The 2010 election and ed reform

One of the ongoing lessons of the shifting electorate is that party affiliation is less and less likely to predict specific election outcomes.  It’s simply no longer possible to count votes based purely on one’s declared party.  2010 clearly demonstrated this trend with victories for three officials — none of whom previously held statewide office — in related positions: a governor from one party, combined with a treasurer and secretary of state from the other. So, ignoring the limited lens of party affiliation (if we might), how was Colorado’s 2010 election for education reform?

Last fall saw a bitter contest — most of it within the Democratic party — on SB 191.  At the time, and exacerbated after the failure of R2T dollars to follow, there was the fear that 191 would be a ed reform waterloo, and many of the Democratic legislators who defied party stalwarts and traditional supporters to vote in favor of the bill were warned that they would suffer a lack of Democratic support, enthusiasm, and dollars in upcoming elections.

So how did they do?  Of the nine democrats (and 21 total legislators) who voted for 191 and were up for election, just one lost his seat — in a race where education was not a factor.

Also consider the local efforts of Stand for Children, a national nonprofit group founded by Jonah Edelman, son of activist Marian Wright Edelman. Stand is an non-partisan advocacy group for kids in a public school sector where most of the decisions are made both by and for adults (disclosure: I recently joined Stand’s local advisory board). For this election cycle, Stand both contributed money and developed an endorsement strategy that reached across party lines to find candidates whom its members believed were true education champions for children.

For Stand, party affiliation means little — it is the impact on the educational prospects and outcomes for kids that matters. Stand screened a number of candidates, with final endorsements contingent on a super-majorty vote of its members (a far more collaborative method to determine support than most organizations).  Stand eventually supported 18 candidates for Colorado’s legislature (a mix of 12 Democrats, 5 Republicans, and 1 Unaffiliated). On the dawn after Tuesday’s election eve, fully 15 of the 18 candidates will be in the legislature for the next session.

Stand’s singleminded focus on outcomes for kids rather than the interests of adults makes for shifting alliances: Stand and the Colorado Education Association (CEA) agreed on 8 candidates, 7 of whom won. However there were also four candidates that Stand supported and CEA opposed, three of whom won.

Election reformers had reasons to celebrate further up the ticket as well, with the narrow election of former DPS Superintendent Bennet, whose organization produced a remarkable GOTV effort that seems to have picked up where his personal shoe leather campaign for Manual left off.  In fact, if there is a unknown variable in Colorado’s post-election education reform algorithm, it is probably future Governor Hickenlooper, whose education policy statements have been bland and inconsequential — a reflection of a campaign where a viable strategy was not to draw too much attention to himself while his opponents cut each other into smaller and smaller pieces.

Where — and to what extent — Hickenlooper decides to pursue a specific education agenda is still a very open question.

Education has been mentioned as a potential wedge issue to separate Democrats.  But this survival of Colorado’s pro-reform Democrats in what may be the toughest partisan election in their careers makes that claim hollow.  Instead, it seems like education — mentioned specifically by President Obama as one of the areas where he hopes to find common ground with the new Congress — can serve as a meeting place for sanity, somewhere in between the conservative Scylla’s who wish to abolish the Department of Education and the liberal Charybdis’s who fight any change to the failing status quo.

Perhaps the group who emerged with the least amount of bruises, and the most hope, from the torrid Colorado campaign season are those who are still too young to vote.

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