to this narrative. One of Colorado’s highest-performing districts, Douglas County boasts an average ACT score of 21.8 and a graduation rate of 87.4 percent. Given the advantages of affluence and already-impressive results, superintendent Celania-Fagen and the school board have chosen not to rest on their laurels but to see if they can dramatically raise the bar.

Using a novel interpretation of Colorado’s charter-school law, Douglas County set up a virtual “charter school” by giving students vouchers worth 75 percent of the state’s per-pupil funding to take to any school of their choice. The ACLU sued over the program, and while the district triumphed in appellate court, the program remains on pause while Douglas County awaits a date with the Colorado Supreme Court. If the district prevails there, it will offer a voucher model that almost any school district could emulate. The Wall Street Journal has noted that this “could transform the debate about vouchers nationwide” by making them relevant “for families who want more than even high-performing public schools have to offer.”

Unwilling to settle for just adding merit raises atop the old industrial pay scale, Douglas County has adopted a market-based pay system. After hiring a former human-resources manager from GE to lead its effort to rethink teacher pay, Douglas County has established five broad pay bands based on the supply and demand for various teaching roles. This allows the districts to pay more for hard-to-find teachers, such as a special-education audiologist, and less for teachers in easier-to-fill roles. For the first time in memory, superintendent Celania-Fagen reports, the district had more quality applicants for special education than they had positions available. Douglas County has shown, with little media fanfare, that it is possible to pay teachers what the market requires instead of being tied to a rigid, union-imposed, one-size-fits-all pay scale.

It’s no surprise that these district initiatives have proven unpopular with the teachers’ union, the DCFT. In any of the Democratic locales where reform typically plays out, the DCFT would be regarded as unusually collaborative. But in Douglas County, reform is playing out in a community where Republicans are the home team. Having swept elections over DCFT-backed slates in 2009 and 2011, board members have felt no need to compromise or slow down. So in 2012, the board simply allowed the DCFT contract to expire.

When it comes to standards and testing, Celania-Fagen thinks the controversial Common Core standards were written “with good intentions to help a lot of [low] performing states and districts,” but are a poor fit for high-performing systems like Douglas County. Unable to find other districts or foundations eager to swim against the tide, Douglas County has created its own set of standards and assessments, organizing hundreds of teachers to review the Common Core and Colorado Academic Standards with an eye, says Celania-Fagen, towards crafting something more “cognitively demanding.” District leadership and faculty worked collaboratively to devise the district’s new “Guaranteed and Viable Curriculum.” The district is going through a similar process to develop its own customized assessments.

While challenging and fraught with complications, this kind of do-it-yourself approach has a lot going for it. It reflects the kind of entrepreneurial instinct one is more likely to see in a cutting-edge charter school than in a high-performing traditional school system. Detractors suggest that the district’s ambition is foolhardy, but Celania-Fagen points out that no one would think it unusual for a 5,000-person company to customize its performance targets and compensation system.

Douglas County reveals some of the ways in which the familiar paradigm of urban reform is an awkward fit in conservative, suburban districts. But high-performing communities can be terrific laboratories for bold solutions. Fueled by a unified board with a coherent vision and a bold superintendent, Douglas County is serving as the site of what may well prove a critical chapter in the story of contemporary school reform. Attention should be paid.

— Frederick M. Hess is director of education-policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute. Max C. Eden is a research assistant at AEI. They are co-authors of the new AEI report “The Most Interesting School District in America? Douglas County and the Pursuit of Suburban Reform” (available here). 


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