Jeff Bryant recounts the story of Jefferson County, Colorado, known as “Jeffco,” where parents are battling religious zealots and charter advocates for control of their community’s schools.
Sprawling westward from the Denver skyline, where the front range of the Rockies sharpens its ascension to the peaks, Jeffco, as the locals call it, is experiencing an acrimonious debate about its public schools.
At scores of house parties…, parents and public school activists circulate flyers and repeat a well-rehearsed message of dissent. They complain of a new school board majority that is secretive, disrespectful to parents and teachers and irresponsible with tax dollars. They warn of the influence of right-wing groups, some with connections to evangelical Christianity. They complain of a powerful charter school industry, different from the “organic charters” Jeffco parents already send their kids to.
Behind every grassroots issue they identify lies a much “bigger thing,” as more than one parent will tell you.
It’s a complicated narrative that defies stereotypes and neat polarities. Although the fight is political, Republicans and Democrats are distributed on both sides of the debate. The argument is about education, but it’s not an argument over pro-charter school versus anti-charter. Jeffco has had charters for years, many of which are highly popular with parents. Neither is this a narrative about choice versus anti-choice. Jeffco already allows parents to enroll their children in any school in the district (although there are cases of selective enrollment), and many families do opt for a school other than their neighborhood one.
Jeffco is a mostly white, middle-class and suburban school district that hardly resembles the “failing” school systems you’re used to hearing about. According to the district’s website, Jeffco students “outperform the state in all grade levels and content areas” on state mandated achievement tests. Six of the district’s high schools rank in the top 40 of the 2014 Best High Schools in America according to U.S. News & World Report, and 11 elementary schools were listed as 5280 Magazine’s top public elementary schools.
And Jeffco is not a community where teachers’ unions are defending their turf from disgruntled parents. Parents, not union operatives, lead the numerous and frequent house parties like the one at Green Mountain Church.
What is also true about Jeffco is that the story unfolding here is one that is recurring across the country, as community after community becomes mired in debates about 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….
Who’s Messin’ With Jeffco?
Over coffee at a Lakewood Starbucks, Kyle Ferris’ mother Barbara now dismisses the national media’s focus on her son’s activism as “the flavor of the day.”
For sure, Ferris supported her son’s actions. “When Kyle came to me saying he and other students wanted to stage a walkout, my input was to encourage him to clearly state his reasons for the walkout,” she recalls.
What she values most about the protest is, “It got a group of kids to demonstrate the critical thinking they were taught in class,” she says. “It increased their awareness of other big issues.”
What other big issues?
“A lot of the problems have risen from the new board that emerged from the recent election,” Ferris explains. “We now have a majority that is influenced by the Tea Party with an agenda right out of right-wing talk radio.”
Ferris also worries about the growing influence of charter schools in the district, pointing to recent actions the board has taken to send more money to charter schools at a time when neighborhood schools still haven’t recovered from the effects of the recession. She says parents are still reeling from the impact of fees, imposed after the recession hit, for bus transportation and other services, and she wonders why funding sent to charter schools isn’t instead being used to end the fees.
Ferris is quick to add that she is not opposed to the idea of charter schools. But the urgency to establish more of them now escapes her. “Jeffco already has a phenomenal choice system,” she explains.
Ferris, an Asian American who decided with her husband to move to Jeffco “for the schools,” now sees a troubling landscape in her community. “We’ve got great schools; we’ve got great teachers,” she says. “I don’t want things to get messed up.”
“Everyone believes they are doing the right thing,” she says. “But we don’t believe in the same things.”
Nothing Funny About This
One belief most in dispute in Jeffco is the role of community voice in running the schools. That issue is especially central to the parent-led house parties. Shawna Fritzler and Jonna Levine are two Jeffco parents who often lead those events. In some respects, they’re a collaboration of opposites. Fritzler is a lifelong Republican, while Levine is an avowed Democrat. Fritzler still has children in Jeffco public schools, while Levine’s children have graduated and moved on. The issue that initially brought them together was the chronic underfunding, in their minds, of Jeffco schools. They both actively campaigned for a countywide referendum — a “mill levy and bond” issue — to offset budget cuts from the state. The referendum passed.
But the target of their ire now is the new conservative school board majority, elected in 2013. In that election, a slate of three candidates— Ken Witt, John Newkirk and Julie Williams— ran together and branded themselves “WNW.” The three candidates got the backing of the Jefferson County GOP and an organization called Jeffco Students First, a state-based education advocacy group patterned after the controversial national organization StudentsFirst (founded and formerly led by Michelle Rhee, the former chancellor of Washington, DC public schools). StudentsFirst and its Colorado state version promote an “education reform” agenda that favors charter schools, vouchers, grading schools and educators based on student test scores, and drastically altering teacher compensation, performance evaluation, and job protection….
So who are the outsiders invading Jeffco schools, and what do they want?
