Douglas County, CO Parents Spent Years Fighting a Radical 'Free Market' Experiment with Their Schools - and They Won

Newly elected school board members in Douglas County, Colorado unanimously voted this week to rescind a controversial voucher program. Despite a $100,000 media ad campaign by the Koch-funded Americans for Prosperity asking voucher supporters to show up to the board meeting, not a single public comment was made in support of maintaining the program.

The end of the voucher program marks a dramatic end to a years-long battle that began in this affluent suburban community with the election of a GOP-backed slate of school board candidates in 2009. On the one side was a vast network of deep pockets, including Americans for Prosperity, the American Legislative Exchange Committee and the GOP, pushing a divisive and ideological agenda for the local schools. On the other was a group of moms with no experience running political campaigns. These grassroots activists struggled to out-maneuver big dollars and slick marketing, but their hard work finally paid off. On November 7, 2017, voters swept in a slate of candidates who believe in public schools. The Dougco election results should give hope to activists across the country who are fighting to put the “public” back in public education.

A ‘dummy’ charter school

“You’re going to think I’m crazy,” is what Cindy Barnard said back in 2010 when she tried to describe the local school district’s plans for a private school voucher program to a group of Douglas County parents. Developed behind closed doors, far from Dougco, the Choice Scholarship Program would funnel money from the district to private schools that were mostly religious.

Barnard, a mother of two, worked with other parent activists to found Taxpayers for Public Education, and along with the ACLU, sued to stop the voucher program. Defendants include the Douglas County School Board who approved the program, the Colorado Department of Education and Colorado State Board of Education, which helped create and approve the “dummy charter,” that enrolled no students, while attempting to circumvent both the Colorado Constitution and state law that requires a system of public schools funded by public dollars.  

Early court decisions halted the program and deemed it illegal and unconstitutional. The Colorado Constitution, like all states, requires a “thorough and uniform system of public schools,” while the Colorado School Finance Act funds public schools with public dollars. The court ruled decisively against the voucher program, finding that it violated: the forbidding of monetary aid to schools controlled by churches and sectarian institutions; the “no compelled support” of religious sects; the prohibition on public school funds being used for anything but public schools; and that it undermined the provision for uniform school funding across the state; According to Taxpayers for Public Education, each of these violations was found to be “clear and certain.”

Back in 2009, few in DougCo believed that their locally elected school board would intentionally undermine a system that exists to serve children. The idea that a school board wanted to do something bad to public schools, to teachers who work with children, did indeed sound crazy, as Barnard described it. Why was it so hard to believe? Parents inherently want to trust, especially in a school system, and especially when they have children enrolled in that system. And parents had a constitutional basis for that trust. The parents who sued were on their way to proving that a locally elected school board was intentionally trying to undermine a system that exists to serve children.  

Choice and union

The voucher program was tied up in the courts, but the school board was embarking on an ambitious plan to “reinvent American education.” The board had been dominated by a slate of GOP-backed candidates since 2009; they claimed victory again in 2011 with a 7-0 majority. Both times, the slate ran on two words: choice and union.  They were for choice and against the union.  

Dougco parent Laura Mutton remembers the first time she heard the school board members and the superintendent they hired talk about their vision for the schools, it didn’t sound so bad. While the neighborhood schools were doing well, they were creating “a great opportunity to improve education." It would be “new” and “exciting.” In the fifth wealthiest county in the country, the messaging played well to the “Keeping Up with the Jones” mentality of wanting the latest and greatest.

“It was a sham,” says Mutton. “They would say one thing and do something completely different. They knew how to sell it so it sounded good. If they thought you were on board, they would butter you up with compliments so you felt like you were doing something great.” But there was a huge mismatch between what the board was saying and what was actually happening. Take DougCo’s new teacher evaluation system, a program that the district planned to package, market and sell to other districts.

Under the market-based Pay for Performance program, a high school science teacher, for example, would be paid more than a 2nd grade teacher because there is a bigger supply of second-grade teachers. Teacher bonuses for being rated “highly effective” paid pennies per hour of work required to prove effectiveness, if at all.  

And while the board made promises to “get rid of bad teachers” by ending collective bargaining with the teachers union, less than a dozen teachers were dismissed. Meanwhile, thousands of educators fled Dougco’s schools for neighboring districts.

Survival of the cheapest

The “choice” part of the board’s platform involved expanding the number of charter schools in the district. But even as they opened new schools, they were starving them of resources, along with the neighborhood schools. Part of “reinventing public education” seemed to be a survival of the fittest competition between schools to see who could do it “better, faster, cheaper.” When a charter school funding committee discovered that the district had money stored away to pay for needed services but was unwilling to provide it, members sought answers from the district’s chief financial officer. They got nowhere, recalls Mutton. “The decision had already been made, and we were only there so they could say ‘we had a process and we leveled the playing field between charters and neighborhood schools,” both of which were being starved of resources.   

