The hard left of American politics sits on a stool with three matching legs; the Democratic Party, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), and labor unions. In Colorado, one of those legs just got kicked out from under the goodfellas.
In 2009, one conservative community in Colorado determined to improve the economic and social outlook for their children by upgrading its K-12 education system for the 21st Century. With a voter affiliation advantage of better than two to one, the county Republican Party was able to stack the majority of the local school board with conservatives by effectively broadcasting its endorsements.
The teachers union, an affiliate of the ACLU, was certainly concerned. Like their model for nearly every other large school district in the U.S., they maintained a happy control of the board, the labor force, and the superintendent.
The community’s desire for relevant, world class preparation of its youth simply was not part of the education establishment’s equation in 2009. There were many a great teacher who stood tall in the face of the systemic stagnation. But Douglas County Colorado wanted, and their young students deserved, a rising tide for all boats.
The community leadership recounts today that they did not, at the time, realize the big fight that they were picking four years ago. The Douglas County School District operates on a half-billion-dollar annual budget for its 61,000 students, 3,200 teachers and 70 schools. And the teachers union enjoyed $1,300,000 in dues every year with nearly zero expenses, as the school district was also picking up the salaries of their leadership.
The county GOP had never before paid attention to the Board of Education election, as it was officially “non-partisan.” But after significant internal debate, the party selected a slate of four conservatives and launched a campaign. With the threat of disruption, the union responded with its slate. The total dollars spent to elect the four conservatives in 2009 was approximately $120,000. The community responded enthusiastically, with an average of 60% of the vote going to each of the four conservatives.
This was an investment that paid quick and substantial dividends. A driven, innovative, and visionary superintendent was hired; a human resources director was recruited from General Electric; a pay-for-performance program was implemented; and a voucher program was developed in coordination with several local, private and even religious-based schools. The ACLU sent its team of lawyers to challenge the voucher program, which is now in its third round of legal escalation. At this point, the school district is ahead in the judicial scoring.
The year 2011 brought the second round in the Douglas County School Board elections. While the conservatives controlled the majority, the other three of the seven seats were open for election by the community. The conservative supporters needed to double their prior campaign investment to about $250,000. The conservative sweep established a unanimous board of professionals and parents who shared the vision of transforming the district into a training environment worthy of their children.
The community soon began getting the results it was seeking, with nearly every performance measurement moving in the right direction. The union was still in place, but not in control. But rather than responding to the hopes and desires of the taxpaying citizens of Douglas County, union leadership decided to fight progress. In doing so, they picked the most unfortunate of strategies: assaulting teacher morale.
There was nothing constructive in the union’s attempt to remain relevant. Finding their presence far more deleterious than beneficial, the new board arrived at an impasse with union leadership and disengaged them from the district. Since July 1 of 2012, there is no collective bargaining relationship with the teachers union in Douglas County Colorado.
The third election cycle in this scenario came to a conclusion on November 5, 2013. Union operatives descended on the Denver suburb en masse with an impressive army of ground troops, signage and social media all led by a former Obama campaign strategist. It is estimated that the union challengers spent nearly one million dollars in their attempt to retake the Castle Rock, Colorado headquarters. But the conservatives stepped up as well, with an enormous effort that included radio spots and television ads – all over four unpaid positions that normally would draw the attention of very few voters.
But the implications for teachers unions is enormous. If Douglas County Colorado can provide world class education for its citizens without their involvement, what is their importance – especially to the educators?
Well, the conservative slate did win.All four seats were retained with an average majority vote of 52%. The reform plan is now assured to have the time that it needs to manifest. But the victory reached even further. Encouraged by Douglas County’s boldness, other Colorado counties voted conservatives onto their school boards on that same election day. Two other communities captured majority conservative control, including Colorado’s largest school district, Jefferson County, with 85,000 students.
While the political battle has recently been a challenge for conservatives nationally, the center of the country is providing tremendous encouragement. Mountains are moving. Tectonic plates are shifting. I would even say that we have a plethora of positive progress.