analysis

Why Colorado conservative education reformers lost Tuesday

PHOTO: AAron Ontiveroz, The Denver Post
Soon-to-be-former Jeffco school board president Kent Witt

After a string of electoral successes, conservative school reform candidates in Colorado were dealt harsh blows this week in elections swung by issues that were both intensely local and part of broader battles over power, money and change in American education.

In Jefferson County, a hotel ballroom exploded with chants and tears as three conservatives elected as a slate in 2013 were recalled in a rout.

In Douglas County, six years of dominance by a boundary-pushing board finally showed cracks as three opponents broke through, forming a solid minority promising a more open and diverse board.

In the Loveland-based Thompson district, animus over a teacher contract dispute propelled union-backed candidates into power.

Elsewhere, a conservative attempt to take over a moderate board in Colorado Springs was repelled and one of two conservative reform candidates won seats in Aurora, sending a mixed message.

All the elections had their own quirks, players and storylines. But common themes bound them together, too, highlighted by reinvigorated teachers unions willing to invest money and energy combined with motivated and networked parents fed up with agendas they saw as dangerous overreaches.

“You can’t deny it was a setback for conservative reform at the school board level in Colorado,” said Ben DeGrow, a senior policy analyst with the libertarian Independence Institute, which fought the Jeffco recall and provided policy guidance in other districts. “The unions had their day. There’s no doubt about it.”

Where conservative reformers lost | Get the details about what happened in four districts — Jeffco, Dougco, Thompson and Colorado Springs 11 — at the center of Tuesday’s shift in school board politics here.

Kerrie Dallman, president of the Colorado Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union, said the results reflect voter confidence in teachers and frustration with the status quo. Critics of the old boards in the Douglas, Jefferson and Thompson districts complained about divisiveness and a lack of openness.

“The public wants a high degree of trust and collaboration in their school districts,” Dallman said, “and I believe the outcome is a direct reflection that the public didn’t believe those two things existed.”

Dallman downplayed speculation that union involvement in some districts this year was sparked by fears that conservative boards would do away with local bargaining units. The Douglas board ousted its local non-CEA union, and the Thompson board has refused to approve a contract with its CEA affiliate.

“Our main priority was our students,” Dallman said. “For us this was never about Republicans versus Democrats, conservatives versus liberals, unions against reformers.”

Spending and messaging

Angst among teachers goes well beyond contract negotiations and bargaining units, however. In Colorado and elsewhere, teachers are feeling pressure from a drumbeat of reforms that include new standardized tests and tying their evaluations and pay to student performance.

“The (Colorado) vote may be a reflection of the deepening anger that teachers feel across the nation about high stakes testing regimes that treat educators more like factory workers than professionals,” said Richard Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at The Century Foundation, a liberal think tank in Washington.

Ken Witt, the Jeffco board president who was ousted in the recall, attributed the conservative losses to the coordinated efforts of union forces worried about losing control. Witt said he believes voters are likely to support education reform efforts he and his colleagues back, but messaging was a problem.

Recall supporter Cecelia Lange waved signs at 52nd and Wadsworth Tuesday morning.
PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Recall supporter Cecelia Lange waved signs at 52nd and Wadsworth Tuesday morning.

“If you lose an election, then you didn’t reach enough people,” he said. “Reform lost a lot of elections (Tuesday) night. That means we’re not communicating well.”

Not surprisingly, that was not a sentiment held by architects of the Jefferson County recall. Lynea Hansen, a political consultant to recall organizers, framed Tuesday’s results as losses not for conservatives but for what she describes as corporate reform.

“Many conservatives voted for change last night, as well as unaffiliateds and Democrats,” Hansen said. “What I think we really saw were communities seeing the importance of school board elections, many for the first time, and taking an interest in making sure our public schools stay just that — public.”

As in all high-stakes local school board races these days, money poured in from all corners.

