Although many Democrats are disappointed, even in a “panic,” with the results from last week’s off-year elections, they need to be aware of where progressives won and learn from communities that bucked the influences of big money, especially in contests where education was a top-tier issue.
Most notable of the wins was a school board race in Jefferson County, Colorado, just outside Denver, that many national media outlets had actually hyped but then mostly ignored once the results were in.
The vote, the New York Times reported before Election Day, was about “whether to oust a polarizing school board that has championed charter schools, performance-based teacher pay, and other education measures.”
“The skirmish has been tense,” the Washington Post explained, “with alleged death threats, social media clashes, and attacks on talk radio.”
Both news stories told of a national program bearing down on the school district, with “money pouring in from Americans for Prosperity, the national organization founded by the Koch brothers,” in an effort to impose an agenda from outside the community that included a new history curriculum, new restrictions on teachers’ job security, and more privately-operated charter schools.
Students, teachers and parents were openly revolting against the school board, staging school walkouts, holding boisterous protest rallies and waging a petition campaign to demand an election to recall the school board majority.
The national outlets consistently got the story of the election wrong, adopting a talking point from a libertarian think tank that the contest was a “proxy war” between the Koch Brothers and “teachers’ unions,” when, in fact, the recall effort was mostly led by parents.
Then, when the results came in last week, and voters recalled the board majority and voted in a new slate of progressive-minded candidates, national outlets generally ignored the story, and the news was relegated to local outlets and bloggers to report.
But what the national media have misreported and overlooked is an important story of how communities fighting to control their education destinies can win against big-moneyed interests and a charter school industry that want to dictate what schooling is like across the country.
A Major Battle to Preserve Public Schools
I went to Jeffco (what the locals call it) this summer and reported about the emerging national story for Alternet.
I found this outstanding school district – where real innovation is taking place in the public schools – is “under assault by right-wing groups, some with connections to evangelical Christianity” and “a powerful charter school industry, different from the ‘organic charters’ Jeffco parents already send their kids to.”
My firsthand investigations, which included more than a dozen interviews and visits to community events and school sites, revealed a fight over “who gets to call the shots in education systems strained by unending financial austerity and an unremitting ‘reform’ agenda whose intent is unclear to the people in its way.”
I met with local Jeffco citizens who engaged in scores of house parties, circulated flyers and repeated a message of dissent against the three board members who were intent on imposing a market-based philosophy of education conceived in libertarian think tanks and charter school corporate offices.
Why should you care about a school board election in suburban Denver?
As a reporter at Al Jazeera correctly understood in her pre-election report, the contest had “national implications.”
The race, Sandra Fish writes, “has ramifications far outside the school district … Because Jeffco is the ultimate swing county in the key swing state of Colorado,” Fish finds, “that means success – or defeat – there could be replicated across the U.S.”
She quotes a professor of education history at New York University saying, “Colorado has become a kind of test case for these issues. Others around the country will be watching to see if the money and the influence matters … It’s going to be a very close election is my guess.'”
The professor was mostly right, except about the margin of victory. It wasn’t close. Voters “overwhelmingly,” according to the Denver Post, voted for the recall, with the charter school-backed board members going down by an average of 64 percent to 36 percent.
A Jeffco classroom teacher involved in the resistance effort, Paula Reed, had this to say in an email to me about the importance of the recall win: “This was a major front in the battle to preserve public schools for kids and stop privatization for profit. I said to myself and everyone I pulled in that if we won, we would know for the rest of our lives that we had been part of something huge.”
Why Grassroots Matters Most
“The success of this recall has been a true testament to what grassroots can accomplish,” Jeffco parent activist Jonna Levine tells me in an email. “We sent a strong message that community can win over big corporate machines like the Koch Brothers.”
Levine co-founded and leads, with Jeffco parent Shawna Fritzler, the grassroots group “Support Jeffco Kids.” Organizing parents into these grassroots groups, including Jeffco United, that helped lead the petition effort proved to be a key to the successful campaign. Parents have an undeniable stake in anything related to public schools. And unlike teachers, they can’t be intimidated by school administration or be fired.