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Union Lies May Squash Successful Colorado Education Reforms

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of

Colorado teachers unions are working hard to erase the gains in student achievement that parents want by trying to defeat reformer Douglas and Jefferson County school board members in upcoming elections with national implications for educational transformation.


Three years ago an educational revolution was afoot in a prosperous Colorado county and the teacher’s union didn’t like it one bit. Several hundred angry demonstrators in identical union t-shirts waved signs, hissing and booing in protest as the Douglas County School Board made the shocking decision that taxpayer dollars would no longer pay salaries totaling $300,000 to teacher’s union executives who never spent a day in the classroom. One $65,000 union organizer’s salary was being paid out of the district’s lunch money!

The board also voted to stop collecting union dues from employee paychecks, amounting to $1.3 million in taxpayer money (which is actually where teacher salaries come from) that ultimately end up funding Democrat candidates’ campaigns.

The union’s historic death grip on education in Douglas County ended at that meeting in September of 2012 when its leaders wouldn’t agree to halt these traditionally corrupt union practices. The nation took notice, and other education reformers felt a thrill up their chalk boards. But this November, three school board reform-minded incumbents, Kevin Larsen, Craig Richardson and Richard Robbins, may be ousted as the union fights to rise again.

A similar smack-down could await reformers in nearby Jefferson County as a recall election gathers steam from union organizers panicked that the JeffCo school board may be taking lessons from Douglas County. Ken Witt, John Newkirk, and Julie Williams, the three new board members elected two years ago by margins of 8 to 22 percent over their challengers, are being outspent by the union-backed candidates using the familiar kid-centric slogans of union propaganda: “For the Children” and “Take Back Our Schools.”


The Jefferson County board members are targeted with defeat because of their radical moves to increase parental choice by increasing charter schools – which many don’t realize are actually public schools. And by the teacher’s union’s number one bugaboo: performance pay. Could surgically removing the teacher’s union, as happened in Douglas County, be far behind?

Though the local media doggedly calls the incumbent reformers “conservatives” it’s time for some truth-in-labeling here. In reality, the union-loving challengers are the conservatives who want to go back to the bad old days, while the forward-thinking incumbents are the ones who have successfully driven “progressive” change. The contested issues all terrify the traditionalists who have overseen public education’s long downward spiral: huge issues like merit pay for teachers, school choice including charter schools and vouchers, and union dominance of education.

The liberal Denver Post in its editorial urging rejection of the recall pointed out several untruths that are actually printed on the JeffCo recall ballot. Among them that the board “wasted millions of dollars” and that teachers are leaving the district in record numbers due to board actions. Scolded the Post, “Recall activists have policy disagreements with the conservative majority and are misusing a process that should be reserved mainly for malfeasance and corruption, or when the official can't do the job.”


The true measure of reform’s success is student achievement. In Douglas and Jefferson Counties, the rigid union seniority-based pay scale that made it virtually impossible to fire bad teachers is gone. Instead, the performance-pay system designed by the teachers themselves gives educators the opportunity to be rewarded far above union pay scale according to their teaching skills, resulting in better teachers and better student learning. In Douglas County, success means ACT/SAT scores at all-time highs, better on-time graduation rates, and the district being becoming only one of 15 of Colorado’s 174 school districts “Accredited with Distinction by the Colorado Department of Education.”

Critics decry the reforms, claiming teachers are “demoralized” by the “punitive” merit-pay system. Yes, it’s very likely the underperforming teachers rated “partially ineffective” or “ineffective” by the achievement standards are demoralized, and in fact they leave, accounting for much of the turnover the other side cites.

But isn’t that what should be happening? Parents who want their kids taught by excellent teachers won’t be upset by the turnover, which is in line with other Front Range school districts. Rather, they will be very happy to know that Douglas County is retaining 95% of the teachers rated “highly effective” and 90% of the “effective” teachers. Great teachers are the key to great education, studies say.


Even as they march with “Respect Our Teachers!” signs the teachers unions consistently deny these professionals the basic right to be paid according to their proficiency with salaries based on their talents and achievement. How is that respecting them? Why do teachers unions all over the country deny educators the right to profit from their talents and abilities as does every other career professional? Similarly, though charter schools are public schools and increase parental choice, the union accuses them of being a danger to “public education.”

It’s time parents understand that the unions are on a mission to strangle the very priorities that parents have for their kids: more school choice and great teachers who are paid according to their excellence.

True to the Democrat ideology, President Obama, despite his lectures about equality and opportunity for all, keeps trying to kill the Washington D.C. program that gives about 1,400 poor black and Hispanic students scholarship vouchers to attend private schools instead of their failing neighborhood schools. In 2011 he was shamed into continuing the highly successful program, as D.C. parents protesting its end marched on the Capitol. But there’s no money in the president’s 2016 budget for the program; apparently his ideal of fairness doesn’t extend to letting poor kids sit next to his daughters at the exclusive Sidwell Friends private school.


Unions fiercely fight the undeniable success of school choice because private school teachers are often not unionized. Also their students’ achievements spotlight by contrast the local public schools embarrassing inadequacy.

Let’s not kid ourselves, this is not about the kids or even about education but instead all about the money: the hundreds of millions in dues the union collects from teachers’ salaries and pours into Democrat campaign coffers. There is just one question on the Douglas County and Jefferson County school board ballots: will voters allow the teachers unions to return triumphant to erase the gains of the free-thinking, union-scuttling school board members who have given parents kids who are learning more from teachers who are performing better? 

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