We kicked the Koch Brothers' a**: How Denver parents beat back big money, charter schools, right-wing lies

The Kochs spent a fortune on a local school board race that was really a national proxy. Then the good guys won

Published November 15, 2015 5:00PM (EST)


Although many Democrats are disappointed, even in a "panic," with the results from last week's off-year elections, they need to be aware of where progressives won and learn from communities that bucked the influences of big money, especially in contests where education was a top-tier issue.

Most notable of the wins was a school board race in Jefferson County, Colorado, just outside Denver, that many national media outlets had actually hyped but then mostly ignored once the results were in.

The vote, the New York Times reported before Election Day, was about "whether to oust a polarizing school board that has championed charter schools, performance-based teacher pay, and other education measures."

"The skirmish has been tense," the Washington Post explained, "with alleged death threats, social media clashes, and attacks on talk radio."

Both news stories told of a national program bearing down on the school district, with "money pouring in from Americans for Prosperity, the national organization founded by the Koch brothers," in an effort to impose an agenda from outside the community that included a new history curriculum, new restrictions on teachers' job security, and more privately-operated charter schools.

Students, teachers and parents were openly revolting against the school board, staging school walkouts, holding boisterous protest rallies and waging a petition campaign to demand an election to recall the school board majority.

The national outlets consistently got the story of the election wrong, adopting a talking point from a libertarian think tank that the contest was a "proxy war" between the Koch Brothers and "teachers' unions," when, in fact, the recall effort was mostly led by parents.

Then, when the results came in last week, and voters recalled the board majority and voted in a new slate of progressive-minded candidates, national outlets generally ignored the story, and the news was relegated to local outlets and bloggers to report.

But what the national media have misreported and overlooked is an important story of how communities fighting to control their education destinies can win against big-moneyed interests and a charter school industry that want to dictate what schooling is like across the country.

A Major Battle to Preserve Public Schools

I went to Jeffco (what the locals call it) this summer and reported about the emerging national story for Alternet.

I found this outstanding school district – where real innovation is taking place in the public schools – is "under assault by right-wing groups, some with connections to evangelical Christianity" and "a powerful charter school industry, different from the 'organic charters' Jeffco parents already send their kids to."

My firsthand investigations, which included more than a dozen interviews and visits to community events and school sites, revealed a fight over "who gets to call the shots in education systems strained by unending financial austerity and an unremitting 'reform' agenda whose intent is unclear to the people in its way."

I met with local Jeffco citizens who engaged in scores of house parties, circulated flyers and repeated a message of dissent against the three board members who were intent on imposing a market-based philosophy of education conceived in libertarian think tanks and charter school corporate offices.

Why should you care about a school board election in suburban Denver?

As a reporter at Al Jazeera correctly understood in her pre-election report, the contest had "national implications."

The race, Sandra Fish writes, "has ramifications far outside the school district … Because Jeffco is the ultimate swing county in the key swing state of Colorado," Fish finds, "that means success – or defeat – there could be replicated across the U.S."

She quotes a professor of education history at New York University saying, “Colorado has become a kind of test case for these issues. Others around the country will be watching to see if the money and the influence matters … It’s going to be a very close election is my guess.'"

The professor was mostly right, except about the margin of victory. It wasn't close. Voters "overwhelmingly," according to the Denver Post, voted for the recall, with the charter school-backed board members going down by an average of 64 percent to 36 percent.

A Jeffco classroom teacher involved in the resistance effort, Paula Reed, had this to say in an email to me about the importance of the recall win: "This was a major front in the battle to preserve public schools for kids and stop privatization for profit. I said to myself and everyone I pulled in that if we won, we would know for the rest of our lives that we had been part of something huge."

Why Grassroots Matters Most

"The success of this recall has been a true testament to what grassroots can accomplish," Jeffco parent activist Jonna Levine tells me in an email. "We sent a strong message that community can win over big corporate machines like the Koch Brothers."

Levine co-founded and leads, with Jeffco parent Shawna Fritzler, the grassroots group "Support Jeffco Kids." Organizing parents into these grassroots groups, including Jeffco United, that helped lead the petition effort proved to be a key to the successful campaign. Parents have an undeniable stake in anything related to public schools. And unlike teachers, they can't be intimidated by school administration or be fired.