Jeffco public school activists describe a strange combination of forces undermining their local control, from right-wing operatives and evangelical Christians to billionaire businessmen and charter school entrepreneurs. The declared intentions of these characters span the culture war spectrum: with some holding high the values of freedom and patriotism and others claiming to fight “the civil rights cause of our time.”
But the way these Jeffco parents and educators see it, their community is being picked over the way a glutton works the all-you-can-eat salad bar. He may start off with a small plate, but he’s quickly back for more.
The influence of outsiders, in fact, is one of the factors that doomed the new board majority to controversy even before they were elected.
Dougco Is Coming
As an article in the Denver Post documented in November 2013, days before the election, three wealthy businessmen contributed an out-sized quantity of money— more than $200,000— to school board races in Colorado, including the effort to elect Witt, Newkirk and Williams in Jeffco.
None of the three men appears to live in Jefferson County. The first, C. Edward McVaney is co-founder of software company J.D. Edwards and founding trustee of Valor Christian High School, an independent private Christian high school in Douglas County Colorado. McVaney has a propensity for donating to school board candidates around the state who favor school vouchers. The second is Denver businessman Ralph Nagel, president of Top Rock LLC, an investment firm. The third is Alex Cranberg, CEO of Aspect Energy, who Forbes describes as a “Texas oilman.” Cranberg’s notoriety stems primarily from his company’s venture into oil drilling in Iraq.
The reporters introduce the trio as, “Financial backers who want school districts to adopt the anti-union, pro-voucher, and school-choice model set by Douglas County.” Another wealthy man, also from Douglas County, hosted a fundraiser to elect the WNW team. According to reporters, the bash raised another $30,000….
Another major influencer in the public education system in Colorado has been Americans for Prosperity, the conservative organization founded by Charles and David Koch. As a report in Politico noted at the time of the Dougco school board race, “Americans for Prosperity is spending big” in support of candidates who favor an agenda of making schools “compete with one another for market share” and allowing tax money to go to religious education.
The reporter, Stephanie Simon, wrote, “Conservatives across the U.S. see Douglas County as a model for transforming public schools everywhere.”
Among those conservatives was former Florida governor, now declared presidential candidate, Jeb Bush, who donated $1,000 to each of the Koch-backed candidates in Dougco. Money raised for those conservatives dwarfed that raised for the challengers, ensuring a conservative win and establishing a theme that has been occurring throughout practically all of Colorado…..
There could be some justification for imposing the Dougco charter school model on Jeffco if there were real proof that model could generate genuine academic gains.
But based on analysis available at the Support Jeffco Kids website, there’s not much evidence it can.
One video posted on the site points out that the student demographics of the two districts are quite different, with Jeffco schools having a far more diverse spread of low-income versus upper-income students. Virtually all research shows that scores on standardized tests, the most commonly used metric for student achievement, are strongly correlated to family income, so taking student demographics into account is essential….
Another common argument for expanding charter schools is that they will bring innovation to a school district that has grown lazy due to “bureaucracy” and “complacent teachers.”
The influential charter school lobby in Colorado has promised that charters will be more “innovative” than public schools. But anyone who can’t find signs of innovation already in Jeffco public schools simply isn’t looking or has blinders on.
In fact, experts at the National Education Policy Center, a progressive education research center and think tank affiliated with the University of Colorado in Boulder, recently recognized two Jeffco high schools for being “Schools of Opportunity,” a designation for having “excellent practices designed to expand student opportunity and access to academic success,” according to the NEPC announcement.
NEPC’s School of Opportunity project analyzed schools in two states, Colorado and New York, based on 11 specific principles identified by experts as critical to closing “opportunity gaps” that exist between high-income school children and their lower income peers. Those principles include more and better learning time, a broader and richer curriculum, and attention to students’ individual academic, health and language needs.
The two Jeffco schools receiving this recognition were Jefferson County Open School, which received a Gold Medal, and Long View High School, which received Silver….
“I’m amazed and impressed at what we’re doing,” Fitzler says about Jeffco schools. “Is everything perfect? No. But you don’t tear down what’s working.”
Being a Republican, Fritzler initially needed to be convinced Jeffco public schools were being good financial stewards. She was also on the receiving end of the Republican messaging campaign that argued for budget cuts and more outsourcing to charter schools.
“So I looked for myself to see if there was any waste,” she says. “I didn’t find it. I was amazed at how far we were getting despite the cuts.”
So instead of tearing things down, what would Fritzler like to see instead?
“I want my school back,” she answers. “This is our community. We could leave if we want. But these are our schools.”
Levine adds, “They look at school governance like it’s a business decision. But it’s not a business decision. You can’t run a school district like a business … I want a board willing to treat community as partners. They go through the motions of doing this but they don’t do it….”
One thing parents in Jeffco believe for sure is they should have more of a democratic say-so in how their schools are run. Do their adversaries believe the same? Apparently, not so much.
*Correction: This article originally identified Lesley Dahlkemper as the current school board president; her correct title is in fact 2nd vice president.