I can’t believe I’m already saying this, but 2015 is almost over! It’s been such a busy, exciting year that it feels like it started just yesterday. I hope all my faithful readers are getting ready to launch into a 2016 full of prosperity, happiness, and better education for Colorado kids! For now, let’s pause and take a look back at the top five most exciting edu-happenings of 2015.
#1 The Jeffco recall stole the education spotlight for much of the second half of the year. After 2014’s union-driven teacher sickouts, student walkouts, and manufactured controversy over the now-admittedly slanted 2014 A.P. U.S. History curriculum framework, we all held our breath to see if the recall promised by Jeffco’s Mean Girlz would actually happen. Then it did, and we were off.
Many months of union-driven lies (and a few bright spots of truth) later, we watched in horror as the three conservative members of the Jeffco school board’s reform majority—along with nearly every other conservative reformer in the state—fell victim to the might of the union.
In recent weeks, we’ve seen the new board position itself in ways that cast some serious doubt on their promises of increased transparency and the elimination of “waste.” And, of course, we’ve watched the “just moms” and “community-led effort” narratives… excuse me, lies… disintegrate in the wake of the not-really-surprising revelation that the teachers unions, including the National Education Association, were the primary forces behind Jeffco United. I will admit, however, that I’m still a little shocked at just how dishonest recall proponents were about their union ties—especially now that we know literally 99.9 percent of Jeffco United’s money was provided by unions. I hope Jeffco voters tricked into voting for the recall on the basis that it wasn’t a union effort are furious.
But hey, at least we got a pretty good union contract (that will probably be undone shortly) in Jeffco, along with a number of other policy wins. Speaking of union contracts…
#2 A major tussle in Thompson occurred after the school board’s conservative reform majority pushed for changes to its contract with the Thompson Education Association. Negotiations between the district and the union turned ugly last spring, and the board majority rightly decided to reject an incredibly tepid tentative agreement brought back from the negotiating table. A barely improved second tentative agreement was rejected soon after, and then the real fight started. TEA dragged the district into non-binding arbitration with a union-friendly arbitrator, whose horrendous report the board also rejected.
Then, the union sued—its primary argument being that the school board did not have the authority to reject tentative agreements resulting from negotiations under the contract’s “good faith” provision. Somehow, TEA convinced a district court judge to utterly ignore Colorado law and grant an injunction forcing the district to live under its old contract—a contract the board rejected three separate times in one form or another—while the legal battle played out.
Even mainstream media outlets saw as the injunction decision as an unprecedented assault on local control. To their credit, Thompson’s reformers stood strong for local control and appealed the decision, ultimately getting it overturned by the Colorado Court of Appeals panel.
Sadly, the reform majority was ousted by wide margins before the legal dispute could be firmly settled on the side of local control. The new board majority—and one particularly inconsistent member of the old majority—quickly voted to swallow whole the second tentative agreement offered up by the union. Gross, but at least this agreement is a slight improvement over Thompson’s old contract.
The Thompson school board certainly saw its fair share of tests this year. Meanwhile, Colorado couldn’t stop talking about a different sort of test as…
#3 Testing took center stage during the 2015 legislative session. My Independence Institute friends and I worked very hard to stake out a reasonable position right from the start of the debate, and to educate others about what was really going on from the union side of the equation. Still, the debate quickly degenerated into a high-stakes game of legislative testing chicken, which culminated in a near-literal last-minute testing compromise. Though the compromise was overall a step in the right direction, it has already produced at least one serious unintended (I think) consequence.
I can’t wait to see what this year brings on the testing and accountability fronts. I suspect it’ll be interesting, especially because…
#4 Congress finally got around to reauthorizing No Child Left Behind. About this time last year, Detective Eddie was wondering whether President Obama’s omission of an NCLB rewrite from his State of the Union address was a bad omen. A few months later, I was pretty sure the reauthorization effort was going to meet the same fate as most other efforts in Congress these days: death by gridlock.
I was wrong. After both the U.S. House and the U.S. Senate passed their own versions of the new Elementary and Secondary Education Act, the two bills went off into the shadowy ether known as “conference committee,” where it languished for quite some time. Then, shockingly, a viable compromise emerged. The compromise sailed through the House, then the Senate. And then, it actually happened. We got a new version of ESEA called the Every Student Succeeds Act.
The new law has been greeted pretty enthusiastically by most conservatives as a step away from federal interference in education, though I’m sure some hidden landmines remain. After all, you know what they say about new laws and implementation. Hey, since we’re talking about new laws…
#5 2015 became the Year of Educational choice. As my friend Jason Bedrick of the Cato Institute recently pointed out, 2015 has officially knocked 2011 off its perch and become the educational choicing-est year ever. Fifteen states adopted 21 new or expanded educational choice programs this year, and we saw legal victories for choice in Alabama, Florida, Louisiana, and North Carolina. Sadly, our own Colorado Supreme Court case on the Douglas County voucher program didn’t end the same way, though the news on that front isn’t all bad—we may now have a legitimate chance to take on discriminatory Blaine Amendments before the U.S. Supreme Court.
On the public school choice front, Alabama became the nation’s newest charter state, though that victory was unfortunately counterbalanced by a totally bizarre Washington Supreme Court decision that charter schools are unconstitutional in that state. Huh?
Colorado is already pretty solid on public school choice. But our state still can’t seem to get with the private educational choice program. I wish other states the best of luck as they implement, revise, and defend their educational choice policies, but I can’t say I’m not a little jealous. There are tens of thousands of kids in this state that need access to new options in order to get an effective education and reach their full potential, and every year we wait is another year lost for them. I sure hope we’ll be celebrating Colorado’s own educational choice victory this time next year.
So there you have it, friends. My list is hardly comprehensive—a lot happened in 2015—but hopefully it serves as good memento from a truly momentous year in education. I hope my writing this year has helped you make some sense of Colorado’s complicated education policy landscape, and that I’ve gone some way toward making the case for choice, accountability, and reform. I can’t wait to see what 2016 will bring. Happy New Year! See you in 2016!