"We connect with our PTAs and other parent organizations, and build a network of public education supporters," Levine explains. Non-parent households, including former parents and retirees, proved to be an important audience as well, Levine points out. "In Jeffco, 70-75 percent of our voters have very little contact with a public school." But successful outreach efforts to these voters proved to be not only possible but essential.

"Jeffco United is a group of concerned parents and community leaders, not union thugs as the opposition often referred to us," explains Jeffco parent Barbara Ferris. "We did what always works best. We talked to our friends and neighbors; then we started talking to acquaintances and strangers to tell them why this election was so important, what was at stake, even if they did not have a child in a Jeffco school. All the money from the opposition, whether it was dark money or not, that bought ad time on TV and mailed out flyers, could not win over old fashioned conversations."

Margaret Lessenger, another parent active in the recall effort, tells me of her experiences among all the Davids fighting off the Goliath of the education "reform" agenda. "My efforts were to analyze publicly available school performance and demographic data, and wrap stories around the analyses. I had assistance from three other parents to help with messaging, fact checking, presentation, and tone. Reformers typically, and dishonestly, use these data to justify their agenda. I was looking at the data in a more analytical way to demonstrate they were wrong. These data showed their reforms were going to hurt achievement."

Lessenger – a parent who helped found an organic charter school in Jeffco, but who dislikes the idea of charter schools coming to the community from the outside – would post her analyses on a website operated by the parent groups and blast the information out through the groups' Facebook pages and other social media channels.

"We did not have money for an ad," she recalls, "so we parents created a digital ad to use in Facebook and other feeds. We also used pictures of real people, not stock photos. I would ask people to send me pictures. Using real people and not stock photos conveyed the message this really is grassroots."

"Jeffco was able to push back against political agendas and outside money because we came together as a community," parent Kelly Johnson tells me. "Parents, grandparents, business owners, community leaders, students, teachers, Republicans, Democrats, and unaffiliated voters all came together to educate others and make sure they had factual information."

An Education Spring

The Jeffco school board win is reflective of other education-relevant races around the country, growing evidence of an Education Spring, where progressives scored equally notable victories.

In nearby Douglas County, as the Denver Post reported, "three incumbents … who claimed seats on the school board as part of a reform push several years ago lost in their re-election bids." Elsewhere in Colorado, challengers won convincingly over conservative candidates in a school board race in Thompson County to radically alter that district's direction toward more charter schools.

In St. Paul, Minnesota, insurgents upset the school board majority to return more teacher and parent voice to district policy making. The successful candidates sprang from the “Caucus for Change” movement started by a group of teachers, parents and community members who have been critical of district decisions.

In Jersey City, New Jersey, a slate of teacher-backed candidates brought to office a new school board majority just as the district is in transition from state control to more local autonomy.

Indianapolis elected a Democratic mayor for the first time in eight years who has pledged to require more accountability and transparency of charter schools and criticized the statewide policy of using vouchers to redirect public education funds to private schools.

In Philadelphia, the election of new mayor Jim Kenny and city councilwoman Helen Gym ushered in "a new dynamic at City Hall regarding education policy," according to a local news source. While neither candidate outright refuted the role charter schools can play in a public school system, they rejected "the reliance on privatization as a reform strategy" and called for education policies based on "real values" rather than test scores.

The forces battling to uphold the promise of public education in communities across the country are not naïve. "We know we have not heard the last of the Koch Brothers and Americans for Prosperity," Levine states.

In fact, as their final decision, the outgoing members of the Jeffco board voted to award a charter school contract to a controversial for-profit charter chain operation based in South Florida.

"I have no doubt that Americans for Prosperity and the Independence Institute [a Colorado-based libertarian think tank] will be back," Reed agrees. "There is simply too much money in education for them to keep their hands out of the pot. We have to remain strong and united with a vision for schools that is about kids, not politics and financial gain."

By Jeff Bryant

Jeff Bryant is a writing fellow and chief correspondent for Our Schools, a project of the Independent Media Institute. He is a communications consultant, freelance writer, advocacy journalist, and director of the Education Opportunity Network, a strategy and messaging center for progressive education policy. His award-winning commentary and reporting routinely appear in prominent online news outlets, and he speaks frequently at national events about public education policy. Follow him on Twitter @jeffbcdm.

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