Bruni: A bold bid for better schools


By FRANK BRUNI

New York Times News Service

If there’s a key to this nation’s sustained competitiveness, it’s education. And if there’s a key to the kind of social mobility that’s integral to our country’s cherished narrative, to its soul, it’s giving kids from all walks of life teachers and classrooms that beckon them toward excellence. But like all aspects of American policymaking these days, the push to improve public schools bucks up against factionalism, pettiness, lobbies that won’t be muted and sacred cows that can’t be disturbed. Progress that needs to be sweeping is anything but.

That’s why my eyes turn to Colorado. That’s why yours should, too.

The state is on the precipice of something big. On Election Day next Tuesday, Coloradans will decide whether to ratify an ambitious statewide education overhaul that the Legislature already passed and that Gov. John Hickenlooper signed but that voters must now approve, because Colorado law gives them that right in regard to tax increases, which the overhaul entails. Arne Duncan, the nation’s education secretary, has said that the success of Amendment 66, which is what voters will weigh in on, would make Colorado “the educational model for every other state to follow.”

It’s significant in many regards, especially in its creation of utterly surprising political bedfellows. Amendment 66 has the support of many fervent advocates of charter schools, which the overhaul would fund at nearly the same level as other schools for the first time. In fact one prominent donor to the campaign for Amendment 66 is Ben Walton, whose family’s philanthropy, the Walton Family Foundation, champions school choice and is loathed by teachers’ unions.

And yet the two most powerful of those unions, the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association, have endorsed Amendment 66. The NEA and its state arm, the Colorado Education Association, have together donated $4 million toward the amendment’s passage.

Part of what rallied the unions to the overhaul, which many unionized teachers initially resisted, is its infusion of an extra $950 million annually into public education through the 12th grade, a portion of which could go to rehiring teachers who lost jobs during the recession and to hiring new ones for broadly expanded preschool and kindergarten programs.

That’s an increase of more than 15 percent over current funding levels, which put Colorado well behind most other states in per-pupil spending, and it would be made possible by a tax increase that replaces the state’s flat rate of 4.63 percent with a rate of 5 percent on household income up to $75,000 and 5.9 percent on income above that.

Because of that increase, all of the Republicans in Colorado’s Legislature, controlled by Democrats, voted against the overhaul, which The Wall Street Journal recently portrayed as an ultraliberal, union-coddling scheme to begin soaking Coloradans with new taxes. Passage of Amendment 66, the Journal wrote, would prove “that millions of Coloradans have taken to smoking that marijuana they legalized last year.”

There’s no such reefer madness. If the overhaul were a socialist sop to teachers’ unions, the campaign for it wouldn’t have received $1 million from Michael Bloomberg and the support of some prominent Colorado businesses.

It does direct more money proportionally to poor schools and at-risk students, but as Hickenlooper said to me, “Everybody has a self-interest in reducing the number of dropouts.” He noted that more and better-educated high school graduates would mean less crime and a stronger workforce, attracting investment to Colorado.

He’s by no means a conventionally liberal Democrat. Neither is the overhaul’s chief architect, a young state senator named Mike Johnston who used to be a schoolteacher and principal and previously sponsored a law that ended traditional tenure in Colorado’s public schools. It drew robust Republican support.

His education overhaul is a shrewd grab bag of ideas from different camps that recognizes the political imperative of such eclecticism and the lack of any magic bullet for student improvement. It invests in early childhood education, teacher training, a fund for innovative projects, charters.

It ratchets up local control and flexibility, giving principals an unprecedented degree of autonomy over spending. It also enables parents to see, online, how much money goes into instruction versus administration at their children’s schools. There’s transparency. Accountability.

And Amendment 66 hardly puts Colorado in the ranks of high-tax states.

“It’s our idea of a grand bargain,” Johnston told me.

In Washington, that phrase has become a punch line, that notion a mirage. And in Colorado?

Fingers crossed. Because even if his plan turns out to be imperfect, it’s a relatively bold stride in a country too accustomed to baby steps. And those just aren’t good enough when it comes to children, knowledge and the future itself.

 

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