Campaign committees affiliated with CEA, plus local union committees, were heavily involved in funding candidates in the Jeffco, Thompson, Denver and Colorado Springs 11 districts. Dallman of the CEA said those spending decisions were driven by requests and recommendations from local union units.

At the same time, a loose network of conservative nonprofits including Americans for Prosperity and the Independence Institute raised and redistributed money through various political committees to rebuff the Jeffco recall and back candidates along the Front Range who support policies such as merit pay for teachers and charter school expansion.

The education reform community is not monolithic. But generally, conservative reformers support policies that give parents more choice between schools including district-run, charter and private schools; establish merit pay for teachers and weaken teachers unions.

‘That’s the whole point of being in a union’

In Aurora, the school board race featured new narratives and players in district education politics.

The campaigns for three seats in the academically struggling district featured two incumbents, two conservatives and involvement from reform groups on the right and left. When ballots were counted, the results were mixed — one of the conservative reformers prevailed and the two incumbents held on.

To ward off a perceived threat from two conservative candidates, the Aurora Education Association coordinated more directly with candidates it endorsed and spent more money on the 2015 election than it had in recent memory, said Amy Nichols, the union’s president.

“We’ve never had, in recent memory, a race this big for us,” she said. “We saw what happened in Douglas County, in Jeffco, in Thompson. And we just didn’t want those distractions here.”

The Aurora teachers union gave $1,500 to each of the three candidates it backed and later made a donation to an independent expenditure committee. Nichols said she didn’t immediately know how much was given to that committee, which won’t file its next finance report with the state until January.

Aurora school board candidates, from left, Monica Colbert, Billie Day, and Mike Donald took questions from parents at a candidate forum Thursday.
PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Aurora school board candidates, from left, Monica Colbert, Billie Day, and Mike Donald took questions from parents at a candidate forum Thursday.

Nichols challenged those who spotlighted unions’ stepped up spending and involvement.

“That’s the whole point of being a union,” she said. “Bottom line. I find it ironic. It’s like the pot calling the kettle black. You want to organize with your money … But you don’t want others to have the same opportunity?”

Former Republican state senator Josh Penry — a political consultant for Ready Colorado, a nonprofit that backed the two conservative board candidates — saw positives in the Aurora race compared to other more heated affairs in Jeffco or Dougco. He framed the debate over whether “sensible change” was needed.

Penry also pointed to heightened teachers union involvement as a key factor in Tuesday’s results.

“The unions to their political credit spent heavily and aggressively, more so than they have in the last several cycles,” Penry said. “That definitely tipped the scales in a number of places.’

The storyline was different in Denver, where Democratic-flavored education reform efforts were bolstered by Tuesday’s results. Although board president Happy Haynes faced an unexpectedly stern test, she held on and the balance of power on the board shifted from 6-1 to 7-0 favoring the district’s decade-old reforms.

A statement from Jen Walmer, head of Democrats for Education Reform in Colorado, illustrates how the term “reform” can mean vastly different things. After lauding the DPS result, Walmer went on to applaud “the defeat of ideologically driven school boards that voters rejected in favor of practical improvements.”

“As reformers dedicated to measurable high performance, accountability, transparency and choice for families in the best interest of their students, we must always protect and carry the mantle of true reform,” said Walmer, a former DPS chief of staff. “It is clear that some are using reform language to cloak their true desire to dismantle public education. A dialogue that is anti-teacher and not in the best interest of kids falls flat when held against true leaders working on behalf of students and equity.”

What kind of statement?

Opinions vary over how much to read into Tuesday’s results, and which conclusions to draw.

School board races tend to be low-information, low-turnout elections, so it’s generally unwise to use them as a barometer of public opinion on education policy, said Kevin Welner, director of the National Education Policy Center at the University of Colorado Boulder. But this week’s much-watched school board races are more likely to reflect broader sentiment, he said.

Of the success of the Jeffco recall, Welner said: “I don’t see that as signaling an overall shift in the state, but a moderating influence in a place that kind of jolted to the right very recently.”

Also uncertain is whether the results will slow the march of reform in suburban areas.

