School Choice

Handful of donors dominate contributions in key districts

Two wealthy men, both strong advocates of school choice and vouchers, have provided $140,000 of the $199,000 contributed to eight candidates in four contentious races for the Douglas County school board.

Pile of cashAll of the $100,000 contributed by Alex Cranberg and the $40,000 given by Ralph Nagel has gone to four candidates who support the policies of the current Dougco board, which created a voucher program now on hold because of legal challenges and which ended the district’s collective bargaining agreement with the teachers union.

Those four candidates are opposed by a group of four challengers who have criticized the current board for its use of executive sessions, financial policies and on other issues.

The pro-board candidates have raised $156,700, compared to $42,328 for the challengers. The challengers have drawn much larger numbers of small individual donations than have the pro-board candidates.

If the Cranberg and Nagel contributions are deducted, the pro-board group has raised only $16,700. And $12,000 of that has come from three other donors to the pro-board candidates — Bill Armstrong, former Republican U.S. senator and president of Colorado Christian University; lawyer Craig Richardson, and philanthropist Carrie Morgridge.

Cranberg, a former Colorado resident who now lives in Texas, is chair of Aspect Holdings, a Denver-based energy company. He’s a long time advocate of school vouchers. Nagel is president of Top Rock LLC, a Denver-based investment company. Both are board members of ACE Scholarships, a Denver non-profit that provides scholarships to low-income students to attend private schools.

Here’s a rundown on campaign spending reports filed this week by pro-board Dougco candidates:

  • District B, Jim Geddes – $38,797 raised and $11,140 spent
  • District D, Judith Reynolds – $38,731 raised, $8,402 spent
  • District E, Doug Benevento – $40,010 raised $1,094 spent
  • District G – Meghann Silverthorne – $39,162 raised, $15,526 spent

Here are the totals reported by candidates critical of the current board:

  • District B, Barbra Chase – $8,234 raised, $2,628 spent
  • District D, Julie Keim – $7,121 raised, $3,792 spent
  • District E, Bill Hodges – $11,444 raised, $5,914 spent
  • District G, Ronda Scholting – $15,526 raised, $6,057 spent

Giving in other board races

Ideology and partisanship also are factors in a handful of other board races around the state this year.

In Grand Junction, the county Republican Party has endorsed three candidates in races for the Mesa 51 school board. Those candidates, Patrick Kanda, Michael Lowenstein and John Sluder each have received $5,000 from C. Edward McVaney of Greenwood Village, a retired software company owner. McVaney also is on the board of ACE Scholarships and was a founder of Valor Christian High School in Highlands Ranch.

Three other Mesa 51 candidates, John Williams, Tom Parrish and Greg Mikolai have received contributions from the Mesa Valley Education Association and the Public Education Committee, an arm of the Colorado Education Association.

Seven candidates are vying for three seats in Mesa 51, where the total of all contributions is about $46,000.

McVaney also has contributed $5,000 each to three candidates in Thompson school district board races. A group named Liberty Watch has criticized the current school board for various policies and has endorsed four candidates in the district’s four races. McVaney contributed to three of them.

Contributions to the nine candidates on the ballot total about $33,000.

There are partisan overtones in the three Jefferson County school board races this fall, where the county GOP has endorsed three candidates. But there’s little outside money in the races, and those three candidates trail in fundraising. The total raised by all candidates is about $120,000.

Here’s a rundown on their contributions:

  • District 1, Julie Williams – Raised $5,756 and spent $470. Has received primarily small individual contributions.
  • District 2, John Newkirk – Raised $4,255 and spent $1,902. Has received $500 from Armstrong and $215 from the Jefferson County Republican Men’s Club.
  • District 5, Ken Witt – Raised $10,148, spent $2,389. Received $500 from Armstrong.

Here’s a look at the other candidates in the races:

  • District 1, Tonya Aultmann-Bettridge – Raised $25,017, spent $15,759.
  • District 2, Jeff Lamontagne – Raised $39,822, spent $34,787.
  • District 5, Gordon Van de Water – Raised $35,380, spent $3,763.

All three of these candidates had large numbers of relatively small donations from individual contributors. Each also has received a contribution of $3,166 from the Public Education Committee, according to that group’s report.

Around the state, the committee’s Oct. 15 filing reported $49,891 in total contributions to 26 candidates running in 10 districts.

In addition to Jeffco, Mesa and Thompson, the committee has donated to candidates in Aurora, Adams 12-Five Star, Commerce City, Falcon, Littleton and Pueblo 60 races.

coming from the mountains

Advocates decry Fariña’s dismissal of low graduation rates among English learners

PHOTO: Monica Disare
Nancie Adolphe, a case manager at Flanbwayan, a group that helps young Haitian immigrants hosts a press conference on English Language Learner graduation rates.

When the head of New York City schools suggested that English Language Learners fail to graduate, in part, because they lack formal schooling and are “coming from the mountains,” advocates from a group that serves Haitian immigrants said she undoubtedly missed the point.

“We are insulted by her statement,” said Nancie Adolphe, a case manager at Flanbwayan, a group that helps young Haitian immigrants, during a Thursday press conference. “As a community of immigrants, of English learners, we care about what happens to each student, no matter where they come from.”

