Flores wins State Board primary; Neal looks safe

Updated July 25, Noon – Val Flores, a retired educator backed by teachers unions, won a convincing victory Tuesday night in the Democratic primary for the 1st District seat on the State Board of Education.

In the 3rd District, Republican incumbent Marcia Neal had 51.7 percent of vote with most returns reported at midday Wednesday.

Taggart Hansen, a lawyer backed by education reform groups, got only 41 percent of the vote in nearly complete returns. He conceded shortly after 9 p.m., saying, “While we did not win tonight, we brought a focus to some of the challenges and critical issues facing our public school systems. I want to congratulate Dr. Val Flores on her victory.”

Flores sounded a bit stunned at her victory, saying, “I think the people won tonight. This is a great win for our children and our public schools.”

Her campaign manager, Dave Sabados, said, “I think Val’s message of good neighborhood schools resonated with voters. I don’t think Democratic voters want the Democrats for Education Reform agenda.”

Neal faced Barbara Ann Smith for the Republican nomination in the sprawling 3rd District. Neal ran ahead in the district’s more populous counties, including Eagle, Gunnison, La Plata, Mesa, Montrose and Pitkin, while Smith won well more than a dozen small counties, plus Pueblo, which is on the district’s far eastern end.

At noon Wednesday vote counts were still incomplete in Custer, Gunnison and Montezuma counties, and tiny Hinsdale County in the San Juan Mountains still hadn’t reported, according to the Department of State.

Late Tuesday evening Neal said, “I’m pretty confident. I would be very much surprised if it changed.”

Primaries for seats on the unpaid SBE are rare – the last one was in 2002.

Neal initially decided not to seek a second term but got back in the race because of concerns about Democrats winning the seat if she didn’t run. Smith decided to stay in the race. Both candidates are retired Grand Junction schoolteachers and both oppose the Common Core Standards, although Smith is more adamant on the issue.

The 1st District race was a reprise of recent Denver school board contests that pitted candidates backed by education reform interest groups against union-backed hopefuls. Hansen was backed by Stand for Children, while Flores was supported by the Colorado Education Association and the Denver Classroom Teachers Association.

The 1st District is centered on Denver but includes a slice of Arapahoe County. Flores ran strong in the city, running strongly in most west side precincts and also winning many east side precincts. (See this Denver Election Division map of how the voting went.) Taggart heavily outspent Flores.

In the 3rd District the GOP candidate will face Democrat Henry Roman, former superintendent of the Pueblo City schools. The winner in the 1st District primary is expected to take the seat next January, as there is no Republican candidate.

Neal has been an occasional swing vote on the board, siding with the three Democrats on a handful of issues. But she voted no in 2010 when the board voted 4-3 to adopt the Common Core Standards, “I think it’s very important that we keep the Republican majority” on the board, she said.

Smith has been involved in local Republican politics and is all for local control and against the Common Core. On standards, she said, “We can do our own,” adding, “I’m not in favor of the PARCC testing.” She said she opposes teacher tenure but that teachers need to be paid more.

Flores is a critic of what she calls the corporatization of public education, writing on her website, “ I oppose a ‘reform’ model that is slowly privatizing our public education system.”

Hansen’s campaign stressed equal opportunities for all students and setting high expectations. Hansen, a lawyer, said his two years with Teach for America had an important effect on him and his views on education.

Get more details on the candidates, their fundraising and the SBE in this earlier story.

Other races of interest to education

Hard-fought Republican primaries in two Jefferson County Senate districts have implications for two Democratic senators with strong education ties, Rachel Zenzinger and Andy Kerr.

  • District 19 – Laura Woods, backed by Rocky Mountain Gun Owners, defeated the more moderate Lang Sias to face Zenzinger.
  • District 22 -, Tony Sanchez, the more conservative of the two Republicans, beat Mario Nicolais to oppose Kerr.

Victories by the conservatives are considered a possible boost for Zenzinger and Kerr, as voters generally are more moderate in general election races.

Primary races in three House districts drew endorsements from Stand for Children.

  • District 2 – In this central Denver Democratic race, Stand backed winner Alec Garrett over Owen Perkins.
  • District 22 – Incumbent GOP Rep. Justin Everett, a member of the House Education Committee, easily beat challenger Loren Bauman, endorsed by Stand.
  • District 37 – This Republican race in the southern suburbs pitted teacher Michael Fields, backed by Stand, against winner Jack Tate, who had a comfortable margin of victory.

Get background on these races in this story.

a 'meaningful' education?

How a Colorado court case could change how public schools everywhere serve students with special needs

Dougco headquarters in Castle Rock (John Leyba/The Denver Post).

The U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday grappled with the question of what kind of education public schools must provide students with disabilities, hearing arguments in a case that originated with a complaint against a suburban Denver school district and that could have profound implications nationwide.

The case involves a student diagnosed with autism and attention deficit/hyperactive disorder. His parents pulled him out of his Douglas County elementary school, saying he wasn’t making enough progress and the district’s response was lacking.

They enrolled the boy in a private school for children with autism and asked the district to reimburse them for the tuition, arguing their son was due a “free appropriate public education” as required by the 1975 Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

The law spells out the requirements states must meet to receive federal money to educate special-needs students. The district declined, saying it had met the standard of the law.

