First Person

Voices: Some Monday morning quarterbacking on Amendment 66

A+ Denver CEO Van Schoales reflects on lessons that supporters of school finance reform should learn from the failure of the school tax measure Amendment 66. And join EdNews for a panel discussion on the future of school finance in the wake of Amendment 66 Tuesday evening at 6 p.m. RSVP here. 

moneymagnifiedReform-minded school board candidates swept the largest districts in the state for the first time ever. At the same time, voters rejected Amendment 66 by a 2 to 1 margin. One might think that the same voters who wanted to reform school districts would also want to reform the school finance behemoth — assuming they understood that 66 might make school finance more equitable, targeted and transparent.

Why didn’t the $10 million spent on the campaign lead to better results? What lessons should be learned? Here is a little Monday morning quarterbacking, a reflection on what might have gone wrong, what we might learn and what we can do differently next time.

  1. Partnerships of convenience make for weak alliances: The school finance partnership was well-meaning and led to some great conversations among education leaders. However, its makeup was lopsided in favor of the status quo: leadership from school boards, administrators and teacher unions. The partnership was convened because it was necessary to have everyone at the table so that a bill might get passed. Yet, while the partnership developed broad principles, it was never able to agree philosophically on what needed to change or provide the specifics about what would change. It is like the Israelis and Palestinians agreeing on a general peace agreement but with nothing about the settlements. A “grand bargain” was struck wherein everyone would get more money but would be required to swallow some reforms, but it was a compromise, not a partnership. Therefore, a true coalition between reformers and status quo representatives never gelled. As a result, the establishment camps continued to undermine the parts of the bill they never agreed to throughout the legislative process. This raises some important questions about who should be at the table and what agreements should be made before a bill idea arrives at the capital.
  2. Coloradans are not fans of statewide taxes: Coloradans generally don’t like taxes unless someone else is paying. We are only willing to pay if we know exactly what our money is going to do and how it benefits us directly. Even Denver voters, who recently voted 69% to support last year’s mill levy increase for the Denver Public Schools, only voted 53% in favor of 66. Some have argued that if only the campaign had enough funding, a tax increase could be passed; clearly this was not the case. Proposition 103, which cost about $600,000, lost by 65%, compared to the 66 campaign loss of 64% with almost 20 times the funding for the effort. Was greater clarity needed about how new taxes directly benefit the taxpayer? Or, as many have said, was this too big a bite for too many voters?
  3. Colorado is purple and maybe cynical gray a la George Packer: Senator Mike Johnston and his partners did a remarkable job ushering SB 213 through the state house and senate. Ultimately, however, the bill had to be carried by Democrats. In retrospect, not having a single Republican made the bill too tough to sell to purple state voters. Amendment 66 might have had a better chance of passing (think Owens cheering while Hickenlooper jumped out of planes for Referendum C) if the first draft had been crafted by Senator Johnston and a Republican. This might have sent the education establishment and some of their Democrat friends spinning, but in the end, aligning too closely with the (Dem-backed) establishment alienated a lot of reformers and Republican voters. Significant reforms in Colorado (from standards and teacher effectiveness to school accountability) have almost always stemmed from bipartisan efforts.
  4. Organize Colorado business: The business community provided a great deal of support when SB 213 was moving through the legislature by pushing against the education establishment when it came to getting and keeping school reform in SB 213. Many of these business folks were happy to stand with Governor Hickenlooper when he signed 213 into law, yet many of these same groups went silent or changed direction when it came to paying for the reforms and supporting 66. These same groups seem more than happy to line up for more taxes (probably a regressive sales tax) to build roads, but quickly scatter when asked for education reform funding. Kudos to Colorado Succeeds for seeing the whole process through to the ballot. We all need to do a better job working with the business community so that they might support a more effective public education system that directly benefits them and the rest of us. Or maybe we need to understand more has to be done with less.
  5. Messaging matters: The 66 campaign was built on the supposition that if the far left mailed their ballots, 66 would pass. They bet that the message of smaller classrooms, more art classes, gym and funding to meet student needs would motivate voters (particularly given some of the recent cuts). At the same time, messages about reform were mentioned as an afterthought, if hardly at all. While A+ Denver did not have access to the polling or focus group data, the “more money equals better outcomes” message was worrisome because so few we talked to were motivated by this message. Most people agree that we need to improve our schools but questioned the price tag and exactly how the money would be spent. Clearly there is enormous skepticism about the effectiveness of government, particularly when at the state or federal level. What remains confusing is how campaign insiders believed that they were within several points of winning up until a week before the election. This is puzzling, given the well-funded, sophisticated campaign. They engaged in regular polling and focus groups throughout the summer and fall and ended up with a message that could have been written by the teachers’ union. Was this what voters wanted to hear? More needs to be understood: what worked for the campaign and what did not?

I supported 66. It would have been a great step forward and I knocked on doors trying to convince voters of the same. Finance reform is necessary, along with full-day kindergarten and high quality early childhood education, if we are serious about having a world-class public education system. No higher performing system, whether Massachusetts, Shanghai, the Netherlands, Denmark or Sweden, lacks these components. Maybe we need to regroup and take much smaller bites of the apple to build a public education system that lives up to our desires and the needs of our state.

However, we all (winners and losers in the 66 fight) must ultimately take stock of what happened and what is possible in Colorado on the reform and funding fronts before we return to the education battlefield to do what each of us believes is necessary to improve public education.

First Person

I mentor students demoralized about not having a vote. Here’s their plan for getting civically involved before turning 18

Students in the Minds Matter program.

Every Monday night during the school year, I spend time with two wonderful young women. They’re high-achieving high school sophomores from low-income families whose success would be certain if they grew up in a more affluent ZIP code.

