Regardless of the outcome of the recall…
That was the mantra repeated on Sunday by the politicians, school board candidates and conservative education reformers attending an Americans for Prosperity education-reform strategy session.
Among the attendees were the two conservative Jefferson County Board of Education members whose jobs are on the line in the November recall — board Chair Ken Witt and Vice-Chair Julie Williams.
The conference was hosted by the AFP Foundation, a non-profit affiliated with Americans for Prosperity, the libertarian-leaning Koch brothers-funded political advocacy group. The event took place in the heart of Jefferson County, at the Sheraton Denver West in Lakewood.
The session focused on educating AFP members, preparing them for the November election in Jefferson County as well as in Douglas County and Thompson Valley R-2J in Loveland.
At stake for the activists: the direction of the five-member JeffCo school board, which is currently controlled by three conservative members (Williams, Witt and John Newkirk). At Thompson Valley, the board faces a similar fight over its conservative school board majority. The Douglas County school board is waging a battle in court over its decision to allow vouchers that could go to any school, public or private, in the county.
Sunday’s event also included a phone bank where activists called residents of Douglas and Jefferson counties to educate them on issues such as vouchers and pay-for-performance contracts with teachers, which undermine the frequent goals of teachers’ unions.
Speakers told the audience of about 100 that they need not be shy about talking about school choice and what that really means. Real school choice is about putting tax dollars where you want them to go, whether in public, private, parochial or home schooling, said state Sen. Tim Neville, R-Littleton, who is considering a run for U.S. Senate.
It’s also about what’s at stake for kids’ future, particularly in Jefferson County, Neville added.
“Get involved! Bring this fight home!” he urged. “It’s especially important to keep a board that looks out for the best interests of children, parents and taxpayers of Jefferson County, as opposed to one set of special interest groups. That’s what’s at stake.”
Those who advocate for school choice should be prepared to be in it for the long haul, according to Amy Oliver Cooke of the Independence Institute.
“You need to advance choice in education by any means possible,” she said.
For her, that entails being relentless on the long-term vision for K-12, being unconventional and going wherever anyone is fighting for choice.
“We will have your back,” she pledged, noting that local elections often have national implications.
Oliver Cooke also pointed to the 1993 charter school act, signed into law by Gov. Roy Romer. In the past 22 years, parents, students and teachers “have tasted freedom of choice,” she said.
“the reform train has left the station. You’re either on it or still at the station.”
“Regardless of what happens this year, this movement isn’t stopping…This is one battle in a larger battle for school choice,” she added.
Keynote speaker and former Congressman Bob Beauprez also reiterated the school choice message. Like Neville and Oliver Cooke, Beauprez got some of his education in Catholic schools.
What people need to ask, he said, is if freedom is compromised based on where a child is educated: a private school, home school, charter or “a school with a cross on top? Of course not!”
“When will we say ‘enough is enough,’ when will we demand money follows the child?” Beauprez asked.
There’s reason for optimism, said Krista Kafer, a professor at Colorado Christian University, during an afternoon session. “We are making progress!”
She pointed out that 16 states now allow tax credits for K-12 tuition, up from three in 2003. In 2003, only six states had vouchers, but now 14 have them, and those 14 states administer 24 voucher programs.
Peter Hilts of the Falcon School District pointed out that Pell Grants are now used to pay for college tuition at private and religious colleges.
“If we can figure out” how to fund college tuition that way, he said, “we should be able” to do it at the K-12 level.
A second panel, on education policy, included Sheila Atwell of JeffCo Students First, which supports the three JeffCo board members being challenged in recall efforts. Her organization was founded in 2011 to bring more attention to school board elections, and the group provides an alternative voice for parents who advocate for different options for students, she explained. That led them to support Williams, Witt and John Newkirk in 2013.
“We’ll be here on November 4 (the day after the election), regardless of what happens in the elections,” Atwell told the audience. “That’s what parents need to understand – this is a year-round effort. We always have to be vigilant.”
Americans for Prosperity is in it for the long haul, too, according to Rudy Zitti, with the AFP Foundation Colorado chapter.
Michael Fields, AFP Colorado Foundation director, told The Colorado Independent that the group is working to educate Jeffco voters on reforms like those implemented by the board: school choice, pay for performance, equalized funding for charter schools and building a new school without debt.
The Jeffco board bucked union demands and brought in a new pay-for-performance system for school teachers to reward them based on merit rather than a standard salary formula. The board also started paying charter schools the same rate per student that regular public schools get: $1,400 per student rather than $200 per student. Finally, the board approved building a $15 million elementary school in Arvada that they say will be constructed without taking on debt.
“Regardless of what happens in November,” Fields said, “those are the issues we would like to see continued, whatever the board makeup.”
Witt mentioned the same issues in speaking with The Independent. The recall has provided him with an opportunity to talk with JeffCo voters about what’s going on with the school board, he said. That includes setting aside $15 million to build the new school, debt-free and “implementing a pay system that rewards great performance and ensures all teachers get compensation increases.” The new pay system also closes the pay gap for underpaid younger teachers, making the district an attractive workplace for new teachers working in other districts.
“We’ve made great strides,” Witt said.
Williams, however, was less optimistic.
“It can go either way,” she said of the recall effort in her district.
Williams has been the most polarizing figure on the board, beginning with her efforts to change the district’s Advanced Placement U.S. history curriculum. She suggested the curriculum should promote citizenship, patriotism and the benefits of the free enterprise system, and discourage civil disorder. Her proposal led to student and teacher walkouts district-wide, and it was later watered down.
Williams told The Independent she’s working hard to get the message out to voters on “the good things” accomplished by the board, and that she hopes to continue on that path.
Sunday’s event concluded with remarks from several elected officials, including U.S. Congressman Ken Buck; state Sen. Owen Hill, R-Colorado Springs, chair of the Senate Education Committee; and Rep. Paul Lundeen, R-Monument, a former state board of education member.
Photo credit: Dean Hochmann, Creative Commons, Flickr.