More affluent, higher performing suburban districts are in once sense ideal for experimenting because students there have more safety nets, so the risk is smaller and potential payoff larger, said Frederick Hess, director of education policy studies for the conservative American Enterprise Institute.

“But if you are dealing with suburban communities where families are deeply involved and schools are seen as pretty good, trying to do ambitious reforms can be a high-wire act,” Hess said. “It can be easy for critics to raise concerns.”

In the Thompson school district, this week’s election shifted control from a reform-driven majority to one supported by the teachers union by a super-majority of five seats to two.

Denise Montagu, an incumbent endorsed by the local union who previously was in the board minority, said conservative school reform candidates lost in Thompson and elsewhere because voters believed they were sold a bill of goods.

“I think the community wanted to give reform a try,” Montagu said. “‘Reform, doesn’t that sound beautiful?’ But when they learned that reform meant attorneys, disenfranchising our teachers and clearly not putting the students first … that’s not what they signed up for.”

​Chalkbeat Colorado reporter Melanie Asmar contributed information to this report.

Calendar talk

Hopson floats year-round school as a possibility in Memphis

School leaders in Memphis are seriously considering a year-round calendar as a way to prevent “summer slump” and boost test scores.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson said his new summer learning academy — which this year will teach 8,000 students at 22 schools — will serve as a testing ground to track participants’ progress next school year.

In a radio interview, Superintendent Dorsey Hopson talks about a year-round option.

“Clearly there’s a huge need here. The research shows the summer learning loss is real,” Hopson said during a radio broadcast last week on the district’s station at 88.5FM. “I personally think it’s a great idea and I think our board is supportive of it. We just need to figure out a way to operationalize it.”

School board members appear to be open to the idea, too.

“Wouldn’t it be great to be in an environment where there’s not any sort of (summer) slide?” asked Miska Clay Bibbs, adding that a change hinges on academic results and cost.

Shelby County Schools is far from making such a change, but Hopson said his finance team is looking at the cost. The district plans to seek feedback from Memphians about a possible year-round calendar, which includes the same number of school days as a traditional calendar but adds periodic breaks that lead to a shorter summer break.

While traditional 10-month calendars are still the most popular in America, year-round calendars have gained support, especially in districts that serve low-income students.  According to the National Summer Learning Association, students living in poverty are more likely than their more affluent peers to fall behind academically during long summer breaks. And since about 60 percent of students in Shelby County Schools come from impoverished households, district leaders are looking for ways to close the achievement gap.

Research spanning decades shows that year-round students perform as well or better than students on a traditional calendar, particularly in reading. A 2009 study by East Tennessee State University added that teachers and parents in year-round districts in Blount and Sevier counties reported “more favorable opinions about their school setting as opposed to teachers and parents of students who attend traditional calendar schools.” And a 2003 state comptroller’s report said “other factors related to academic performance, such as attendance and discipline referrals, show significant improvement in some Tennessee schools.”

Critics charge that building costs can be burdensome as schools are open on more hot summer days. A shortened summer also gives educators fewer opportunities to further their own education. Meanwhile, extracurricular programs like band and sports may encounter scheduling problems under a revised calendar.

Across Tennessee, eight districts have schools on a year-round calendar. In Memphis, two elementary schools — Caldwell and Rozelle — adopted the model some 20 years ago but later abandoned it.

The United Education Association of Shelby County doesn’t have a stance on year-round schools, but the teachers union is collecting feedback through an online survey, according to President Tikeila Rucker.

School Politics

Colorado schools were a hot topic at the state Capitol this year. Here’s what lawmakers did.

A teacher reads to her students at the Cole Arts and Science Academy in Denver. (Photo by Nic Garcia/Chalkbeat)

Colorado lawmakers this week are celebrating major education-related policy wins, including finding more money for public schools.

This year’s legislative session, which ended Wednesday, was marked by big compromises on issues that have befuddled policy makers for years: charter school funding, ninth-grade standardized testing and measuring the reading skills of the state’s youngest bilingual students.

