The Corner

A Mixed Tuesday for School Reform

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.

In Colorado’s other good news, voters rejected tax-hiking Amendment 66 by a two-to-one margin. The amendment, which passed the Colorado legislature without a single Republican vote, would have imposed a $1 billion-a-year tax increase on Coloradans in order to fund education spending. Advocates promoted A66 as a grand bargain of new dollars for transformative change, but skeptics pointed out that the fine print seemed to promise an enormous tax increase for modest change. Voters were right to be wary, as decades of experience have taught that new funding is more often an enabler of ineffectual school management than an engine of change. The pro-A66 campaign blew through $10 million or more, massively outspending the opponents, drawing national support from players like Gates and Bloomberg. And it still got thrashed, in a purple state. (An interesting backdrop to the vote in A66: Colorado voters overwhelmingly approved a retail tax on marijuana sales on the same ballot.)

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.

In Boston, a mayoral contest between two Democrats wound up with the union-endorsed candidate knocking off a candidate backed by Democrats for Education Reform. State representative Marty Walsh, a former union official, narrowly beat city councilman John Connolly. Benefiting from $3 million or more in union support, Walsh has called for a tax increase to fund pre-K education and has talked about school reform in a way that’s kept him on good terms with the Boston Teachers Union. The mayoral race was an embarrassing setback for Democratic school reformers: Democrats for Education Reform spent more than a million dollars to support Connolly, and Stand for Children hurt Connolly badly when its clay-footed announcement that it planned to spend $500,000 for him spurred talk of “outsiders” and generated a fierce backlash.

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.


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