the selection

Denver parent activist and Montbello High alum MiDian Holmes appointed to school board

DPS parent MiDian Holmes spoke at a Thursday rally supporting the district's reform proposals.

A Montbello High School graduate and longtime parent activist was appointed Tuesday to fill a vacant seat on the Denver school board.

MiDian Holmes will represent northeast Denver and finish out the term of former board member Landri Taylor, who resigned in February. Her term will expire in the fall of 2017.

Holmes works as a regional operations manager at Randstad Technologies, a nationwide staffing organization. She’s the mother of three DPS students: two attend George Washington High School, which is district-run, and one goes to DSST: Green Valley Ranch charter school.

Holmes was for years an active member in the school reform advocacy group Stand for Children. She currently sits on two district committees, including one that is crafting a request for a tax increase this fall.

Board members voted by secret ballot to appoint Holmes. Beforehand, they lauded her track record of participating in difficult community conversations about school culture and closures.

“I feel like she’s almost a board member already, she’s been so involved in the district for so long,” said board member Mike Johnson.

Holmes wasn’t at Tuesday’s meeting due to a prior commitment. Reached afterward, she said she’s humbled, excited and “very anxious to get started.” She will be sworn in at the board’s April 18 meeting.

Holmes will represent DPS District 4, a large geographic area that includes older city neighborhoods such as Whittier and Cole and newer areas such as Stapleton. The district also includes the neighborhoods of Montbello and Green Valley Ranch, which are arguably home to Denver’s most ambitious and controversial school turnaround efforts.

Holmes, who lives in Green Valley Ranch, supported the district’s plan, which included shuttering her struggling alma mater.

“Something had to really change to ensure the quality of education was something we could be proud of,” she said of the turnaround efforts.

But the district’s actions upset some residents, who felt their concerns were ignored. Holmes said her first order of business will be repairing the relationship between DPS and the far northeast Denver community.

“The ambition and drive of the district is definitely strong,” Holmes said. “But because that vision has been so heavily focused on results, I don’t think anyone is turning their eyes to the community and saying, ‘We want this to happen with you, not to you. How can we bring your voice to the table?'”

District 4 is DPS’s most racially diverse region. Holmes is African-American.

Twenty-two candidates initially applied to fill the vacant seat on the seven-member board. Last month, the board members narrowed the field to 10 finalists, one of whom withdrew.

On Tuesday, the board took an initial vote to winnow the finalists down to three: Holmes, Jennifer Bacon and Rachele Espiritu. After discussing the merits of all three, the board voted a second time to appoint Holmes.

For years, the DPS board was divided between members who supported the district’s aggressive school reforms and those who didn’t. That’s changed over time.

Last November, voters elected three pro-reform candidates — two incumbents and one newcomer — making it so all seven seats were occupied by members who support strategies such as paying teachers based on performance and closing chronically struggling schools.

Holmes’s appointment likely won’t upset the board’s calculus.

My position is that I’m going to support students first,” she said. “My hope — and what I’m assuming — is that we do have a like-minded board, and that’s a great thing.”

Budget backlash

New York stands to lose $433 million in education funding under Trump budget, state says

PHOTO: Monica Disare
State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia at the School of Diplomacy in the Bronx

President Donald Trump’s proposed federal budget would “eviscerate” education programs by cutting more than $433 million in New York funds, according to state officials.

The budget would slash teacher preparation, after-school programs, and college aid for low-income students, they said.

State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia used her meeting last month with U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos to push back on potential cuts to education spending. On Tuesday afternoon, she released a joint statement with New York State Board of Regents Chancellor Betty Rosa denouncing the cuts.

“Despite the outcry from education leaders, President Trump’s proposed budget includes a sweeping and irresponsible slashing of the U.S. Department of Education’s budget,” the statement read. “The severe cut will have far-reaching impacts across the nation, with life-shattering consequences for New York’s children.”

Here’s the full breakdown of the state’s preliminary analysis:

expansion plans

Betsy DeVos promises an expansive school choice plan, says opting out would be ‘terrible mistake’ for states

PHOTO: U.S. Department of Education
U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos.

