The Clean Slate was solidified in a Jefferson County living room.
By the time the five school board candidates had arrived there that early September evening, most had already endured a five-month recruiting and vetting process.
Now they were hashing out where they agreed and parted on issues such as linking teacher pay to evaluations and how they could work together to restore harmony in Denver’s western suburbs after two years of controversy.
The architects of this coordinated effort were not political operatives, but a team of six Jefferson County mothers who previously had the ear of the school district’s superintendent and felt shut out of the process after three conservative school board members were elected as a slate in 2013.
The candidates who ultimately came together are part of an evolving political chess match that grows out of a long tradition of finding strength in numbers. By banding together, school board candidates up and down the Front Range and across the nation gain a leg up in raising money, spreading a cohesive message and cutting through the noise of what can be crowded ballots.
That cohesiveness is seen as a considerable advantage as once sleepy school board elections become less about local issues and more a proxy war for a national education debate that pits teachers unions against modern day education reformers.
“This slate didn’t happen because of cliques in Jeffco, but because there is a national agenda to take over public education,” said Kelly Johnson, one of the mothers behind the slate that wants to reset the entire county’s school board.
Slate politics are nothing new
Political slates were born out of the Progressive Era of the 1930s.
Fed up with the contemporary political machines that controlled and corrupted many large U.S. cities, members of the business class sought to reform municipal elections, said Luis Ricardo Fraga, co-director of Institute for Latino Studies at Notre Dame, who has studied nonpartisan elections for most of his career.
“The whole idea was to get political parties out of city politics,” Fraga said.
But after the successful adoption of nonpartisan elections, business and community leaders ended up building their own machines and slates on behalf of their interests.
Political slates became so common that after the Voting Rights Act of 1965 went into effect, the U.S. Department of Justice monitored slates in the South to ensure black communities weren’t shut out of the electoral process.
For much of the 20th century, the most common slates in school board elections featured candidates who won endorsements from local teachers unions, said Terry Moe, a Stanford University political scientist and union critic.
That’s because teachers have the biggest material stake in school board elections, Moe said. Their livelihood depends on decisions made by the school board.
“If you go back in time, unions were the only organized force,” Moe said. “If you were a school board member and the union didn’t like you, you were in trouble.”
The birth of the modern school board slate
Much of today’s school board politics can be traced to the 1999 Los Angeles school board election, when Mayor Richard Riordan hand-picked a slate of candidates to run against four incumbents backed by the city’s teachers union.
The mayor, with help from the business community, identified and bankrolled candidates who would challenge the status quo and usher in reform policies that would weaken union control. then bankrolled their campaigns.
Those tactics employed in major cities are now at play in suburbs and smaller metro-areas. In Colorado this election season alone, slates that fit this definition and their opposition are campaigning in the Douglas County, Colorado Springs District 11, Aurora and Thompson school districts.
In helping candidates raise money, these organizations also identify key policies and messages such as school choice to influence local debates regardless of location.
Funders and education-reform advocacy groups such as Students First and Stand for Children, in an effort to gain more traction with voters, are changing what matters in local school board elections, said Michael Hartney, a professor at Lake Forest College.
“They’re mainstreaming or nationalizing the debate,” he said. “Most voters don’t pay attention to school boards. To me [slates] give voters more knowledge.”
By creating flashpoints — like disagreements over teachers evaluations — policy debates can happen at the local, state and federal level and gain more traction, Hartney said. That, in turn, creates a more engaged voter.
“It’s about attention,” he said.
Unions and their supporters have been losing strength for decades, labor expert and author Philip Dine said.
Education reform efforts are further eroding the power of unions.
“Labor is doing whatever it can to fight back,” Dine said. “So they’re doing a lot of creative things whether reaching out to the public or forming alliances with other organizations.”
Locally, the Jefferson County teachers union launched a campaign, Stand Up For All Students, complete with T-shirts, buttons and county-wide protests to draw attention to the school board majority.
While the Jefferson County Education Association has distanced itself from the recall, it was messaging developed by Stand Up For All Students — that the school board majority lacked transparency, wasted tax dollars and was disrespectful — that ended up on the recall petition.
And the union has endorsed and contributed to the Clean Slate.
But the union also has been busy working behind the scenes on other projects outside of the recall that might generate even more goodwill with a community unlikely to support unions.
Throughout the year, the union teamed up with parents and a national foundation to host hundreds of house parties and conduct a survey to craft a platform for unity. The platform, which will be released in final form after the election, calls for more collaboration between teachers, parents and school board, funding for early childhood education, and less testing.
Consequences for governance
Not all slates lead to radical change.
Some teams, like a 2013 school board slate in Greeley, end up not being fully elected.
In other instances, former allies turn against each other.
That’s what happened in Colorado Springs’ District 11 when a conservative slate backed by real estate developer Steven Schuck was elected in 2003.
According to The Gazette, the four-member slate attempted to launch a voucher program but was unsuccessful. They hired and fired a new superintendent within a year. And a power struggle ended in a recall of two reformers.
Another potential consequence of increased polarization at the local school board level is governing paralysis tantamount to Congress, which continues to be less and less productive, political consultants and education researchers said.
Some observers of Denver Public Schools pointed to a 4-3 split on the board as one reason why student achievement didn’t improve more quickly between 2009 and 2013.
And political acrimony between reformers and unions in Washington D.C., and Chicago made headlines, but little progress for students.
“The day when you were elected to school boards, because you were a leading citizen or you wanted to fulfill your civic duty, those days seem to be from a bygone area,” said Denver-based independent political analyst Eric Sondermann. “Now you almost have to have an ideological agenda on one side of divide or another. I think there is a real danger to this.”