Colo. school board election recap: Voters stick with market-based experiment

It was pretty much a clean sweep for the public education “reform” movement in Colorado this week, as market-based school-choice candidates prevailed in the Denver and Douglas Counties school board races being watched by education wonks around the nation.

In Denver, Superintendent Tom Boasberg won a 6 to 1 majority for his agenda. Former Lt. Governer Barbara O’Brien, Rosemary Rodriguez, and Mike Johnson were elected for the first time, while incumbent Landri Taylor (who was appointed in March) held onto his spot.

In Douglas, the free-market champion incumbents backed by the conservative politics oil-billionaire Koch brothers fought off a tough challenge to win reelection. The board in Douglas has become a darling district of the reform movement for embracing a bold program of controversial initiatives, like its full-bore voucher system and merit-based pay scale. The programs have incited an uproar in the community and drawn costly litigation.

Many viewed the races as referenda on the reform movement and its success or failure so far. The opposition candidates who lost this week promised to work to make neighborhood schools better and to challenge ascendant school-choice initiatives, charter-school development and an evaluations system based largely on student testing.

“The reason I came up short was a function of reach,” said Denver Board at-large candidate Michael Kiley. “It was carrying the message out. It wasn’t so much about policy. The people I talked to, at least, wanted the neighborhood school their kid could walk to. They wanted after-school sports, honors, world languages and music.”

But now that O’Brien will take the spot instead of Kiley, he said he’ll root for the board’s success.

“Now that the voters have spoken, I am rooting for this board to be bold, to be decisive.”

The races showcase an increasingly politicized and costly election processes for the public-servant positions that no one wants to admit is politicized and increasingly dependent on campaign money. But it has become clear that national groups on both sides of the political divide have turned Colorado into a petri-dish of education policies. Direct and indirect campaign contributions amounted to hundreds of thousands of dollars in the Denver races and the Douglas races — although the great majority of the money went to the reform candidates.

Reformers in Denver benefited from the Great Schools Denver PAC, which raised $205,000. New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, a reform aficionado, contributed $75,000 to the PAC. One reform candidate, Barbara O’Brien, raised more money than the entire slate of neighborhood schools candidates.

Koch-funded Americans for Prosperity spent $350,000 in ads promoting the Douglas County reform incumbents. The American Federation of Teachers union gave $230,000 to support the challengers.

The reform movement in Denver is approaching its ninth year. So far, marked new-level success for the district students has proven as elusive as in the past.