Elections have a purpose. Winning. Elections have consequences. The consequences of winning mean you get to be a decision maker. You get to make policies. You can’t even have any input into decision making if you don’t have a seat at the table. You get that seat by…winning. That’s just a fact. And even though we are living in a somewhat factless world, facts still matter, at least to most of us. The last ten years of school board elections in Denver drive home the importance of winning painfully clear. Clearly. Concisely. Unequivocally. That is why millions of dollars have poured in to Denver and thousands of trees have been killed to uphold a false narrative here. And over the last few days just before the election tv ads have appeared in support of the at large reform candidate, ads paid for with outside dark money from the Independent Expenditure Committee affiliated with Stand for Children. Let me repeat that: over the past 10 years millions of dollars from outside Denver have been spent to prop up a failed educational experiment. And failed it is.
But a new day has dawned in Denver, for on November 5, 2019 Denver voters said no to the outside money, no to the failure of the past ten years, no to education reform. They said it loudly, clearly and unequivocally. The Denver Classroom Teachers Association candidates (DCTA) along with various community groups, parents, and students, supported three candidates and all three won their races. DPS parent and education activist Scott Balderman beat reformer Diana Romero Campbell and community candidate Radhika Nath 48% to 31% to21%; former DPS student and education activist Tay Anderson defeated reformer Alexis Menocal Harrigan and latecomer to the race Natela Manuntseva 50.4% to 37.2% to 12.3%; Brad Laurvick, DPS parent and community organizer defeated Julie Banuelos and reformer Tony Curcio 35% to 34% to 30%. Important to note here – the reformer came in last in this three way contest.
Some lessons gleaned from the November 5, 2019 School Board Election
- Reform candidates lost by margins of 2-1 in all three races. WOW. Just WOW.
- Denver’s teachers lead the way in the successful flipping of the board. When teachers struck in February, they energized and organized fellow teachers, parents and community members. Their activism carried over into the election cycle. Teachers ROCK!
- Educational outcomes have NOT improved in the Michael Bennet/Tom Boasberg era despite press attempts to make it appear so.
- The latest NAEP scores released late last month show 32% of 4th graders in Denver Public Schools can do grade level math, 35% can read at grade level. For 8th graders 29% are at grade level in both subjects .
- Denver as usual had the largest achievement gap of the entire 27 urban school cohort in the NAEP study.
- DPS’ implementation of school “Choice” has been criticized repeatedly because it not only is inequitable, it has been found to actually add to the inequities in DPS.
- The highly touted Denver Plan 2020 with its lofty goals made virtually no appearance in the reformers 2019 election messaging.
- Reformers appear to win only when they have money and candidates with high name recognition. While the amount of money spent this cycle will most likely break records, reformers ran out of big names to run this time. And the reality is at large transformer candidate Tay Anderson had the most name recognition from the beginning of the election cycle.
- SFER – Students for Education Reform – are not as formidable as DFER – Democrats for Education Reform. The latter decided not to participate in DPS elections; the former was nowhere near as effective even though they canvassed and canvassed.
- Candidates should be encouraged or recruited who actually have a chance of winning in the races they choose: demographics, gender, ethnicity, all come into play. When one is self-righteous and politically naive and makes candidate choices based on only one or two of these characteristics, the chances of winning are significantly reduced.
A LITTLE ELECTION HISTORY
November 5, 2019. There were three open seats – no incumbents running. Two District seats and an at large seat. A real opportunity to change direction of public education in Denver the likes of which have not been seen here since 2009. Ah, 2009 – the year transformers (teachers, parents, students, community members in support of strong neighborhood schools) won the vote but lost control of the board because of a defector. 2009 was also the year Stand for Children entered the scene in Denver and “education reform” put down roots in Denver over thanks to change of philosophy of this defector. Transformers went from holding a 4-3 majority to losing control with a 3-4 minority. Since then Denver has been the quintessential reform district and reformers in Denver have been the beneficiaries of millions of mostly out of state dollars to fund the races. Simultaneously, they have been able to find “name” candidates to run, particularly for the at large seat as several former city council people, a former lieutenant governor, a daughter of a U.S. Senate candidate, a person with the same name as a former mayor have been recruited to run and win the board seats. Money + name has been a successful formula for victory. That was until now.
In addition to money and name recognition reformers have figured out you must run only one candidate per race if you have any chance of winning the election. You can’t split the vote and win. That message resonated with transformers as well, so at the outset of this election cycle transformers were committed to the one candidate per race principle as well. All disparate groups united to form a coalition whose goal it was to “Flip the Board.”
Unfortunately, cracks within the coalition began to show early on in the election cycle, and some transformer groups decided eating their own was more appealing than trying to win the elections and start to undo 15 years of Bennet/Boasberg educational failures. The cracks became fissures. The election in-fighting quickly rose to replicate some of the behaviors we are seeing at the national level of politics: bullying, lying, racism, name calling the likes of which would never have been acceptable before the current demise of civility in the country. And the targets of this behavior were often other transformers rather than reformers! The differences came to a head when the teachers union endorsed one slate of candidates and several transformer organizations wanted a different slate. Attempts were made at compromising but to no avail. Ultimately the sides split with one side focusing most of its anger attacking the other side rather the reform candidates. But unlike years gone by the three candidates per race did not result in reformers winning. Reformers came in a distant second in two races, and third in one race. Quite a strong anti-reform statement, one must note.
And so here we are. Ten years after the DPS transformers won only to lose, 6 years after a 6-1 board, four years after a 7-0 (!) board Denver has fought outside money and national reform voodoo reform to become a 5-2 board, we have battled our way back to a board for teachers, students, strong neighborhood schools and equity for all. We have won the fight against the privatization of public education. It is truly amazing.
The most important issue that drove this revolutionary victory was voter weariness with lack of educational improvement. But many other things contributed to this victory: long time activists laying the ground work for this day and continuing to fight, increasing inequities among schools, exhaustion from the business model with its winners and losers, great candidates willing to run positive, transparent campaigns, This is a great day for public education in Denver, but undoing the last 15 years will take time. We must practice patience with this new board as they plan a non-disruptive way to return to equitably educating all kids. Congratulations to all of us who have been fighting for so long. Elections have a purpose. Winning.