Let us not sugarcoat what happened on November 3. Many of us watched in horror as conservative school board members and candidates across the state fell victim to the sheer might of the education establishment and those who support it. It was a tremendous loss for conservatives and the kids and teachers we hope to help. Yet in the midst of catastrophe often lies opportunity, and even now there are glimmers of hope in the rubble.
As I watched this year’s electoral bloodbath unfold, I was reminded of a famous quotation from Theodore Roosevelt. During a speech delivered in Paris on April 23, 1910, he said:
It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.
After this election, there can be little doubt that we have experienced defeat. No one can accuse us of being “cold and timid souls.” Nor can anyone can deny that we spent ourselves in a worthy cause, or that we failed while daring greatly in difficult battles against deeply entrenched power structures. In fact, the sheer scale of this year’s electoral fights—and the resources poured into many districts by the teachers union and its progressive allies to ensure their victory—is evidence of just how important these elections were to those with an interest in preserving the status quo in Colorado.
The past two years have seen a number of major policy shifts. Jefferson County Public Schools signed a collective bargaining agreement that exemplifies how a teachers union contract can—and should—look. The three members of the conservative board majority began paying teachers based on performance rather than simple seniority, and respecting parental choice by funding charter school students fairly. They authorized a new charter school serving nearly 500 Jeffco families this year, stood strong for fiscal responsibility, and have pushed forward with plans designed to help low-income Jeffco students who most need assistance.
In Thompson School District, where the battle over four school board seats was no less bloody and the results no less decisive, the now-outgoing board majority’s tenacious defense of local control in collective bargaining has led to an extremely important Colorado Court of Appeals decision that prohibits judges from imposing union contracts on unwilling school boards.
Regardless of how the court proceedings in Thompson eventually play out, the appeal decision stands as a sharp repudiation of the teachers union’s attempt to use the courts as a weapon at the local level. The Thompson board majority’s move to fund its roughly 1,100 charter students equitably also stands as an important moral victory for parental choice in northern Colorado.
Douglas County’s reform majority remains intact despite the loss of three seats to less reform-minded candidates. More importantly, the district’s important reforms carry on, as does its legal press to empower parents across the country to choose their children’s educational destinies by striking a blow against discriminatory Blaine Amendments before the U.S. Supreme Court.
How the new board majorities will steer their districts remains to be seen. Yet many of these seeds have taken root, sometimes even among those who initially opposed them. While there is no doubt that some policy changes will be reverted to the status quo, many others may prove difficult to alter.
Therein lies the silver lining in this year’s electoral outcome: The commonsense policies brought to the forefront by conservative board members across the state—and the values that underlie them—will live on. This election has proven that while powerful interests can win elections, they cannot kill ideas.
Much work remains to be done.
Every single child in Colorado deserves an education that provides the opportunities necessary to build his or her own story, and to enjoy the dignity that comes with earned success. Every teacher deserves to be treated as a professional by being held accountable for his or her powerful impact on students and their futures, and to be rewarded for hard work and performance rather than constrained by the rigid salary schedules of the mid-20th century. Every parent deserves the right to chart the most effective educational course for his or her children, no matter where that course leads.
These goals cut to the ideas at the very heart of conservatism: Responsibility, freedom, and the inherent ability of all people to build meaningful lives of independence and abundance. Those ideas are far too powerful to be toppled by a single election. I believe the policies that grow from them will prove equally difficult to defeat.
We just have to keep the candle burning.
Ross Izard is an education policy analyst for the Independence Institute, a free market think tank in Denver.