With so many thorny debates behind them, lawmakers and Capitol observers are now looking toward other major policy questions they’ve put off for years, including reforming how the state pays for its public schools and making changes to Colorado’s school accountability laws and teacher licensure policies.

“The hope is now that the K-12 community can come together to focus on the big issues,” said Jen Walmer, Colorado state director of Democrats for Education Reform.

But before we get ahead of ourselves, let’s look back at the last 120 days:

Lawmakers found more money for schools than anyone could have imagined.

Before the legislative session began, school districts were preparing for the worst. Despite the state’s booming economy, constraints on how much the state could spend meant schools could have gone without much of a funding increase.

State Sen. Jerry Sonnenberg, a Republican from Sterling, on the first day of the legislative session.

The forecast became even more dire midway through the session when lawmakers learned the local tax base that generates about a third of all state spending on schools was going to shrink drastically. The worst predictions had the state’s education funding shortfall growing to more than $1 billion.

State officials found a technical workaround, and lawmakers were able to send more money to schools. On average, schools will see about $242 more per student next year.

However, leaders in both parties are aware that the state’s problematic constitutional constraints, tax policies and school funding formula still exist. That’s why a bipartisan coalition of lawmakers led a successful effort to create a committee to study and propose changes to the way the state funds it schools.

“We have more work to do. We need to continue with what we’ve done this session: have tough conversations,” said Speaker Crisanta Duran, a Denver Democrat.

“How do we make sure that students, regardless of race, income, regardless of whether they have a disability, that they have the opportunity to succeed?” she said. “There is no doubt that we have structural decisions we have to make when it comes to our budget.”

Republican leaders said they’re also anxious to see the committee get to work. But they’re less likely to support an influx of cash to the state’s schools.

“If we’re going to look at real overhauls to the system and funding, we need to look at all the options — not just throwing more money at the system — a system that by many’s accounting is not working well or efficiently,” said Senate President Kevin Grantham, a Canon City Republican.

He and other Republicans are encouraging the committee to look at how other states have focused their funding formulas on students rather than on a school’s size or geographic location, and used funding to expand school choice.

Lawmakers already have one option on the table: A proposal to set a statewide property tax rate, which was born out of the legislature’s budget office and floated early in the session. While there was a lot of talk behind the scenes, it failed to gain traction. Expect to hear a lot more about the idea.

The charter school funding compromise, which some called “historic,” was just one of many longstanding issues that were resolved this year.

The 2017 legislative session will likely be remembered as the most productive in a decade because of several big compromises.

State Rep. Brittany Pettersen, a Lakewood Democrat, sits alone on the House of Representatives floor as members of her own party filibustered her compromise on charter school funding. (Photo by Nic Garcia)

Lawmakers grinned Thursday as they ticked off a long list of accomplishments to reporters, including one that could send more local money to charter schools. In return, charter schools will be required to post on their official websites more tax documents and will no longer receive two specific financial waivers.

The last-minute charter school funding bill — sponsored by a bipartisan group of lawmakers that included state Reps. Brittany Pettersen and Lang Sias and state Sens. Owen Hill and Angela Williams — was the compromise no one saw coming.

“Anything is possible,” Pettersen said after the session.

Lawmakers had wrestled with the question of requiring the state’s school districts to share their locally approved tax increases with charter schools for two years. Despite vocal objections from several school superintendents, the legislature overwhelmingly supported the bill.

Early in the session, lawmakers eager to reduce the number of standardized tests reached another compromise with the governor’s office. High school freshmen will no longer be required to take the controversial PARCC English and math tests. Instead, they’ll take a test that is aligned to the college entrance exam, the SAT.

We kicked the PARCC test out of high schools,” said Rep. Paul Lundeen, a Monument Republican. “It’s gone!”

Other deals that were reached include the creation of a diploma seal of biliteracy for students who demonstrate proficiency in two languages and new regulations on how to monitor the reading skills of young English language learners.

