A mixed election for school reform


New York City Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg meets with incoming Mayor Bill de Blasio (L) at City Hall after his election victory in New York November 6, 2013.

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Article Highlights

  • Lots of #cagebusting going on with this year's elections! What do the outcomes mean for #edreform?

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  • Reformers earn a "knock-out" victory in #DougCo.

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  • NYC Mayor de Blasio #edreform: denounced much of Bloomberg-Klein agenda, tough on charters, and seeking a tax increase to fund pre-K.

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  • Union member Marty Walsh beats out @DFER_News candidate John Connolly in Boston Mayoral race.

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  • NJ @GovChristie coasts to reelection showing that fighting for real, substantive change makes a difference. #cagebusting

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Yesterday’s elections delivered a mixed bag for education reform. Here’s a rundown of the key developments:

Douglas County, CO

The big news for the day was out of Colorado.  In Douglas County, the 65,000-student school district that may be the nation’s most interesting had a crucial board election, in which the reformers earned a knockout victory. In Douglas County, superintendent Liz Fagen, with the support of a unanimous board, has moved to radically reimagine teacher pay, create a universal voucher program, and rethink curriculum and testing.  Pursuing reforms inconceivable in big cities where unions hold sway, Fagen and the board have sidelined the local teachers’ union and charged forward. This has earned the enmity of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) and Colorado Democrats. In a crucial referendum on the Douglas County effort, the four reform candidates all won.  They all claimed 52% to 54% of the vote, ensuring that the reformers will retain unanimous control of the seven-member board.

In Colorado’s other good news, voters rejected tax-raising Amendment 66 by a 2-to-1 margin. The amendment, which had passed the Colorado legislature without a single Republican vote, would have imposed a $1 billion-a-year tax increase on Coloradans in order to fund education. Advocates promoted A66 as a grand bargain of new dollars for transformative change, but skeptics pointed out that the fine print seemed to promise an enormous tax increase for modest change. Voters were right to be wary, as decades of experience have taught that new funding more often serves to enable ineffectual school system management than as an engine of change. The A66 campaign spent $10 million or more, massively outspending the opponents. It drew national support from players like Gates and Bloomberg.  And it still got thrashed, in a purple state. By the way, an interest backdrop to the vote n A66 is that Colorado voters overwhelmingly approved a retail tax on marijuana sales on the same ballot.

One more piece of good news from Colorado: The Denver Public Schools (DPS) board majority that backs hard-charging Superintendent Tom Boasberg’s won out.  The most interesting race was the at-large contest in which former Lieutenant Governor Barbara O’Brien, a reform Democrat, claimed a seat on the DPS board. One intriguing note on the Denver v. Douglas County contrast. The same consultants who backed the Denver “reform” slate also backed the Douglas County “union” slate—and the positions were largely consistent. The Douglas County reformers are doing things that reform-minded Democrats won’t even consider.

New York City

Back east, the news was bleaker. In New York City, as expected, Bill de Blasio swept to victory in the mayor’s race.  In returning the mayor’s mansion to Democratic control after two decades, de Blasio has not been shy about making his intentions known. He’s denounced much of the Bloomberg-Klein reform agenda, wants to make life tougher for New York’s charter schools, and is seeking a big tax increase to fund pre-K education (though it’s not clear Albany will give him the requisite green light for the tax boost). The most interesting development to keep an eye on in New York is growing chatter that Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers (and previously head of the influential New York City local), may emerge as de Blasio’s choice to become chancellor of the New York City schools.


In Boston, a mayoral contest between two Democrats wound up with the union-endorsed candidate knocking off a candidate backed by Democrats for Education Reform. State representative Marty Walsh, a former union official, narrowly beat city councilman John Connolly. Benefiting from $3 million or more in union support, Walsh has called for a tax increase to fund pre-K education and has talked about school reform with an to staying on good terms with the Boston Teachers Union. Meanwhile, the mayoral race was an embarrassing setback for Democratic school reformers.  Democrats for Education Reform spent more than a million to support Connolly, and Stand for Children hurt Connolly badly when its clay-footed announcement that it planned to $500,000 for him spurred talk of “outsiders” and generated a fierce backlash.

New Jersey There was one more promising piece of news from back east. New Jersey governor Chris Christie, in coasting to reelection, showed that it’s possible for governors to take on the teacher unions, public spending, and the education establishment even in the bluest of states—if they’re fighting for real, substantive change. That’s a lesson well worth heeding.

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About the Author


Frederick M.
  • An educator, political scientist and author, Frederick M. Hess studies K-12 and higher education issues. His books include "Cage-Busting Leadership," "Breakthrough Leadership in the Digital Age," "The Same Thing Over and Over," "Education Unbound," "Common Sense School Reform," "Revolution at the Margins," and "Spinning Wheels." He is also the author of the popular Education Week blog, "Rick Hess Straight Up." Hess's work has appeared in scholarly and popular outlets such as Teachers College Record, Harvard Education Review, Social Science Quarterly, Urban Affairs Review, American Politics Quarterly, The Chronicle of Higher Education, Phi Delta Kappan, Educational Leadership, U.S. News & World Report, National Affairs, the Washington Post, the New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, the Atlantic and National Review. He has edited widely cited volumes on the Common Core, the role of for-profits in education, education philanthropy, school costs and productivity, the impact of education research, and No Child Left Behind.  Hess serves as executive editor of Education Next, as lead faculty member for the Rice Education Entrepreneurship Program, and on the review boards for the Broad Prize in Urban Education and the Broad Prize for Public Charter Schools. He also serves on the boards of directors of the National Association of Charter School Authorizers and 4.0 SCHOOLS. A former high school social studies teacher, he teaches or has taught at the University of Virginia, the University of Pennsylvania, Georgetown University, Rice University and Harvard University. He holds an M.A. and Ph.D. in Government, as well as an M.Ed. in Teaching and Curriculum, from Harvard University.

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