The prospects of meaningful public school reform improving the quality of education in the greater Denver area took a real beating in the recent election. The results in eight metro school districts (Denver, Cherry Creek, Douglas County, Boulder Valley, Jeffco, Adams County, Aurora and Littleton) showed almost a clean sweep for candidates backed by the teacher unions. Out of 17 contested school board seats, union-endorsed candidates won 16 of them.
The one upset was in Jefferson County where a parent, Susan Miller, defeated Joan Chavez-Lee, a former principal championed by the union. But this was small consolation. Miller will now be the only member of the Jeffco board not in the pocket of the union. For one brief shining moment in 2013, Jeffco voters miraculously elected a conservative majority to the board. That spurred a vicious counterattack by the local union bankrolled by its parent, the National Education Association. Professional activists were sent in to reinforce the local union. They vilified the conservatives and organized a recall campaign that flipped the board back to union control in 2015. This was unsurprising. The NEA was desperate to strangle this reform baby in its crib lest it set a national precedent.
Positive reforms in the Denver school district starting with Michael Bennett’s tenure as superintendent, and continuing through Tom Boasberg’s, will now be threatened as well. All three union-endorsed candidates won in Denver, flipping the 5-2 reform majority to a 5-2 union block. The DPS “portfolio strategy” has created a wealth of choices for parents and students with about 60 charter schools and a roughly equal number of “innovation schools” that are publicly funded but independent from the 100 or so traditional district-run schools. These alternatives are popular with DPS “customers” ─ parents and students ─ but are vehemently opposed by the union, which regards school choice as a threat to its monopoly.
While individual teachers may care about the welfare of their students, the first and overriding priority of teacher unions, like any trade union, is the welfare of their dues-paying rank and file. That’s why pay, benefits, job security, pensions, time off, restrictive work rules and other considerations come first. Johnny’s education takes a back seat. Too many parents are naive about the political dynamics of this and allow their affection for the nice teacher that lives next door to blind them to the collective selfishness and intransigence of the union. Trade unions abhor competition among their members and the teacher unions are no different. That’s why they oppose pay or bonuses tied to individual performance, preferring rigid pay schedules based on longevity and post-graduate academic credits, which are a questionable measure of merit.
I’ve been accused by the teacher unions of being an “enemy of public education.” That’s nonsense. A well-educated public is a pathway to societal excellence. I favor rigorous academic instruction in our schools. I’m committed, as well, to our traditional model of publicly-funding universal education with tax dollars. But I don’t believe the best way to do that is through a government monopoly on the delivery of that education in a union-dominated environment with a uniform curriculum or approach.
That’s why I favor autonomous charter schools within a public school district. I also support vouchers that can be redeemed by parents at the private school of their choice. Choice, variety and competition have been the foundation of our economy and free society, and the formula for productivity and success in most every other field. There’s plenty of competition in higher education which is delivered in large part by private institutions.
Opponents of private school vouchers claim this will drain money from public schools. That’s an argument with blinders. Let’s say it costs $10,000-a-year to educate a student in a public school. If that money is dedicated to educating an individual student, why shouldn’t it follow that student to a private school? If a large number of students elected that option, fewer public school students would require fewer teachers, fewer buildings, fewer buses, fewer textbooks and reduce expenses.
Another anti-voucher canard is that private schools aren’t any better than public schools and parents might make bad choices. I’ll leave that judgment to parents who are trusted to make all kinds of decisions for their kids in our society. Why would parents pick an inferior school? Maybe they want a different kind of school.
Those who like public schools will remain, but why deny that choice to others just to appease the teacher unions?
Longtime KOA radio talk host and columnist for the Denver Post and Rocky Mountain News Mike Rosen now writes for CompleteColorado.com.