Building on recent successes, Colorado’s teachers unions sharpened their political operation and took advantage of an unsettled national electoral climate to score victories this week in some of the state’s largest school districts.
Slates of school board candidates backed by teachers unions won majorities in Aurora, Douglas and Jefferson counties. And in Denver — where the union has been unable to stop or slow the school district’s reform strategies — two candidates supported by the union won seats on the city’s seven-member board.
The political and education policy circumstances differ in each of the four school districts — the dynamics look much different in Denver, for example, than in Douglas County.
But with some differences, teachers unions have during the past two local school board election cycles adopted and refined a playbook to counter the money and influence of their policy foes.
National, state and local unions spent more time engaging their members and other labor organizations, recruited and groomed better candidates most places, and devoted considerable financial resources to ensure wins. Unions also loosely aligned themselves with vocal parent groups in some districts, and pushed a variety of messages — both local and national, positive and negative — on doorsteps and in voters’ social media streams and mailboxes.
The time was ripe for such strategies to pay off. Civil rights groups and factions of the Democratic Party have ramped-up their criticisms of charter schools. And then there is the controversy over Donald Trump’s presidency and his tapping of billionaire Betsy DeVos as education secretary.
Kerrie Dallman, president of the Colorado Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union, emphasized the unions’ attempts to join forces with like-minded groups.
“I think we’ve gotten better, chiefly at talking to the community,” she said. “It’s not teachers alone. It’s parents and other community organizations working together. It’s been particularly grassroots in that regard. It has to be.”
Van Schoales, CEO of A+ Colorado, which monitors and critiques reform efforts in Denver and Aurora, said the election should be a wake-up call for reformers who favor strategies such as giving schools more autonomy and holding schools accountable for performance.
“The union did a much better job than they’ve done in the past,” he said. “This should be a message to folks that there is a lot of work to be done to engage the community” before Election Day about how the reforms are improving schools.
Perfecting their game
Months before the November election, the Douglas County Federation of Teachers rented classrooms to hear the frustrations of their members and to encourage them to participate in this year’s election.
The message to teachers from their leaders was clear: Talk to your parents, talk to your family, talk to your neighbors about the candidates you support. In an off-year election, consistent and sustained outreach — not attack mailers — is key, union leaders said.
And with no statewide ballot issue to compete with, teachers could more easily capture voters’ attention.
But during the run-up to Nov. 7, those teachers fanned out across the district and walked with members of the Douglas County Parents political committee, in addition to making more than 30,000 phone calls to voters — far more than they’ve ever made.
Particular emphasis was put on turning out the 19,000 union members living in Douglas County.
Similar mobilization efforts played out in Aurora and Denver. While union leaders there are still tallying up totals, anecdotally they believe they made more contact with voters than in recent years.
“We extend our greatest thanks and appreciation to the hundreds of educators who gave their time and talent to participate in neighborhood walks, phone banks and all other forms of support,” said Henry Roman, president of the Denver Classroom Teachers Association. “We have seen a great deal of participation, so that has been exciting.”
Teachers were trained to discuss in person and on the phone hyper-local and poll-tested messages, union officials said. In Aurora, the school district with the largest concentration of black and refugee students, teachers discussed career and vocational training. In Douglas County, one of the nation’s wealthiest counties, they discussed how higher teacher turnover driven by the school board’s policies was leading to lower academic achievement.
Opponents of the teachers unions were busy contacting voters in the lead up to the election as well. Americans for Prosperity, a free-market advocacy organization, spent six-figures in September to promote charter schools and the Douglas County private-school voucher program.
While teachers and parent volunteers were knocking on doors, independent political committees fueled by donations from the teachers unions were hitting mailboxes across the Denver-metro area with advertisements — sometimes delivering a more divisive message.
Some of those mailers and other voter outreach attempts came under fire.
