A national teachers' union's war machine is on the move in Colorado

A national teachers' union's war machine is on the move in Colorado
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For months, one of America’s most important fights over parental choice in education has been raging on suburban street corners, in school gymnasiums, and in voters’ mailboxes in Douglas County, Colo. Now, the nature of the race has been irrevocably altered in its final weeks by the full-scale deployment of a national teachers' union's political war machine.

As the county’s Nov. 7 school board election rapidly approaches, the nation’s second-largest national teachers union has thrown down the gauntlet in a bid to strangle parental choice. With two slates of candidates vying for four open seats on the district’s seven-member board of education, the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) in Washington, D.C., pumped $300,000 into the race in early October.

Newly filed reports appear to indicate that the union’s investment has now doubled to $600,000. Combined with at least $100,000 in dark money, these contributions equate to a nuclear-level show of national political force in a suburban Colorado community.

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Ironically, the four anti-choice and anti-reform candidates supported by the tidal wave of national union cash have repeatedly assured Douglas County voters that they represent the “grassroots” of the county. Calling themselves the “Community Slate,” they have decried outside money and influence and sought to paint the opposing, pro-school-choice “Elevate Douglas County” candidates as the beneficiaries of deep-pocketed out-of-state interests. They cast themselves as the David to the pro-school-choice slate’s Goliath.

 

Campaign finance disclosures show that Elevate Douglas County candidates have indeed received some support from organizations and individuals outside Douglas County. However, the vast majority of that support originated in Colorado, and it is dwarfed by the sheer scale of the union’s spending. 

The stark contrast of the Community Slate’s grassroots narrative with the revelation that these candidates are themselves backed by big money from Washington, D.C., has landed like a bomb in Douglas County, which now finds itself exposed to the full fury of the union’s national war machine. That machine is daily bombarding residents with an unprecedented level of political artillery attacking candidates in favor of parental choice and supporting the union’s chosen four.

Backlash to the deployment of full-scale national political warfare in suburbia has been intense. For example, the Douglas County GOP issued a scathing statement condemning the Community Slate’s deception and endorsing the four Republican candidates running as part of the Elevate Douglas County slate.

Yet many who watch school board races in Colorado are not surprised. A similar strategy of obfuscation was utilized during a heated school board recall election in neighboring Jefferson County in 2015. There, activists working to unseat three conservative school board members repeatedly denied union involvement and framed their effort as exclusively “parent led.” It wasn’t until after these activists won the election that voters discovered the truth: Teachers unions provided 99.9 percent of the primary recall front group’s funding. This time, voters discovered large-scale union involvement as mail-in ballots arrived on their kitchen tables.

The 2017 Douglas County School District Board of Education race was always destined to be one of the most closely watched in the nation. The outcome of the race will decide the fate of a critical constitutional case that could throw open the doors of opportunity for students nationwide by invalidating the use of archaic, discriminatory Blaine Amendments to hobble publicly funded scholarship programs that allow K-12 students to attend nonpublic schools. Community Slate candidates have indicated that they intend to end this litigation — litigation one of their own running mates started in 2011 — prior to final resolution if elected.

The union’s heavy investment in Douglas County illustrates that AFT, whose president recently issued the outrageously inaccurate statement that parental choice programs are “only slightly more polite cousins of segregation,” understands the stakes in Douglas County. And it is willing to do whatever it takes to halt the advance of educational freedom.

The fight over Blaine may be the centerpiece of this year’s Douglas County school board race, but it is far from the only issue. Approximately 20 percent of the district’s students attend public charter schools. Though the union-backed candidates have tried to thread the political needle on charter schools, many charter leaders and parents worry about what a 7-0 majority backed by AFT might mean for their schools. Those concerns are not unfounded. AFT is a notoriously militant opponent of charter school expansion, which the organization’s president has called a “coordinated national effort to decimate public schools.”

AFT’s Colorado chapter likely also sees this election as a lifeline. The Douglas County school board ended its collective bargaining agreement with a local affiliate of AFT in 2012. Reinstituting a union contract in the county would net millions in annual revenue for the Colorado chapter of the union — revenue that could stave off the encroaching monopoly of the National Education Association in Colorado.

It is not yet clear what the final outcome of the Douglas County school board race will be. But as national political forces collide with parental choice supporters in suburban America, the stakes could not be higher. And the county will never be the same.

Ross Izard (@RossIzard) is a senior fellow in education policy for the Independence Institute (@i2idotorg), a free market think tank in Denver, Colorado.