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Voices: Dougco reform drama puzzling

Colorado education researcher Robert Reichardt wonders whether Dougco’s voucher dispute and animosity with its teachers union will ultimately be good for the district.

I find the whole Douglas County reform drama a bit puzzling. The district was pretty high-performing. Using the 2011 Colorado School Grades, Douglas County’s GPA places it in the top 3 mid- to large-sized districts in the state. And while I am sure performance can improve in Douglas County, it is not clear that lack of choice and the teachers’ unions are holding the district back. Yet, that is where the district leadership is focusing their reform efforts.

Dougco school board member Meghann Silverthorn appeals to audience and board members for calm after contentious exchanges.
Douglas County school board member Meghann Silverthorn, right, appeals for calm after contentious public exchanges at a recent meeting.
Jessica Glazer

And a recent Denver Post op-ed by Gov. Hickenlooper and Lt. Gov. Garcia amps up the focus on unions. They make the point that the teachers’ union, the Douglas County Federation of Teachers, has been a reform leader. And I agree. The DCFT was instrumental in bringing alternative teacher compensation to the state and in pushing for data systems that link teachers to their students.

So how is this all going to turn out? I am not optimistic that near-term Douglas County student outcomes are going to improve. So far, what I see is talent fleeing with increased teacher attrition and anecdotal evidence that administrators are also running from the reforms.

This is good news for neighboring districts as they can staff their schools and central offices with experienced, talented people who learned their chops in Douglas County schools. And while there is evidence that teacher turnover generally harms school performance, Douglas County is not going to have any problems recruiting out-of-state talent to come work at the foothills of the Rocky Mountains. This inflow of talent could benefit the whole state.

Neighboring districts could also benefit from students and families who tire of the drama. This will particularly benefit districts like Littleton and Englewood that depend on choice students to maintain their enrollments and thus state funding. The October enrollment count will be telling – if the number of students choicing out of Douglas County increases, neighboring districts will celebrate, while Douglas County leaders should ponder if they are on the right path.

This will probably end with an election and a new majority on the school board. However, if the turmoil continues, it will be interesting to see if schools and their respective communities try seeking innovation or charter status to get a little more control over their own fate. I also worry that Douglas County’s practice of awarding individual teacher contracts will open the district up to complaints of discrimination.

Whether this period of change is good for Douglas County in the long run will depend on whether the district is able to consolidate the staffing flexibility the district has developed while nurturing its talent pool. Long-term success will depend upon talented educators believing Douglas County is a place where they can succeed and the focus is on improving classroom instruction – not unions and choice.

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