With a GOP political operative in charge of the Douglas County School District communications department, it was increasingly  difficult to remember this was a school district.  As teachers and parents were intimidated, and fear settled in, teachers began to leave—by choice or force—what was once considered a “destination district.” Teachers left in the middle of the day. They were escorted out of their classrooms by police in front of children. One teacher was pulled out of a school in front of his own children. Principals were intentionally targeted and told, “You are going to do this and when parents ask we can say, ‘The principal said so.’”

At its September 2014 meeting, the Douglas County School Board passed an extremely bold resolution that allowed for individual schools within the district to apply for innovation status under the “Innovation Schools Act.” According to the Colorado Department of Education: “The Innovation Schools Act, passed in 2008, provides a path for schools and districts to design and implement innovative ideas and practices, and to obtain waivers from state and local policies and collective bargaining agreements that challenge their ability to execute their ideas.”  

What kind of ideas did the Douglas County School Board have in mind that would give schools similar autonomy to charters?  The most common modifications schools and districts with innovation status had made were around time, school calendar, and personnel. The Douglas County School board, however, appeared to be pursuing innovation status because it wanted the State Board of Education, the same State Board of Education Barnard and others had sued, to waive standardized assessments required by state statute.  Douglas County, it appeared wanted to replace state standardized tests with its own district created tests.  But the question about the Douglas County School Board’s motivations remained. While the district’s scores on state assessments had been steadily declining, officials were still hoping to sell their own testing and evaluation system.  

The Board ultimately dropped efforts to seek “Innovation Status” after efforts to solidify the required community support did not materialize. They did, however, continue to pursue a plan to purchase land and develop a segregated K-8 facility for students with disabilities. With little mention of quality, or meeting the needs of kids, it became apparent that simply the option to go someplace else was somehow supposed to improve teaching and learning. Parents began to worry that students with disabilities would be told, “You can get services in this segregated building or you can keep your kids here and get limited services.  You get to choose.  We empower you.” The separate and unequal K-8 special education facility, however, never materialized.

Strong Schools Coalition

After the 2013 election failed to change the balance of power on the Board of Education, two pictures in the local media spoke to what had happened. One picture showed parents crying because their candidates lost; the other picture showed new board members celebrating with politicians. But while the makeup of the board stayed the same, opinions in the community had begun to shift. What started as pockets of concern regarding the controversial voucher and teacher evaluation systems, the attempts to circumvent state law, and a lack of transparency over public funds, was now spreading. Some parents began to wake up when their own children’s schools were negatively affected. Meanwhile, the exodus of teachers was getting harder to ignore. The refrain was growing louder: “Why are so many people leaving?”

Laura Mutton started the Strong Schools Coalition in an effort to get the facts out about what was happening to Dougco’s schools. She focused in like a laser on high teacher and principal turnover, and the drop in student achievement.

Other grassroots groups of parents and community members were also sprouting.  Facebook groups like SPEAK for DCSD, and Involved Douglas County Teachers and Citizens, and political committees like Douglas County Parents, shared the facts about the impacts of “Reinventing American Education.” Even more important were the heartfelt stories of parents, educators and students concerned about cuts to student program and services, declining achievement, and the loss of morale.  

Dougco now had formal and informal networks of opposition to the school board and its policies. At house parties, coffee talks, retirement communities, or story time at the local library, the conversations were about declining student achievement and a disheartening climate and culture in the schools. When people came to car painting rallies, they were also asked canvass during the election. Parents with two-year-olds in strollers would take turns watching each other’s kids, as they pounded out six or seven turfs. At the doors, they would find families who had moved from out of state, promised a cutting edge district, who would break down in tears and say how awful it was.

Community matters

All of the organizing began to pay off. In 2015, challengers ousted three conservative board incumbents. In 2017 voters finished the job, voting in a slate of candidates that supports sustainable community schools, are committed to accountability and transparency, and plan to once again attract and retain professional educators. It took eight long years, long enough for Barnard, Welch, Mutton and other activists to see their own children graduate from high school or even college. They wonder how long it will take before the current generation of students see the benefit that their own children once had in their community schools.

Is the other side scared off? Unlikely. Public statements indicate that they may be giving up on local school boards for the time being in favor of focusing on state-level power. The voucher program and the legal case, meanwhile, remain in legal limbo. Although supporters of sending public school dollars to private, religious schools saw last summer’s Supreme Court ruling on the Trinity Lutheran case as a path to victory, there is a clear difference between using public money for recycled tires on a playground that the community uses and using public school funds to pay for a private education that requires religious exercise and worship, or compelled support of a religious education.

As for the claims that the recent election was simply a referendum on vouchers, Barnard of Taxpayers for Public Education had this to say: “The 2017 Douglas County school board race was about the public education of 68,000 students. Anthony Graziano, Krista Holtzman, Kevin Leung, and Chris Schor will put student achievement above all else, will stress the importance of a collaborative relationship among all of our public schools, and will ensure fiscal responsibility.” Imagine that!


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