Reform schooled 

Recent election defeats have school-board reformers plotting a new strategy

In the wake of a series of school board election losses for so-called "reform" candidates statewide, the conservative Independence Institute's Jon Caldara sent an email to supporters.

"We lost in Douglas County, Thompson, Steamboat, Eagle, Colorado Springs, Mesa, Adams, Greeley, and oh yeah, in Jeffco [Jefferson County] too," he wrote. "I won't sugarcoat it. It was a shellacking."

Jeffco voters replaced an entire school board, electing two new members through traditional elections and replacing the other three through a recall. The board had been controlled by a combative, reform-minded majority, and the election was contentious enough to garner as much as $1 million in campaign dollars, by some estimates.

Here in Colorado Springs, the contest was more modest. About $100,000 was spent in the District 11 election, based on Colorado Secretary of State records. D-11 reform candidates Jeff Kemp, Karla Heard-Price and Dan Ajamian together raised just $6,543. They were easily beat by incumbents Elaine Naleski and Nora Brown, and newcomers Martin Herrera and Theresa Null. Brown alone raked in $11,525.

This year's D-11 reform slate brought back memories of a 2003 slate that won seats on the board and subsequently caused havoc, leading to the recall of some members.

The defeats across the state paint an ugly picture for those who seek to weaken or kill teachers' unions while favoring vouchers, charter schools, and greater scrutiny of teachers (including policies like "pay-for performance" that base teacher salaries partially on their students' test scores). Caldara, however, says the recent election results aren't what they seem, insisting that his data show those policies are quite popular with voters.

"What it seems to be is that voters love the reform policies — they hate the personalities," he says bluntly. "And the personalities in JeffCo certainly had their troubles."

In other words, the school board candidates running on reform policies are viewed as, well, too aggressive.

"The lesson is people don't like the noise," he says. "They don't like the controversy."

Naleski believes voters also dislike the policies. It's not fair to judge a teacher on one test [PARCC] that students are required to take, she says. She also thinks voters have their doubts about charters. While some fill important roles, she says they don't always have the same accountability of regular public schools, which answer to an elected board.

"The people who pay the taxes should have a say," she says.

Brown has similar criticisms.

The reform boards "keep pushing for vouchers," she says. "And those keep getting voted down, and they keep kind of bringing them back with a different name ... and I think that voters are seeing them for what they are and seeing those don't really support public education."

Still, both Naleski and Brown say they expect more reform candidates to run in D-11 in the future.

"There's another election in two years," Brown says, "so I wouldn't be surprised if they were to start early getting candidates to run."

Caldara confirms that the Independence Institute will continue to support candidates who share its ideals — as well as encourage existing boards to adopt reform policies.

"The Empire struck back," Caldara says, "but the Jedi will return."

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