This week, superintendents representing more than 50 school districts from Colorado are meeting in Eagle County. The gathering comes on the heels of an unprecedented coordination and collaboration of Colorado’s education leaders behind an effort to increase school funding as the state economy recovers from the Great Recession.
That effort was a significant, if limited, success. While the superintendents’ full request for added funding was not met, ultimately the government relented to pressure from communities all across Colorado to provide an additional $110 million dollars in school funding for this upcoming year.
GENUINE GRASSROOTS EFFORT
A significant component of the success of this effort stems from superintendents all across the state mobilizing a genuine grassroots effort focused on supporting Colorado’s schools. Teachers, parents, students, community leaders and everyday citizens who care about public education called, emailed, wrote letters, attended meetings and made trips to Denver so that every elected official in the state understood the importance of supporting public schools.
This was an unexpected jolt to the Legislature and those accustomed to making education policy decisions with arrogant disregard to local communities. The direction of decision making changed completely. Instead of decisions being handed down to community schools from under the golden dome, decisions were influenced by the views and needs of Colorado communities.
The effort of the superintendents was a significant, community-centered and effective counter-balance to a parade of ideologically driven nonprofit “think-tanks,” careerists and insiders. They have had free reign to shape education policy, leaving our schools holding the bag when it came to implementing a mess of disconnected, and often unfunded, mandates. Most importantly, they reduced school funding levels by nearly 20 percent — against the will of their constituents and the state constitution.
HOW A DEMOCRACY SHOULD OPERATE
Such a grassroots effort demonstrates how a representative democracy should operate — with the voices of communities being the guiding light of policy decisions. This week’s meeting is an attempt to keep the momentum going from the successes of the past legislative session. It almost goes without saying, but keeping such a coalition together is no easy task.
Superintendents in Colorado represent an incredible variety of communities in terms of size, demographics, population density, wealth and political leanings. Plus, superintendents vary considerably in their approaches to building a quality education system.
With such wide-ranging variability, the meeting is founded on an important belief: That which unites us is stronger and profoundly more powerful than that which divides us. We also believe that our communities can likewise pull together and rise above the noise of Washington, D.C.-style politics to once again have a positive influence on our elected officials.
Every school superintendent carries the tremendous responsibility of overseeing the education of the community’s children. The decisions made by Colorado’s local school chiefs, over time, impact thousands upon thousands of lives in countless ways. I’m sure I speak for many superintendents in saying this responsibility is both incredibly invigorating and humbling. I imagine every superintendent wakes up every day energized at the prospect of making a brighter future for kids. We also hold the trust our communities place in us sacred.
THE POWER IS YOURS
Going forward, the energy happening in Eagle County this week will hinge on the ability of Colorado school superintendents to come to consensus on a limited number of high-level policy priorities. The superintendents can increase the probability of continued success by working to keep the big tent, where the shared pressure of many communities push in the same direction, and by limiting the scope of the work, so as not to shatter the effort into a bunch of well intentioned but disconnected priorities.
The continued success of the effort also greatly depends on the ability to continue to mobilize Colorado communities behind public education. The role of the superintendent is important in terms of political significance and expertise, but the superintendents are just catalysts to the reaction. We serve as the voice of our communities, your voice, speaking against the well funded political action committees courting legislators to support their agenda.
But, the power is with you — educators, parents and community leaders. When you mobilize like this past legislative session, then your elected representatives listen. And this is just as it should be.
Jason E. Glass is the superintendent of Eagle County Schools. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.