Even as voters elsewhere, most notably Virginia, lashed back at candidates promoting highly progressive public education agendas, Denver’s electorate Tuesday voted in a school board that marches in lock-step with local, state, and national teachers unions. Four union-backed candidates won election, joining three union incumbents, making the board a 7-0 juggernaut.
What this means for Denver Public Schools will become clearer in the coming weeks and months. But it surely spells trouble for the city’s robust charter sector, as well as for semi-autonomous innovation zones and innovation schools.
The winners were incumbent board President Carrie Olson, Xochitl “Sochi” Gaytan, Scott Esserman, and Michelle Quattlebaum. Gaytan in particular is hostile to charters and choice. Esserman is tightly tied to incumbent Tay Anderson, who calls the new board a “union super majority.”
It is difficult to draw sweeping conclusions about the meaning of Tuesday’s vote, in part because turnout was abysmally low—precisely how low should be known later this week. But anyone claiming a mandate is blowing smoke. And even among the small number of Denverites who cast ballots, many chose not to bother voting in the school board races. Other ballot issues—questions on homelessness and land use, most notably—garnered far more attention.
Nearly complete results show that 17 percent of those who cast ballots in the Tuesday November 2 election didn’t bother voting for a candidate in the race for the citywide at-large school board seat. In the three geographic district races, the number of under-votes was even larger. In the diverse northeastern district, almost one-quarter of people casting ballots ignored the race for a school board member to represent them.
So, why did the forces opposing school reform gain strength? This will be a subject for debate and retrospection for some months to come. But it’s not too soon to draw a few conclusions.
First, in an environment where school board races draw little attention, and where the number of credible reporters covering education has dwindled, the vast majority of voters know little to nothing about candidates and issues.
This is why union endorsements carry far more power than the money pumped into these elections. Unions can marshal members to walk door-to-door promoting their anointed candidates. Never underestimate the power of a teacher knocking on someone’s door and saying “these are the candidates who support kids, teachers, and public schools. Please vote for them.”
Second, pro-reform coalitions seem slow to learn the lesson that money can’t buy election victory. Independent expenditure committees that supported candidates who tilted toward reform spent well over $1 million on mailers, canvassing, and social media advertising. It made no discernable difference to the outcome. Why? See number one above.
Third, and we hate to say this, but as we outlined in our recent “Dismantling Denver” article, negative campaigning and fear tactics seem to work. The union-funded expenditure committees sent out the only negative campaign mailers in this cycle, stoking fears about candidates who, the mailers contended inaccurately, support having unqualified teachers in classrooms and favor endless high-stakes testing.
So, what’s next? Denver Public Schools are facing several years of declining enrollment. Look for the new school board to do everything in its power to stop the growth of the charter sector and to deny renewal applications for existing charters.
In a similar vein, thriving innovation zones made up of district schools, and some of which are run by autonomous nonprofit boards, face an existential threat. The Denver Classroom Teachers Association dislikes the zones, and therefore the board is likely to take them on aggressively.
Denver’s unified enrollment system, which makes it easier for parents to enroll their children in charters, is under threat, as is the district’s student-based budgeting system. To the extent that the district can curtail state tests, it will do so. Dismissing ineffective teachers will become more difficult.
Alex Marrero, Denver’s new schools superintendent, is likely to face stiff challenges, as an assertive board attempts to set the agenda. While the current board has given a great deal of lip service to the concept of policy governance, in which the board sets policy while giving the superintendent the power to implement it, it is hard to imagine this new board allowing Marrero the freedom to lead the district effectively. If the previous board had a tendency to micromanage, look for that problem to grow worse with the new board.
As we wrote in “Dismantling Denver,” Denver Public Schools made steady if inadequate progress over the past decade-plus. While we’d like to believe that progress will continue, these election results give no cause for optimism.
Alan Gottlieb is a Denver-based education writer and co-founder of Chalkbeat. Parker Baxter is scholar in residence and director of the Center for Education Policy Analysis at the University of Colorado Denver School of Public Affairs.
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