“The union capitalized on legitimate fears of Colorado families that Trump and DeVos are causing incredible harm to our communities,” said Jen Walmer, state director for the political action committee Democrats for Education Reform, which through an affiliate spent more than $345,000 to influence the Denver elections. “What I find deplorable is that in Denver the union used the Trump playbook to slander progressive Democrats, including immigrants and women of color, who are running to continue the education legacy of Barack Obama.”
Union officials declined interview requests before the election to discuss campaign mailers and the overall tone of the campaign. This week after the returns were in, union leader Dallman told Chalkbeat that she had not seen the southwest Denver mailer before it was sent out, and she questioned whether it focused on the right issues.
“I think it’s important for school board races to focus on the issues, and I think that the issue here was the support of unfettered charter school growth without adequate accountability and transparency,” she said this week. “I don’t know that issue was clear in the mailers.”
In Douglas County, some voters received text messages sending them to a website created by a committee backed by the teachers union that depicted the union’s opposition as swamp creatures with green skin and glowing red eyes. The committee, which received $300,000 from the American Federation of Teachers, the nation’s second largest teachers union, used the Trumpian slogan to encourage voters to “Drain the Swamp.”
A spokeswoman for the “Elevate Douglas County” slate, the target of the website, called the attacks “mind-blowingly ironic,” and an attempt “to confuse and suppress Republican voters who have not yet turned in their ballots.”
Lessons for reformers
The school reform movement is far from monolithic. In liberal Denver, Democratic-inspired strategies target the district’s large population of disadvantaged students. One of the tenets is universal school choice, and a “portfolio” of district-run, charter and other types of schools.
In wealthy Douglas County, Republican-backed candidates who won control of the board in 2009 brought market-based philosophies including a private school voucher program. That drew national attention in part because most voucher programs target low-income students.
Aurora Public Schools, meanwhile, is trying to forge its own distinctive reform path, including recruiting high-performing charter schools and revamping its principal hiring process.
Union officials and their policy allies sought to blur those lines during the 2017 election, labeling the different reform factions as cut from the same “corporate reformer” cloth.
Max Eden, a senior fellow at the free-market think tank Manhattan Institute who has spent time studying the Douglas County school district, said policymakers who want to improve the system must gauge the willingness of their community.
“The former (Douglas County school) board never stopped to think about what the parents wanted,” he said. “The reforms in Douglas County ran into the ground because teachers and principals felt it was something being done to them.”
Some reform advocates are rethinking the value of attempting to sway school races.
Tyler Sandberg, a co-founder and senior policy advisor for Ready Colorado, a conservative education reform nonprofit, said his group did not invest heavily in school board elections this year because he said they are shifting their focus to the state.
“When we helped pass the bill that got charter equity funding, we didn’t have to go and fight 178 school boards,” Sandberg said. “School boards, they have become a place where unions have a stacked deck. At the state legislature, you have a much more level playing field.”
Local school districts that are ahead of the state in implementing reforms, can still serve as “labs” Sandberg said, for demonstrating how something would work.
“But ultimately, it’s gotta be a Colorado-wide solution,” Sandberg said. “ We can’t have a patchwork of unequal policy.”
Marty West, associate professor of education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, said supporters of reform efforts — especially Democrats — need to do a better job of explaining why they back certain policies, especially now that Obama has left office.
“There are signs in the national election results this week that Democrats may make significant headway at the state and local level next year when many more seats are in play,” he said. “And that typically makes it harder to pursue the traditional reform agenda. That really places a sense of urgency for reformers to reach out to Democrats to convince them of the merits of their ideas.”
Both CEA’s Dallman and DFER’s Walmer said after the election that they saw potential for common ground on some issues of relevance before the 2018 elections.
“A common interest is funding,” Dallman said. “Our communities are continually forced to make up a shortfall in state funding and in doing so, we perpetuate the system of choosing winners and losers. Organizations that believe in public education have to work together to solve the school funding problem.”
Walmer echoed Dallman’s conciliatory tone looking ahead to the 2018 midterm elections.
“There is someone to fight here,” she said, “and it isn’t each other.”
— Chalkbeat reporters Melanie Asmar and Yesenia Robles contributed