Along with a team of other mentors, I help the students improve their writing and communication skills to help them prepare for a successful college career. That’s what I’m prepared to do.

I was less prepared for what they brought to our meeting last week, the first time we met under the tenure of a new president. They talked about feeling the consequences of the national political shift, though at 15, they knew it would be years before they could cast a ballot of their own. “We feel left out of a system that affects us too,” they said.

So our task that night became to expand our ideas about what participation in the American political system really means.

Here are five ideas we came up with, designed to help high schoolers do just that.

1. Meet elected officials. Meeting state senators and representatives during their campaigns is often the easiest way to make contact. Attend a coffee event, a party meeting, or a fundraiser where students can introduce themselves and talk about their concerns. Encourage them to be more than just another face in the crowd.

There are plenty of young, local elected officials to learn from. Dominick Moreno, a prominent Senate Democrat on the state of Colorado’s powerful Joint Budget Committee, got his start running for class president as a high school sophomore. Still only 32, he has already served in the House of Representatives and as mayor pro tem of a Denver suburb.

2. Volunteer on a campaign. This is the best opportunity for students to get an inside look at the political process and can help them establish lasting relationships with real people working in politics.

Some legislators face tough races and are out knocking on doors for months. Others spend their time differently, and in either case, candidates need help reaching out to voters, managing social media accounts, answering emails or organizing events. Plus, this work looks great on student résumés.

I tell students about my own experience. It started small: When I was 10, I passed out stickers for local elected officials at holiday parades. When I was 16, I got the chance to intern at the South Dakota state capitol. At 21, I got my first job in Washington, and at 23 I started lobbying in Colorado, affecting policy that now touches all citizens of the state.

3. Think locally. There are so many small things that students can do that will help their community become a better place on their own timeline. Help students organize a neighborhood clean-up day or tutor at an elementary school. These might feel inadequate to students when they look at the big picture, but it’s important to remind them that these actions help weave a fabric of compassion — and helps them become local leaders in the community.

4. Pre-register to vote. Voting matters, too. It sounds simple, but pre-registering addresses a root cause of low voter turnout — missing deadlines. In Colorado, one must be a U.S. citizen, be at least 16 years old, and reside in the state 22 days prior to the date of the election.

5. Affiliate with a party.
This assures full involvement in the process. Before turning 18, students can still attend party meetings or even start a “Young Democrats/Republicans” group at school. If they don’t feel like they fit with either the Republican or the Democratic parties, that’s OK — unaffiliated voters can now take part in the primary elections and help name either Republican or Democratic leaders.

Talking through these ideas helped the students I work with realize voting isn’t the only way to make a difference. One of my students has started a group that helps other young women know about birth control options, after seeing girls in her high school struggle and drop out after getting pregnant. Other students in the group have asked to learn more about the legislative process and want to testify on legislation.

They’re proving that democracy doesn’t begin and end with casting a ballot — but it does depend on taking interest and taking action.

Zoey DeWolf is a lobbyist with Colorado Legislative Services, based in Denver. She also works with Minds Matter of Denver, a not-for-profit organization whose mission is to help prepare accomplished high school students from low-income families for successful college careers.

First Person

It’s time to retire the myth that any counselor can do the job alone — even at a tiny school

A few of the author's students who graduated last year.

I waited five years to get my dream job as a counselor in a New York City public school. After all of that waiting, I was full of ideas about how I would be able to use my experience to help students navigate what can be an overwhelming few years.

I wanted to make our school counseling more individualized and full of innovative support mechanisms. I wanted our guidance department to be a place that anyone could leave with a grand plan.

A few months into that first year, in fall 2015, it was clear that my vision would be, to put it bluntly, impossible to achieve.

When I received my position at a Harlem high school in District 5, I was assigned to not only take on the responsibilities of a school counselor, but also to act as the college advisor, assign (and then frequently re-shuffle) class schedules for every student, and several other tasks. My school had just under 200 students — enrollment low enough that it was assumed this could all be managed.

This proved to be a very inaccurate assumption. I was working with a group of students with low attendance rates, and many were English language learners or students with disabilities. Many students were overage and under-credited, others were in foster care or homeless, some had returned from incarceration, and a couple were teen parents or pregnant.

The American School Counselor Association recommends a maximum school counselor-to-student ratio of one to 250. I know from experience that extremely high student need makes that ratio meaningless. Almost all of these students needed help in order to be ready to learn. Their needs tripled the feel of our enrollment.

This frequent mismatch between need and numbers puts school counselors like me in the position to do a great disservice to so many students. As the only counselor available, a seemingly small mishap with a task as crucial as graduation certification or credit monitoring could have spelled disaster for a student. I know some seniors missed certain financial aid opportunities and application deadlines, and some ninth, 10th, and 11th graders could have used more academic intervention to help them transition to the next grade level successfully.

My success at keeping our promotion and college admissions rates on the upswing was largely due to my outreach and partnership with community-based organizations that helped support several of our students. Had it not been for their assistance, I wouldn’t have achieved anything near what I did.

I’m still a counselor at my small school, and some aspects of the job have gotten easier with time. I love my job, which I think of as the most rewarding yet intense position in the building. But I still believe that there is almost no case in which only one counselor should be available for students.

Principals and school leaders directly involved with the budget must make sure to effectively analyze the needs of their student population, and advocate for an appropriately sized counseling staff. Small schools face real funding constraints. But ones serving students like mine need more than they’ve gotten.

Students’ social and emotional development and their academic success go hand in hand. Let’s not make the mistake of conflating enrollment numbers with need.

Danisha Baughan is a high school counselor and college advisor. She received her masters in school counseling in May 2010 and has held elementary, middle, and high school counseling positions since then.