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Education Reformers Win in Colorado


This week’s elections brought headlines dominated by big-ticket races along the East Coast, but a more interesting result came further down the ballot in Colorado: voters shot down a $1 billion tax hike to raise money for schools, and backed a number of education reformers in their bids to retain their seats in one of the state’s larger school districts.

The results send something of a mixed message. The defeat of the tax hike could be seen as a rebuke to the state’s teachers unions and democratic establishment. But some of the new money would have gone to charter schools, so the bill was also supported by pro-reform groups and donors like Mayor Mike Bloomberg. The measure was defeated soundly—35 percent for to 65 percent against—suggesting that voters were skeptical of attempts to solve education problems by throwing money at them.

Yet the victory of the Douglas County school board members suggests that the public is considerably more amenable to reforms that change the structure of the education system. National Review surveys the changes pushed by the school board members who retained their seats, many of which education reformers everywhere would be proud of:

Using a novel interpretation of Colorado’s charter-school law, Douglas County set up a virtual “charter school” by giving students vouchers worth 75 percent of the state’s per-pupil funding to take to any school of their choice. The ACLU sued over the program, and while the district triumphed in appellate court, the program remains on pause while Douglas County awaits a date with the Colorado Supreme Court. If the district prevails there, it will offer a voucher model that almost any school district could emulate. The Wall Street Journal has noted that this “could transform the debate about vouchers nationwide” by making them relevant “for families who want more than even high-performing public schools have to offer.”

Unwilling to settle for just adding merit raises atop the old industrial pay scale, Douglas County has adopted a market-based pay system. After hiring a former human-resources manager from GE to lead its effort to rethink teacher pay, Douglas County has established five broad pay bands based on the supply and demand for various teaching roles. This allows the districts to pay more for hard-to-find teachers, such as a special-education audiologist, and less for teachers in easier-to-fill roles. For the first time in memory, superintendent Celania-Fagen reports, the district had more quality applicants for special education than they had positions available. Douglas County has shown, with little media fanfare, that it is possible to pay teachers what the market requires instead of being tied to a rigid, union-imposed, one-size-fits-all pay scale.

This is only one election, but coming from a purple state like Colorado, the results should give education reformers some clues about what kinds of changes voters are likely to accept.

[Classroom image courtesy of Shutterstock]

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  • Anthony

    For NAEP survey results 2013, see

  • Bruce

    The magnitude of this defeat for the big educational statists is stunning. For decades, the public has been conditioned to throw whatever money at the educational system that the establishment asks for. Those providing the funding for education appear to finally be demanding some accountability rather than falling for the platitudinous, “It’s for the children.” Bring on the experiments and reform!

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