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Ugly Smear Column Tries, Fails to Shove Conservative Education Reform Aside

I hope you all enjoyed a nice, long break from recent depressing edu-happenings over the last few days. I also hope that your disappointment is tempered by hope for the future. As my friend Ross Izard pointed out in a recent op-ed—and as my dad always says—it ain’t over ‘til the fat lady sings.

I never have figured out who that fat lady is, but I’m pretty positive it isn’t Michael Vaughn, a former DPS spokesperson turned communications director for Education Post. Mr. Vaughn recently wrote a post-election Denver Post op-ed about the fact that “real” reform is winning in Colorado. It’s a rather nasty piece in which he celebrates reform victories in Denver while all but dancing on the graves of conservative education reformers around the state.

When I look at what conservative education reform folks have pushed for over the past few years in Jeffco, Thompson, Dougco, and other districts, I see a long list of meaningful reforms. New curricula, new charter schools, pay-for-performance systems, equal funding for charter students, collective bargaining reform—you name it, it’s there. But that doesn’t seem to qualify as true reform for Vaughn, who instead offers this definition of the term:

I know there’s no tried-and-true definition of reform, but there are generally accepted reform stances: school choice/charter schools; Common Core; annual, federally mandated standardized testing; teacher and school accountability. So let’s see how the losing candidates stand on these issues.

He goes on to hammer Dougco for applying for a State Board of Education Waiver from PARCC testing, taking school choice to “an extreme” with its local voucher program, “busting the union,” and “jamming” policies down teachers’ throats. He then implicitly extends most of those critiques to Jeffco, and adds an astonishingly unsophisticated take on the A.P. U.S. History fiasco that fails to acknowledge the fact that despite Julie Williams’ blunt approach to the situation, conservative concerns about the framework were ultimately validated by the College Board itself.

Sadly, those flubs are far from the worst the column has to offer.

Absolutely no effort is made to substantively examine the actual policies pursued and enacted by either district. He utterly fails to so much as acknowledge the fact that Douglas County’s reforms may be working (note that the linked report was written by Peter Groff, a well-known Colorado Democrat and education reformer who previously served as president of the Colorado Senate and a member of the Obama administration’s education team). He also makes no effort to admit that maybe, just maybe, the Jeffco board majority did some good stuff despite their missteps. No mention is made of the fact that the recall effort was driven by lies, or of the fact that the same union began planning the conservatives’ demise long before they ever took a single vote.

Similarly, while I applaud Mr. Vaughn’s support of charter schools and public school choice, I am puzzled by his failure to recognize that oversubscription in many of the best public schools—yes, even in Denver—locks many kids out of the educational opportunities they need to be successful. He calls Dougco’s voucher program “extreme” because it provided opportunities to all families regardless of income, yet I can’t help but believe that he’d also oppose a private school choice program in Denver, where many thousands of low-income students are in desperate need of help.

I could go on to discuss the silliness of implicitly portraying Denver as a bastion of more peaceful district-union collaboration, particularly given this year’s direct union spending figures for Denver and the district’s ongoing legal battles against its local union. I could also remind him that Dougco’s teachers union wasn’t exactly an innocent victim of the fate that befell it in 2012, and that Jeffco “busted the union” by negotiating a smarter, leaner union contract that aligns with many of the same reform principles one would assume Mr. Vaughn holds dear.

I could point out the irony of accusing a district of “jamming” policies down people’s throats while simultaneously supporting something as deeply (and increasingly) maligned as Common Core. Or I could wonder aloud about why Mr. Vaughn, who shares my views on the importance of annual testing that supports informed parental choice and strong accountability systems, seems so fixated on the federal government as the sole—or even the most effective—arbiter of education reform policy.

But ultimately, what would any of that accomplish? The truth is that Mr. Vaughn and his “bedrock reform organizations” don’t get to define what qualifies as “real” reform. His implication to the contrary is arrogant to the point of being offensive, and smacks of political positioning rather than a steadfast focus on making changes that are best for kids. Education reform is not the exclusive domain of the Left, nor should it be. A diversity of ideas can only lead to better, stronger reform policies (the cloistered conservative says to the open-minded liberal).

After this year’s elections, conservative education reformers across Colorado have a unique opportunity learn from our mistakes and think about how we communicate who we are, what we stand for, and why we stand for it. In the meantime, maybe Mr. Vaughn ought to spend less time celebrating losses for Colorado kids in nearly every district except Denver and more time remembering why he’s in this fight to begin with.