Ben DeGrow of the Independence Institute argues the Douglas County teachers union has been working against vouchers all along. 

Education affairs in Douglas County have attracted a great deal of attention in recent times, often generating more heat than light. A little more clarity is needed, however, to help understand the nature of the opposition to the bold reform agenda in Colorado’s third largest school district.

An audience member fills out a question card about the Douglas County voucher plan.
An audience member fills out a question card on the Douglas County voucher proposal at a 2011 community meeting. EdNews file photo.

As the school board moved ahead with the groundbreaking Choice Scholarship Program in 2011, the Douglas County Federation of Teachers (DCFT) – the local teachers union – carefully crafted a quiet public position. A Jan. 13, 2011, letter to members from President Brenda Smith cautioned a wait-and-see approach as the details of the Choice Scholarship Program were being developed. Two months later, when the board approved the program, EdNews Colorado reported a friendly, neutral tone from the DCFT leader:

“We applaud the district and teachers for working collaboratively … to ensure money will not leave a budget with scarce resources, holds all participating schools accountable and provides an equal opportunity for all our students,” teachers union President Brenda Smith said in a written statement. “We will continue to monitor its implementation.”

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and a local group called Taxpayers for Public Education led the charge to file lawsuits against the Douglas County Board of Education and the State of Colorado, while the local Democratic Party also assumed a role speaking out in opposition. From the union? Silence.

Earlier this month, the AFT co-sponsored an amicus brief in the voucher appeal that stated the union’s clear hostility to rescuing the program and the 500 students it had begun to serve from the district court’s injunction. This filing of course took place in the wake of a public dispute over negotiations that deeply touched the roots of union power and privilege (read this Ed Is Watching blog post).

Emails show union did have an opinion on reforms

Until this week, the apparent satisfying conclusion was that monitoring implementation of the Choice Scholarship Program had meant DCFT was detached and neutral concerning the program’s success or failure. One even might have speculated that union leaders’ seemingly newfound opposition to the pilot choice program stemmed from a reaction to their deteriorating relationship with the board rather than from an earlier calculated effort.

Two newly discovered email messages, one of them publicized Monday in a Townhall column by John Ransom, cast serious doubt on that theory. Even while DCFT leaders served unaccountably on the tax-funded district payroll and the district continued to collect AFT political dollars and other dues funds, the union was scheming with the ACLU to kill the board’s reform agenda.

The first email message was sent from senior political consultant George Merritt to three DCFT leaders, including Smith, on June 21, 2011, the date lawsuits first were filed against the Choice Scholarship Program:

I think it is very likely that we will be asked for a comment. I think this is another scenario where we need to keep our cards close to the vest and let the ACLU do what it does. So far, this is playing out exactly as you all planned, so congrats. While this is welcomed news, I think we want to stay the heck out of the way on this lawsuit. IF we are asked for comment by a reporter, we should keep it short and rather dull.

Merritt’s specific suggestion of something “short and rather dull” reflects the comment Smith provided to EdNews three months earlier. Townhall columnist Ransom makes a compelling observation when he writes:

It appears from the email that the union was coached by Merritt to execute a strategy that kept the union out of the limelight, while union officials on the public dole stage-managed efforts at destroying reform measures….

In other words, when it comes to the Choice Scholarship Program, DCFT was actually against it before they were against it. The second email shows a series of reactions to news that a local university was performing a privately-funded survey of parents who had received a Choice Scholarship (reported a few days later in the Denver Post).

Messages were exchanged on the evening of Dec. 7, 2011, nearly four months after Judge Michael A. Martinez issued the injunction. Responding to DCFT Vice President Courtney Smith, who exclaimed in language your teenager will understand (“OMG!!!!!”), Merritt concisely advised:

Let’s work on it first thing tomorrow. We’ll get it to the ACLU and let them raise hell.

Coordinated efforts? You make the call.

Like two important pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, these email messages provide a clearer picture of the timing and nature of the union’s opposition to school choice reforms. Given this new information, it’s fair to ask whether Gov. Hickenlooper finds the case more compelling to make a risky intervention on a major campaign contributor’s behalf. (Read about a $10,000 contribution to Hickenlooper from the DCFT at Colorado Peak Politics.)