The Big Apple and Little Dougco
Last week, the nation’s biggest city and a county in Colorado went in diametrically opposite education reform directions.
On Election Day, there were several outcomes that affected how education will be conducted across the country. Perhaps the most dramatic took place in New York City and Douglas County, CO.
In New York, after several years of steady education reform gains under the 12 year leadership of Mayor Michael Bloomberg, NYC would seem to have done a 180 in electing new mayor Bill de Blasio. Peter Meyer’s Education Next headline posed the question that many reformers are asking, “Will Mayor de Blasio Turn Back the School Reform Clock?” The author wades through the troubling details of de Blasio’s reactionary education plans. Perhaps the most damaging is his promise to “kill city charter schools by a thousand cuts.”
De Blasio has said that he would cap their numbers, stop letting them share space with traditional public schools, and start charging rent for existing colocations. The Democratic candidate’s public comments against charters, among the most significant of the Bloomberg reforms, have convinced many reformers that de Blasio is a real threat to continued progress in the city’s schools.
Meyer then quotes former NYC schools chief Joel Klein, who says that stopping colocation or charging rent for space would be absolutely catastrophic. “It’s not just bad for the charters, but for the children…. Charter schools are public in every meaningful way…. The public schools don’t pay rent, the charter schools, which are serving the same kids, shouldn’t pay rent.”
Manhattan Institute senior fellow Marcus Winters adds, “Colocations are a fiscal necessity for New York’s charters … since they get no capital funds from the state.”
Also weighing in is Fordham Institute’s Chester Finn who maintains that, “De Blasio’s education agenda is full of hot air.” Finn takes the mayor-elect to task for his wrong-headed and meaningless reform ideas, such as his intention to “fix” but not close failing schools and his call for useless and expensive “across-the-board class-size reduction.”
The most shocking part of de Blasio’s agenda is his interest in appointing American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten as NYC schools chancellor. Talk about the fox guarding the hen house! (Mr. de Blasio might benefit from viewing the video of a 2010 event in Manhattan where Terry Moe, Rod Paige and I debated Weingarten and two others. The question was whether teachers unions have been the primary reason for education’s failure in NY and elsewhere. Weingarten had a very difficult time trying to defend the unions’ disastrous policies and convince the 500 or so attendees that they were a force for good in public education. Her team lost by a landslide.)
Actually, the idea of appointing the union leader as superintendent is not new. Steven Brill proposed just that in Class Warfare, claiming that if politically moderate Mayor Bloomberg chose her, it would be his “ultimate Nixon-to-China play.” But as Joy Resmovits reports
Brill doesn’t think the appointment would work in the context of a de Blasio administration. “A traditional Democrat appointing Weingarten would be seen correctly as a big step back from reform,” he said.
Is Weingarten interested in the job?
She is denying it, but there are reports that she wants it. Richard Johnson in the New York Post writes,
“She wants the job, and de Blasio’s people have been making calls, asking about Weingarten and testing the reaction,” said one well-placed source in the public education sector.
“The idea of putting a union chief in charge of a school system is mind-boggling,” said a political consultant. “It strains credulity that de Blasio would go that far.”
Meanwhile, across the country, a county just south of Denver went in the opposite direction on Election Day. AEI’s director of education policy studies Rick Hess sums it up in National Review Online:
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.
Hess’ comment about sidelining the teachers union has its roots in 2012 when the Dougco board cut ties with the Douglas County Federation of Teachers. This is not a possibility in all states, but Colorado has no defined state labor law, which gives school districts a lot of leeway in bargaining with the local teachers unions. As Ben DeGrow, senior education policy analyst for the Independence Institute, wrote in September 2012,
On Wednesday, 18 months after adopting a groundbreaking local private school choice program, the Douglas County Board of Education once again set the bold reform standard. Elected leaders of the 60,000-student school district immediately south of Denver, Colo., unanimously voted to cut ties with the teachers union, and to keep taxpayer dollars and district resources from underwriting union politics.
But is anyone paying attention to what goes on in Douglas County?
Politico reports that, “Politicians and educators from as far as Arizona, North Carolina and Texas have looked to model their own reforms on Douglas County.”
And in the Daily Caller, Casey Givens writes
Colorado has been a Petri dish for political reform for decades. From the Taxpayer Bill of Rights spending limit of the early 1990s to the innovative electioneering that turned the red state blue in 2008, conservatives and liberals alike have used the Centennial State as a laboratory for new ideas to be tested and later replicated across the country. If what happened in Colorado truly spreads to the rest of America, choice may soon be coming to a schoolhouse near you.
Interestingly, in October, the peripatetic Weingarten took time off from her busy schedule to go to Colorado and took a serious swipe at the Dougco school board. According to the Ed is Watching blog, she said that the board is
only interested in its own power. Douglas County schools used to be on the cutting edge in Colorado. But rather than respect the staff, for political and malevolent reasons the board has undermined the public education system that once was known as the jewel of Colorado.
Undermine public education?!
I’m sure that the reform-minded Coloradans weren’t exactly bothered by Randi’s hyperbole, nor were they crying in their Coors when she exited the state. Weingarten would be advised to hunker down in NYC where she has a new BFF in the recently elected mayor and her malign old-world ideas – tenure, seniority, step-and-column pay scale for teachers, anti-school choice, etc. – still have some currency. The NYC voters may deserve what – and whomever – they get as mayor and chancellor, but 1.1 million school kids surely don’t.
Larry Sand, a former classroom teacher, is the president of the non-profit California Teachers Empowerment Network – a non-partisan, non-political group dedicated to providing teachers with reliable and balanced information about professional affiliations and positions on educational issues.