The family eventually filed a lawsuit against the district. Lower courts all sided with the district, reasoning that it had provided the child “some” educational benefit — the standard cited in the federal statute at issue.

Lower courts across the nation have varied in their definition of the proper standard. The high court arguments Wednesday centered on whether “some” benefit was good enough, or whether special-needs students deserve a more “meaningful” benefit.

Jeffrey Fisher, an attorney for the boy’s family, told the justices that as a general rule, individualized education plans for special education students should include “a level of educational services designed to allow the child to progress from grade to grade in the general curriculum.”

Throughout the arguments, the justices expressed frustration with what Justice Samuel Alito described as “a blizzard of words” that the law and courts have used to define what’s appropriate for special needs students.

Chief Justice John Roberts said regardless of the term used, “the whole package has got to be helpful enough to allow the student to keep up with his peers.”

Neal Katyal, an attorney for the school district, argued that providing children “some benefit” is a reasonable standard.

“That’s the way court after court has interpreted it,” he said. “It’s worked well. This court shouldn’t renege on that.”

Ron Hager, senior staff attorney for special education at the National Disability Rights Network, attended the oral arguments Wednesday and said he was optimistic the lower court’s ruling would be overturned.

He said if the Supreme Court does overturn the federal Tenth Circuit Court’s ruling and requires a higher standard, it won’t necessarily come with major financial costs for school districts. Instead, he said, it will nudge them to be proactive and provide teacher training and intervention services early on instead of waiting until problems — and the expenses associated with them — snowball later.

Marijo Rymer, executive director of the Arc of Colorado, which advocates on behalf of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, said she was heartened to see the case advance to the Supreme Court. Establishing a clearer standard on what constitutes a fair and appropriate education for students with disabilities is a civil rights issue, she said.

“It’s critical that federal law, which is what this is based on, be reinforced and supported, and the court is in the position to deliver that message to the nation’s schools and the taxpayers that fund them,” Rymer said.

Both Hager and Rymer acknowledged that even if the Supreme Court establishes a new, higher standard, it could be open to interpretation. Still, they said it would send a strong message to school districts about their responsibilities to students with disabilities.

Summer remix

Ten stories you may have missed this summer (and should read now as the new school year kicks in)

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Gabrielle Colburn, 7, adds her artistic flair to a mural in downtown Memphis in conjunction with the XQ Super Schools bus tour in June.

Labor Day used to signal the end of summer break and the return to school. That’s no longer the case in Tennessee, but the long holiday is a good time to catch up on all that happened over the summer. Here are 10 stories to get you up to speed on K-12 education in Tennessee and its largest school district.

TNReady is back — with a new test maker.

Last school year ended on a cliffhanger, with the State Department of Education canceling its end-of-year tests for grades 3-8 in the spring and firing testmaker Measurement Inc. after a series of missteps. In July, Commissioner Candice McQueen announced that Minnesota-based Questar will pick up where Measurement Inc. left off. She also outlined the state’s game plan for standardized tests in the coming year.

But fallout over the state’s failed TNReady test in 2015-16 will be felt for years.

The one-year void in standardized test scores has hit Tennessee at the heart of its accountability system, leaving the state digging for other ways to assess whether all of its students are improving.

Speaking of accountability, Tennessee also is updating that plan under a new federal education law.

The state Department of Education has been working with educators, policymakers and community members on new ways to evaluate schools in answer to the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA, which requires states to judge schools by non-academic measures as well as test scores.

Meanwhile, issues of race and policing have educators talking about how to foster conversations about social justice in school.

In the wake of police-related killings that rocked the nation, five Memphis teachers talked about how they tackle difficult conversations about race all year long.

School closures made headlines again in Memphis — with more closings likely.

Closing schools has become an annual event as Tennessee’s largest district loses students and funding, and this year was no exception. The shuttering of Carver and Northside high schools brought the total number of district-run school closures to at least 21 since 2012. And more are likely. This month, Shelby County Schools is scheduled to release a facilities analysis that should set the stage for future closures. Superintendent Dorsey Hopson has said the district needs to shed as many as two dozen schools — and 27,000 seats — over the next four years. A Chalkbeat analysis identifies 25 schools at risk.

Exacerbating the challenges of shifting enrollment, families in Foote Homes scrambled to register their children for school as Memphis’ last public housing project prepared to close this month amid a delay in delivering housing vouchers to move elsewhere.

The new school year has officially begun, with the budget approved not a moment too soon for Shelby County Schools.

District leaders that began the budget season facing an $86 million shortfall eventually convinced county commissioners to significantly increase local funding, while also pulling some money from the school system’s reserve funds. The result is a $959 million budget that gives most of the district’s teachers a 3 percent raise and restores funding for positions deemed critical for continued academic progress.

The district also unveiled its first annual report on its growing sector of charter schools.

With charter schools now firmly entrenched in Memphis’ educational landscape, a Shelby County Schools analysis shows a mixed bag of performance, while calling on traditional and charter schools to learn from each other and promising better ways to track quality.