Activists Hope to Take Winning Colorado Strategy Nationwide

Published November 20, 2013

At the end of a hard-fought and expensive race, four conservative school board incumbents retained their majority in Douglas County, Colorado this November. Local and national political groups now hope to use their victory as a template nationwide.  

Douglas County, one of the five most affluent counties in Colorado, with a median family income of more than $100,000, spearheaded conservative reforms through four board members elected in 2009. In 2011 the school board dropped its union contract and proposed the nation’s first district-run vouchers program. The program is on hold until the state Supreme Court rules on its legality. That same year, Douglas County adopted a merit pay system that tied teacher compensation to job performance measured by student test scores and job evaluations.

Americans for Prosperity (AFP), Jeb Bush, Michael Bloomberg, the American Federation for Teachers, and FreedomWorks were among the many that contributed to the hundreds of thousands of dollars raised for the county’s 2013 school board race after national unions made the board a target.

“[Unions] don’t want this model to survive,” said Ben DeGrow, a senior education policy analyst with the Independence Institute in Colorado. “Douglas County is unlike any school board in the country. They were a target for resistance.”

‘Ripple Effect’
Colorado’s Thompson Valley and Jefferson County also elected conservative school board candidates. DeGrow senses a movement for conservative school reform in the state.

“The school board [in Douglas County] is pursuing an ambitious reform agenda,” he said. “It [is having a] ripple effect. They are pursuing reform on behalf of students and understand the stakes involved.”

During the Douglas County campaign, Americans for Prosperity ran television ads on local cable networks and organized volunteers to walk door to door to inform their neighbors about their “It Works” campaign. AFP-Colorado Director Dustin Zvonek estimates he and his volunteers knocked on more than 3,500 doors.

In a statement, the grassroots organization said, “residents need to remain vigilant about continued reform; otherwise the County will reverse ground and return control of the district to hidebound teacher unions.”

Going Local: An Effective Strategy
Campaigns for the school board seats were less than civil this time. The opposition “made incumbents look bad,” DeGrow said. Social media was the largest muckraking venue, such as an edited video clip that made it appear candidate Meghann Silverthorn called her constituents “uninformed soccer moms who really don’t know the issues.”

Zvonek said if Douglas County’s school board were discredited and voted out, his state would lose ground reformers had fought hard to establish. If the only truly courageous school district lost to the teachers unions, other counties in the state wouldn’t follow their lead.

Zvonek says AFP is planning further state-based reform efforts. “In the 2014 and 2015 elections, we’re looking at school districts that could be the next Douglas County,” Zvonek said. “But we don’t advocate for candidates—we value free-market reforms and talk about how they improve school districts.”

Image by JEF.Europe.