Colorado schools will also see a financial boost for the next three years after lawmakers passed an omnibus bill that resolved a debate over a hospital fee that helps pay for the state’s health insurance program.

As part of the biggest compromise of the year, the state will raise taxes on recreational marijuana. Those taxes will send $30 million to rural schools next year and $40 million over two years to the state education fund, a sort of savings account for schools.

Rural schools flexed their muscles and blocked a bill to reform the state’s student suspension rules, but they didn’t get everything they wanted.

Not every piece of bipartisan legislation reached the governor’s desk.

Students at Merino Elementary School work during class.

A bill that aimed to reduce the number of preschool and elementary school students who are suspended was killed by a GOP-controlled committee at the request of rural schools, despite having overwhelming support from both Democrats and Republicans.

Rural school leaders said the bill attempted to create a statewide solution for a Front Range problem. A Chalkbeat analysis of suspension data, which rural superintendents refuted, showed otherwise.

Supporters of the legislation vowed to work with opponents this summer and fall and try again next year.

While rural schools were successful in blocking that mandate, they were dealt a setback when a bill that would have allowed them to remedy a teacher shortage by hiring unlicensed teachers was killed by its sponsors.

State Rep. Jim Wilson, a Salida Republican, said he couldn’t garner enough support for his effort. At least not this year.

“Like Arnold Schwarzenegger said, ‘I’ll be back,’” Wilson said.

Even though that bill failed, lawmakers did take steps to curb the state’s teacher shortage.

Stanley Teacher Prep resident Lily Wool works with kindergartner Samori McIntosh at Tollgate Elementary School in Aurora. Wood’s residency program is merging the Boettcher Teacher Residency program. (Photo by Nic Garcia/Chalkbeat)

Prior to the session, education leaders at the Capitol had few if any plans to take on the state’s teacher shortage. But retired teacher and freshman state Rep. Barbara McLachlan pushed to address the issue.

The Durango Democrat partnered with a host of other lawmakers from both parties to sponsor legislation to study the shortage and provide solutions. She also sponsored a bill that would allow rural schools to hire retired teachers without penalizing their pension. Both bills were sent to the governor.

Two other bills, including one to create multiple teacher preparation pilot programs, failed to advance. But with the issue on the legislature’s radar, expect it to come back.

“That’s the most pressing issue, next to funding,” said state Sen. Rachel Zenzinger, an Arvada Democrat.

Despite newfound freedom from Washington, lawmakers didn’t make any bold changes to the state’s school accountability system.

Several lawmakers early in the session seemed eager to take advantage of new flexibility from the federal government.

While the state education department was busy putting together a mandated statewide plan to adopt the new Every Student Succeeds Act, lawmakers were debating how they could update the state’s school accountability laws.

But only two bills making minor tweaks advanced.

A HOPE Online student works during the day at an Aurora learning center. (Photo by Nicholas Garcia, Chalkbeat)

One requires elementary schools that receive low quality ratings to address the needs of students in preschool through third grade.

The second bill requires the state to measure how well high school students are meeting updated graduation requirements. As part of the new requirements, which go into effect in the year 2021, high schools must adopt a list of options students can use to prove they’re prepared for college or a career.

Those options include the SAT exam, which all Colorado juniors are required to take; passing a concurrent enrollment college-level course; passing a Advanced Placement test; or completing a college thesis-like capstone project demonstrating knowledge of a subject.

“This bill is a really clever way to allow school districts to say, ‘This is what we care about, and this how we’re going to do it,’” said Luke Ragland, president of Ready Colorado, a conservative education reform group.

Some of the most anticipated school-accountability bills of the session never materialized.

One would have provided more clarity on what happens to schools that consistently receive low quality ratings from the state.

“This was a big undertaking, and the bill’s sponsors needed more time,” Ragland said.

It’s another issue Capitol-watchers can expect to see return next year.

As Ragland put it, “The lack of clarity at the end of the state’s accountability clock is bad for everyone.”