Alexander Ooms is a member of the board of the Charter School Institute, the West Denver Preparatory Charter School and the Colorado chapter of Stand for Children
Alan has asked bloggers for their thoughts on the election as part of a post-mortem. I find this rearview mirror perspective usually boringly obvious, as it’s far easier to ascribe cause once one knows the effect. So I’m sending in my quick thoughts in advance of the election results (although probably published afterwards). If I am wrong it will be painfully obvious and if right you’ll have to trust me that this was in early.
First is Prop 103. I thought the best summary was provided by Eric Sondermann. I just don’t see how this passes, and I doubt it is at all close. This initiative never had enough high-powered backers or an effective coalition, and faced a strong economic headwind. All true criticisms, but I also think a proposal as unspecific about how the money will be used would have trouble even in a different economic climate.
Most taxpayers, with justification, see education as a black hole where money enters and little changes. This proposition exacerbated that claim, and has all the mechanics of a a feel-good proposition that many people could support in its doom without having to engage in the far harder work of crafting something specific which could have drawn broader support. “We tried” will be the mantra — but a try that was designed to never be a serious threat. More is the pity.
Most interesting will be the district-specific vote tallies as a precursor to future bonds. Denver voters approved a $454M bond back in 2008 by a 2:1 margin, while nearby Jeffco voters voted down a similar proposal. The appetite of voters for Prop 103 will be an imprecise but early indication of bond issue potential in 2012, so watch for the district-by-district tally — particularly since suspense on the initiative itself is unlikely.
Denver school board. This is the only board race I’ve followed closely, but I confess I find the attention it has garnered compared to next door’s Douglas Country surprising — the latter’s shameless cliff-dive into voucher territory is far more controversial.
What happens? I think that both the at-large and District 1 elections won’t be very close. For the at-large seat, no coalition came together to challenge the name recognition and track record of Happy Haynes. Four years ago Theresa Pena won a three-way race with 34,103 votes and 47%; I think it is possible Haynes breaks 60%, and if not, she’ll be closer than a Tebow throw.
District 1 initially looked like it would be a reasonable contest, with Anne Rowe challenged by relative newcomer Emily Sirota. However despite Sirota’s youthful energy and ability to network through her own legislative experience and her husband’s substantial political connections, she never articulated a vision, and even her husband’s columns began to sound more like an apology than a call to action. I think both Haynes and Rowe win easily (although Haynes by more than Rowe). In 2007, Hoyt won with 11,912 votes (65%). This one will be closer, but I’d guess 8-10 percentage points.
The last seat, in District 5, has turned out to be more interesting, and I think it will come down to a few hundred votes. I have a personal preference here, and I’d like to believe this turns out the way I would design, but truthfully I think it could go either way. Four years ago, Jimenez prevailed in a four-way race by 368 votes (with 3,782 total, or 36%; others had 32%, 22%, 10%). The winner here will probably need 6,500 – 6,800 votes, so even given the power of incumbency, this should be a squeaker.
I do think that what is being somewhat overshadowed in all three races is that the general public has shifted considerably in the past few years, and the question is no longer whether or not to proceed with reforms, but instead how broadly and at what pace. That the single incumbent running for reelection with considerable union support was placed on the defensive even while publicly (if selectively) supporting both charters and innovation schools is a remarkable shift. Reform and the accompanying policies are going to be part of the agenda for the foreseeable future.
Two other general comments: The pendulum of local elections tends to equilibrium, and my experience is that the people who align with the “winners” find that things are never as rosy as they think they will be, and the people who align with the “shoulda-been-winners” find that things are rarely as bad as they feared. Particularly in divided boards (and this will either be 4-3 or 5-2), mandates become elusive and chance has a way of finding strange bedfellows on some issues. Denver’s school board is most likely to continue to muddle along, and I think with much the same animosity as before.
Elections tend to focus on the new people coming in, when the changes have as much to do with the people going out. The two DPS board members stepping down due to term limits are Bruce Hoyt and Theresa Peña. Hoyt has a financial acumen and experience that is critically important in this time of fiscal uncertainty. His particular set of skills rests with no other member or candidate, and his presence will be sorely missed. Peña has been, in my opinion, remarkably effective in keeping the majority coalition intact and establishing a number of important policies (agree with them or not, but the votes passed), and with a board this sharply divided, that was no small feat.
So I think the new Denver board — regardless of its final composition — is likely to be less strong on reform issues than the current board due to the absence of both Hoyt and Peña, even if the reform majority is larger. The pendulum swings.
May you live in interesting times, the Chinese cursed. As far as education policy in Denver goes, the interesting times will continue. I think I can speak for a lot of people who will be glad when the election itself is over, and that the efforts can once more be focused better outcomes for kids, and not prying votes from adults.