The Douglas County School District is in the midst of what Superintendent Elizabeth Fagen recently called “the most rigorous transformation plan in American public education.”
The arguments surrounding that effort are varied, some distinct to Douglas County and others similar to those surrounding education reform nationwide.
That makes the Nov. 5 school board election — which could signal a shift in the school board's direction — the focus of national attention. The race for four seats on the seven-member board features eight candidates, four favoring the board's reform efforts and four looking for a change in direction.
Controversy has surrounded almost every step of the major educational reforms introduced by DCSD, starting with the voucher program in 2011. The many other reform pieces include a redesign of the teachers' pay-for-performance system first introduced in 1993, and a market-based pay scale believed to be the first in the nation implemented at the K-12 level.
District officials and reform supporters say Douglas County is leading the way, with programs and systems that will serve as a model for other districts across the country as the United States attempts to restore its academic record. The plans also give parents control and choice over their individual child's education, a role reformers see as logical and appropriate.
Some community members who see DCSD as a test case for the nation question the level of research behind and validity of the changes, their implementation, lack of community input, and teacher morale they say is declining in the reforms' wake. They also question the ultimate goal, with some speculating the current method of reform will lead to socioeconomic segregation and underfunded public schools.
Bill Mathis, managing director of the Boulder-based National Education Policy Center, says evidence shows the reforms that date back as far as three decades remain unproven.
“The whole set of neo-liberal reforms has not proven itself to be particularly effective,” Mathis said. “The top-down, test-based reform strategies which include privatization have just simply not paid off. The gains have been so small as to be not meaningful from a policy point of view. They certainly don't close the achievement gap.”
Stanford University professor Eric Hanushek says the reforms not only work, they are necessary to ensure the country's economic future.
Hanushek points specifically to two reforms — pay-for-performance and vouchers — he thinks have a positive, combined effect on the quality of education.
“What both of these do is to set up a set of incentives that try to lead you to better teachers,” he said. “Pay-for-performance correctly rewards those that are doing well and doesn't reward those that aren't doing as good.
“Vouchers are such that if somebody's in a school and doesn't feel they're being served well by the teachers in the school, they have the option to go somewhere else. So there's an incentive for the schools to try to keep their students by providing better-quality education. Everybody potentially wins — except perhaps the people in the current system that don't want to change.”
Additionally, Hanushek said, “The voucher system is just giving parents more choice, which seems like a sensible idea to many of us.”
In Mathis' eyes, vouchers' effects have a broader, more concerning effect.
“It will not give you much educational improvement if they follow the national record,” he said. “But I'd look out for the segregation effects. What happens is, you get tremendous amounts of socioeconomic segregation that occurs as a result. Affluent children go to schools with other affluent children. Groups segregate by religion and other identifiers. That's troublesome in a nation in which we have such huge economic disparities. Feeding this type of segregation is not good for democracy.”
Hanushek said vouchers present, “a little tendency toward economic segregation, but there's also great advantage in providing stronger incentives for schools to do better.”
Both men acknowledged the reform movement attracts support from conservative organizations — locally including Americans for Prosperity and the Independence Institute — but they disagree on the reason.
“Part of it is ideological in terms of being anti-government,” Mathis said. “Public schools are seen as government where they would prefer a market-based orientation. Also, (reform) is seen by some as defunding education and lowering the profile of government.
“If you scratch a little deeper you have to ask questions about who profits by a set of policies that segregate people.”
Hanushek believes the interest stems from concern about American student performance falling behind that of other countries.
“There's a group of people and organizations that think we have to do a lot to reform our schools,” he said.
Some of their concerns are similar to the views he expresses in his book “Endangering Prosperity: A Global View of the American School.”
“The basic message is the future of the country depends upon improving our schools,” he said. “Some of the outside philanthropists believe these institutes — pay-for-performance and vouchers — are ways to move the whole nation forward.
“All other things being equal, nations that have more pay-for-performance or more choice in schools do better than other nations,” Hanushek said. “I think that there's a lot of international evidence that supports these reforms as ways to improve schools.”