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School’s Out, But Douglas County Summertime Happenings Worth Watching

School is out… Hooray!!! But in Douglas County, Colorado’s third-largest school district and a true hotspot of education reform, the summer months still give us plenty to which we can look forward. First, this month of June represents the final 30 days before the collective bargaining contract with the Douglas County Federation of Teachers (DCFT) expires. What happens after that, no one knows. It’s going to look much different, though, that’s for sure.

Groundbreaking open negotiations kicked off there more than seven weeks ago. I applauded the bold proposals set forth by the Douglas County school board, some of which also caught the favorable attention of Denver Post columnist Vincent Carroll.

Previously, my Education Policy Center friend Ben DeGrow had raised the question of how serious DCFT was about embracing open union negotiations. Transparency has seemed to suit everyone just fine, even as a few hundred teachers showed up at the last session to send a statement.

It’s good to listen to the voice of teachers. Especially the best teachers. And an organization doesn’t necessarily have to be recognized by a government body as exclusive bargaining agent to ensure that happens. Are the teachers in Colorado’s 137 non-bargaining districts (as large as El Paso County’s Academy 20) without a voice? They can still belong to various professional associations and participate in influencing decisions, even if no particular group has specially-sanctioned privileges.

Furthermore, one of the Douglas County Board’s proposals, to end union dues collection — reform item number 2 in this 2011 report — would help ensure the organization more directly hears its member teachers’ voices. And another proposal to allow wider selection of individual educators’ representation enhances teachers’ choices.

Next week is the marathon of final negotiations between DCSD and DCFT. Where the two sides end up is beyond me. How the board and union leadership choose to respond remains to be seen. Will someone take it to court or to the ballot box? If the school board and their team succeed in making significant changes to move toward a more performance-based district, no doubt some change and turnover will occur. Even so, the Board also has focused on giving small raises and retention bonuses across the board to show appreciation.

Some tuned-up rhetoric suggests a cataclysmic outcome. Yet leaders would be beyond foolish to ignore or punish good teachers. And many protections still exist for educators, through provisions in state and federal law, not to mention their continued access to support from various membership options. Even if there’s no collective bargaining agreement. But what would an agreement look like if teachers could join a local union only without the larger political agenda? That’s a conversation for another day.

Getting beyond June brings our attention back to the legal appeal of Douglas County’s one-of-a-kind choice scholarship program. Plaintiffs (those who sued the district and the state of Colorado to enjoin the program) reportedly have been granted an extension until July 13 to issue their written response briefs.

Five different appellate briefs were submitted on the defendants’ side back in April, which you can find on the “Legal Information” section of the Education Policy Center’s comprehensive “Douglas County vouchers” page. Don’t know if we’ll get to the Court of Appeals hearing before school starts up again, but stay tuned.

Put on your shades and your sunblock. Head for the beach or the fishing hole or the ball diamond. But don’t forget to keep an eye on what’s going on in Douglas County. You can bet I’ll be taking a peek there once in awhile.