Denver, TUSD, Koch Brothers, Bill Bennett


by David Safier

The Douglas County School District near Denver broke campaign laws by paying a scholar to write a "scholarly" puff piece about the district just before the school board elections. The TUSD connection is, the Douglas district's superintendent is Elizabeth Celania-Fagen, who was TUSD supe before John Pedicone. What makes the connection less than trivial is, Fagen is one of the few public school superintendents in the nation to embrace vouchers, and the recent school board elections pitted her pro-voucher, anti-union candidates against a more progressive slate. (The progressives lost.) Meaning, we may have been lucky that Fagen chose to leave Tucson.

Also part of this story is, national conservative money poured into the elections on the pro-voucher, anti-union side. Both the Koch Brothers and Jeb Bush supported the "reform" candidates, with direct contributions to candidates and by funding independent campaigns. School board elections are being nationalized, mainly by big money conservatives, because the "school reform" movement is both pro-privatization, anti-government and anti-union, a three-fer for conservatives. Schools are a political battlefield, now more than ever.

While the conservative money flowing into a local school board election is perfectly legal, the district buying a "scholarly report" before the election isn't, according to a Denver judge. The report was written by Rick Hess, a somewhat respected conservative educational scholar working with the American Enterprise Institute, who should now lose whatever respectability he currently has. He got $30,000 to write about how wonderful and innovative the school district is.

In an email no serious scholar should write, Hess asked the people who paid him what they wanted to hear: "We would prefer it if you would tell us what you want us to focus on, what is most worthy of attention, what you'd like to see written about and what your general angle on it (and the paper) is." The paper included profiles of incumbent school board members and wrote about the importance of having "a unified board with a coherent vision." It was then promoted in a district newsletter that went out to 85,000 recipients — before the school board elections. The judge's ruling, of course, won't change the outcome of the elections. Fagen's preferred solidly conservative board is in place.

William Bennett, Reagan's Secretary of Education, also wrote a puff piece about the district before the election for $50,000. But because his piece was funded by a non-profit district foundation that's not part of the district itself, the transaction is legal.

Expect to hear more in Arizona about national money, especially conservative money, trying to influence education policy. A large money drop came to Arizona to fight the recent one cent sales tax initiative that went down. I haven't heard about national money in school board elections. Yet.


  1. Well folks the Gilbert School District has a school board that is looking at the Dougco model so it could be coming to AZ sooner than you think. . .

  2. It’s no wonder Fagen couldn’t get out of Tucson fast enough. Tucson isn’t nearly so fertile for the vouchers scheme as is conservative Douglas County. Dave, you do us all a favor by continuing to expose Democrats for Education Reform as the wolves in sheep’s clothing. If DFER starts to make inroads here, we’re all in trouble.

  3. I agree with Denise’s posting – teachers and parents came together to try to change the conservative board, with the hopeful outcome that Fagan would be out the door, too. While the race was close, the conservatives used money, misinformation and outside influence to win the election. Douglas County families lose again!
    We will not only give you Fagan back, we’ll pay you to take her!

  4. Thank you for posting this. We put up a good fight in Douglas County and It was amazing to see so many parents and local community members come together for public education. It was a close race but ultimately we could not overcome all the lies and outside money. We will gladly give you Fagen back.

  5. Project that to the Arizona legislature. Any policy reform from the one party dictatorship majority–the one thing you can guarantee, it is NOT about education, it is NOT about kids.

  6. 1. Yes, Fagen leaving was a good thing.
    2. Rick Hess: Calling him “somewhat respected” was really nice of you. He was a teacher for all of two years. This man should be nowhere near a school.
    Here’s Rick on vouchers in National review,

    “….the article reflects an utter lack of interest in how markets work. The point of markets is not to promise miracle cures, but to enable smart problem-solvers to do better, and to improve and expand over time.”

    So as you see, vouchers are not about children’s education, they’re about the free market and enabling problem solvers.”

    or this:

    “I’m generally for reducing barriers to new providers, making it easier for folks to enter the educational sector, and encouraging attention to productivity and efficiency.” (Are we talking about kids? No sorry, productivity.)

    So once again we see that the edu-reformers really don’t care about children or education. End of story.

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