The JeffCo school-board donnybrook: Get used to it, Colorado

[dropcap]P[/dropcap]opular Jefferson County Superintendent Cindy Stevenson resigned this past Saturday at a school board meeting that one attendee described to the Independent as “a bit of a donnybrook.”

It was that. Stevenson’s supporters packed the meeting, demanding explanations from and shouting “recall” “recall” “recall” at the new majority members, who were elected in November.

Stevenson is a well-respected school official, locally and nationally, who has been superintendent for more than a decade. She has served the Jefferson County district in various roles for more than four decades. The “donnybrook” that erupted over her resignation, which was both unsurprising to and badly handled by the board, was just one more skirmish in the war over education policy being waged in the state, where clashes now seem to come at a regular clip.

Last November, conservative-politics school board candidates won high-profile elections in Colorado to retain control in Douglas County and to win control in Jefferson County. Stevenson had planned to stay through her term, which ends in June, but she decided to exit early because the new majority members on the board clearly planned to challenge her even on “everyday affairs,” as the Denver Post put it. Stevenson said standoffs in recent days built around decisions on what tool to use to evaluate pre-school students, what staff applicants to hire and the need to sign off on appointees to a committee.

Meantime, at the Capitol in Denver, education bills are throwing up sparks every week. A bill aimed at delaying the implementation of the Common Core national curricula standards drew supporters for a demonstration yesterday and is likely to be killed on a party line vote in the Senate Education Committee today. Earlier in the session, a Republican bill that would have provided tax breaks for parents who send their children to private school also failed on a party line vote.

Education policy is now a major site of direct and proxy political power struggles in Colorado, as elsewhere. It’s no surprise. Public education is a vast government project, a source of great cultural power and also a market-sector where billions of dollars flow, paying for teachers, administrators, counselors, buildings, books and lunches and so on. As with health care and energy, education has become an area of public policy where powerful free-market interests are looking to rally grassroots Americans to their cause, which is why groups like the oil-billionaire Koch brothers-funded Americans for Prosperity are now launching issue campaigns and promoting position papers and backing local school board candidacies with the kind of money that used to be reserved for legislative or even statewide races. Observers are understandably wary — of the policy proposals being put forward but also of the motives of the would-be reformers.

Righty blogger Michelle Malkin celebrated Superintendent Stevenson’s resignation this week as a sign of great changes to come. Malkin has long been battling the Common Core standards as “susceptible to left-wing propagandizing” and an instrument of the “big government machine” that squashes liberty and opens up children to invasive Silicon Valley product testing and promotional experiments.

It’s an easy sell. Kids don’t like testing. Parents don’t like testing. Few parents want their kid’s online keystrokes recorded at school with new technologies. But a lot of parents angry about Common Core may not be happy with where the Malkins and the Americans for Prosperity-style advocacy groups are hoping to lead them. As Politico put it in January, this is about “stoking populist anger over the standards — then working to channel that energy into a bold campaign to undercut public schools, weaken teachers unions and push the federal government out of education policy.”

What does this look like on the ground?

[blockquote]The Home School Legal Defense Association is putting the finishing touches on a documentary painting the Common Core standards in ominous terms. FreedomProject Education, a Christian homeschool group affiliated with the John Birch Society, is promoting an hourlong video on the “threats to American liberty” posed by the standards. Even the evangelical group Focus on the Family has chimed in with a video that pivots from the perceived dangers of Common Core to the need to push for expanded school choice. All of this has left supporters of the standards reeling.[/blockquote]

The experiment the would-be reformers are conducting in Douglas County is being celebrated as a success in the conservative mediasphere. But it’s also being decried as an experience that confirms the worst fears of those who believe the “free-marketization” of the school system will mean larger portions of the budget will go to executive-style administrative salaries and larger portions of tax dollars will pour into for-profit education companies and religious schools that will never be as accessible, accepting, inexpensive or accountable as public schools are today.

There will be more donnybrooks.


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