A Victory for Vouchers–in the School Boardroom

Published January 1, 2004

It was the kind of news neither friends nor foes of the school choice movement had expected anytime soon–bannered across the front page of a local newspaper the day after the November 4 school board election in Colorado Springs, Colorado: “Reformists take charge in D-11; Voucher supporters win majority.”

A day later, the education establishment still was catching its breath as the Colorado Springs Gazette followed up with another front-pager, “D-11 newcomers are plotting a revolution; Foursome plans to change system.”

Though the victors in the city’s School District 11 race–Willie Breazell, Craig Cox, Eric Christen, and new board President Sandy Shakes–downplay talk of any revolution, their Election Day sweep among a field of 11 candidates represents no less than a sea change. On their announced agenda isn’t merely an about-face on the establishment’s long-standing hostility to charter schools and vouchers, but also wide-ranging reforms involving school district governance, financial accountability, and parental involvement.

All of which comes on the heels of the Colorado legislature’s enactment last spring of the nation’s most far-reaching school voucher program. Arguably, this latest development, in one of the state’s largest school districts in its second-largest city, is the coup de grĂ¢ce.

Diverse But United

United by core values the new board members say will guide them in reshaping district policy, the reform slate draws on diverse backgrounds. As candidates they cooperated on the campaign trail with the help of some like-minded supporters in hopes of electing a new board majority. Yet each comes to the table with distinct concerns.

Shakes is a retired District 11 schoolteacher and Colorado Springs native who is a political novice but a forceful proponent for shifting the balance of power and funding in a district she served for so long. Drawing upon her decades of experience in the classroom, she is calling for site-based management, moving both money and decision-making authority away from an entrenched district bureaucracy and back to each campus.

The end game promises to be substantial autonomy for each school, in which parents, teachers, and community representatives take the reins on matters ranging from curriculum to budgeting to hiring school administrators. The net effect, as she sees it, will be to put “parents and teachers in charge of the schools our children attend.”

Local businessmen Cox and Christen live in the district’s rapidly growing northeast expanses, where new subdivisions have strained classrooms even as schools in older, graying parts of the district near downtown experience declining enrollment. Among Cox’s goals is to get the district to rethink the way it now buses children miles from neighborhood schools in the northeast to even out enrollment districtwide. One of Christen’s aims, enunciated repeatedly in his campaign, is to make the district better account for its roughly $200 million budget by way of a comprehensive audit.

Breazell’s election comes as vindication for a man who once served as president of the local NAACP and was ousted from that post four years ago because of his support for school vouchers. He’d penned a commentary for The Gazette‘s op-ed page pointing to the potential school choice offered for African-American children trapped in deficient public schools. He was called on the carpet by a national NAACP official and, within weeks, was forced out by his local board.

“All I did was propose [vouchers] as something to be examined by the NAACP leadership,” recalls Breazell, who remains a prominent voice in the city’s black community.

All four of the new board members say they embrace one another’s concerns and want to work systematically toward rectifying each one. Underlying it all is a basic assumption that the district’s bureaucracy has grown inefficient and has fallen out of touch with parents and front-line teachers.

Alongside that is a belief that independently run charter schools and vouchers are a good thing, with the potential to give the district a sharper edge. They’ve pledged their support in implementing the state voucher program.

“We’re not afraid of the competition,” said Cox.

Their first order of business, though, is quelling fears among some district staffers and teachers that the new regime is bent on confrontation. The new board plans extensive outreach efforts, from visiting schools to holding town hall-style meetings.

Such an activist approach to board membership is itself unusual for an entity that long was viewed as more of a civic stepping stone–and a rubber-stamp for district administrators–than a hands-on, policy-making body. Typically, board members used to be vetted by the likes of the teacher union and local PTA chapters.

Now, as some of those same traditional interest groups are suing in court to block the state’s new voucher law, a local school district is openly embracing it. Whether or not that constitutes a revolution, it’s certainly an end to business as usual.

Dan Njegomir, former editorial page editor for The Gazette in Colorado Springs, is with the Colorado Alliance for Reform in Education. His email address is [email protected].