Members of Flanbwayan have a different explanation for the city’s 27 percent June graduation rate for English learners, which is a 9.6 percentage point decrease over the previous year. In their view, many ELL students face a huge disadvantage because of how the city’s high school admissions process treats newly arrived immigrants.

New York City’s admissions process, which allows students to apply to any high school throughout the city, is notoriously difficult even for students born and raised in New York. But for newly arrived immigrants, the process is even worse, said Darnell Benoit, director of Flanbwayan.

Students have years to wade through a thick directory of more than 400 high schools, tour the ones they like and apply for competitive programs. For new immigrants, that process is often replaced by a quick trip to an enrollment center. Many times the only seats left are at low-performing schools, and students often find they don’t have access to the language help they need, Benoit said.

“They don’t have a lot of time to fight for their lives,” said Alectus Nadjely, a Haitian immigrant who arrived in the United States when she was twelve and is now a senior in high school, about the process.

A student’s high school placement is directly connected to whether or not they will graduate on time, advocates said. When newly arrived immigrants enter the country, they have to move quickly to pass the state’s required exit exams in time for graduation — and they need all the support they can get, advocates said. Twenty-seven percent of English learners in New York City drop out before graduating, according to state data.

“If a student is not set up in the right placement from the start, the likelihood of being able to stay engaged, be on track for graduation and not drop out, all of that will be impacted,” said Abja Midha, a project director at Advocates for Children. “We really think the high school enrollment piece is a really critical point.”

Education department officials pointed out that the graduation rate for former English Learners went up by more than five percentage points this year. They also noted that enrollment information is available in Haitian Creole and that they have increased translation and interpretation services.

“We’ll continue our work to ensure that all our students receive a high-quality education,” said education department spokesman Will Mantell, “and have the support they need to be successful in the classroom and beyond.”

Charter changes

This sweeping proposal would rewrite Tennessee’s charter school law

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Rep. Harry Brooks and Assistant Commissioner of policy Elizabeth Fiveash present the charter proposal to lawmakers on Wednesday.

A wide-ranging charter school bill written by the State Department of Education seeks to overhaul Tennessee’s 15-year-old charter law and address concerns of both advocates and opponents.

Called the “Tennessee High-Quality Charter Schools Act,” the bill attempts to address the often rocky relationships between the state’s 105 charter schools and the districts that oversee them. The legislation clarifies rules on everything from applications to closure, and includes measures that charter and local district leaders have fought for — and against.

“This bill develops a stronger partnership between the (districts) and the charter schools,” said Rep. Harry Brooks, the Knoxville Republican sponsor.

But smoothing over fractious relationships won’t be quick or easy, based on the first discussion in a House subcommittee on Wednesday. Lawmakers adjourned before casting a first vote on the proposal, with plans to pick up the discussion next week.  

And while representatives of the Tennessee School Boards Association and the Tennessee Charter School Center told lawmakers that the bill is a “step in the right direction,” some critics remain concerned about the growing sector’s impact on traditional public schools.

For years, local school board members — especially from districts in Memphis and Nashville, which are home to most of the state’s charter schools — have charged that charter schools drain resources from traditional public schools. Charter leaders, meanwhile, have complained that they don’t get enough funding to cover facilities, forcing them to spend money that should go toward students instead on rent and building upkeep.

The Department of Education tried to address both concerns in its bill. The legislation establishes a $6 million fund over three years to help cover leaky roofs and cramped quarters that operators say make their jobs harder. But the bill also allows local districts to charge operators an authorizer fee to offset oversight costs.  

Local districts have sought to charge an authorizer fee for years, and charter operators in Memphis recently have shown willingness to voluntarily pay one. In 2015, the state legislature voted to allow the state’s Achievement School District to begin collecting a fee, too.

The state proposal would allow a district with 21 or more charter schools to charge a fee up to 1 percent of per-pupil funding. Districts with 10 to 20 charters could charge a 2 percent fee, and those with 10 or fewer could charge 3 percent. The change would go into effect in 2018.

“The local district has significant responsibility in regards to being an authorizer of charter school,” Brooks explained when introducing the bill. “There’s expense tied up in that; there’s personnel tied up in that.”

But some think the proposed fee isn’t nearly enough, especially in Memphis and Nashville, where the ASD and State Board of Education can charge charter schools 3 and 4 percent, respectively. In Shelby County Schools, for instance, the district is doubling the size of its charter office to keep up with its oversight duties.

“When state authorizers are getting higher fees than districts, that’s a red flag,” Nashville school board member Will Pinkston told Chalkbeat. “One percent seems like a nice first offer, but districts need to make significant counter offers to get that higher.”

Other parts of the expansive bill would curb local attempts to rein in charter schools. One section says that applications can’t be based on “conditions or contingencies” — a provision that concerns Pinkston, who spearheaded an effort to make the approval of Nashville charter schools contingent on their location.

“Every local school system needs to have the ability to ask for the details they think are necessary before making a decision,” he said.

Charter operators argue that such contingencies put them in impossible situations, unable to secure a location without a contract, and vice versa.