In a speech to the advocacy group she previously led, Betsy DeVos hinted that an aggressive plan to expand public funding of private schools through the federal government is on the way.

The U.S. education secretary offered few details about the plan, which she said would be voluntary for states. And with an administration besieged by controversy, a skeptical Congress, and disagreement among even school choice supporters, it faces an uphill battle.

That did not deter DeVos in her speech at the annual American Federation for Children conference in downtown Indianapolis.

“The president is proposing the most ambitious expansion of school choice in our nation’s history,” she said, soon after being greeted by a standing ovation from school choice supporters. “If a state doesn’t want to participate, that would be a terrible mistake on their part. They will be hurting the children and families who can least afford it.”

School choice comes in many forms, but DeVos and the American Federation for Children have long advocated for vouchers and tax credit programs that provide public money to families in order to pay private school tuition. While proponents argue these initiatives provide a lifeline to low-income students, critics say they drain resources from public schools and are ineffective at improving student achievement.

Indeed, DeVos was met with protests from several dozen teachers and public education advocates who criticized her plan before it had even been released. Voucher programs “rob a majority of the students — we’ve got more than 90 percent of the kids in this country sitting in public schools,” Indiana State Teachers Association president Teresa Meredith told Chalkbeat after a rally held before DeVos’s speech.

Even certain school choice supporters are critical of a federal proposal.

“School choice would not only risk being branded as TrumpChoice, but it would be fronted by an unpopular and divisive president,” wrote Rick Hess of the conservative American Enterprise Institute. “Democrats who are open to school choice but who despise Trump might wonder if they’re missing something when it comes to school choice.”

One prominent school choice supporter, Indiana Congressman Todd Rokita, has already backed the proposal. Still, few seem to expect it to become law. In 2015, a bid to give states the option to use federal money to fund private school tuition was easily voted down in the Senate.

In her speech, DeVos emphasized that the administration’s proposal would devolve power to the states, thought it’s unclear how she would accomplish this seemingly paradoxical goal through a federal program.

“We shouldn’t view this as a chance to mandate a one-size-fits all school choice proposal,” she said. “We won’t accomplish our goals by creating a new federal bureaucracy or by bribing states with their own taxpayers’ money.”

The last line was perhaps an allusion to the Obama administration’s Race to the Top program, though she didn’t specify how the Trump administration’s plan would work differently.

Insofar as states will have a choice about school choice, DeVos is clear which direction she thinks they should go.

“Let me be very clear, I firmly believe every state should provide choices and embrace equal opportunity in education,” DeVos said. “But those are decisions states must make — no two states are the same and no two states’ approaches will be the same, and that’s a good thing.”

The secretary offered a bevy of options that epitomize the “open system” of choices that families should have access to: “It shouldn’t matter if learning takes place in a traditional public school, a Catholic school, a charter school, a non-sectarian private school, a Jewish school, a home school, a magnet school, an online school, any customized combination of those schools – or in an educational setting yet to be developed.”

Earlier in the evening, Indiana’s Republican Governor Eric Holcomb appeared, and former Florida Republican Governor Jeb Bush is scheduled to speak at the conference on Tuesday. Although New Jersey Senator Cory Booker spoke to the group in previous years, no current elected Democrat appears on this year’s agenda.

DeVos seemed keenly aware of the increasingly partisan breakdown on school choice issues, particularly on school vouchers.

“The oldest school choice program in the country was started by the Democrat,” she said, referring to Milwaukee’s long-running school voucher system. “If you hear nothing else I say tonight, please hear this: education should not be a partisan issue.”

Currently about 450,000 students use a voucher or tax-credit funded scholarship to attend a private school.

Recent research in Indianapolis, Louisiana, Ohio, and Washington, D.C. has shown students receiving a voucher saw their test scores drop. There is little research on tax credit programs, partially because many don’t require participating students to take their state test or any test at all.

Private school choice programs have also come under criticism for requiring students with disabilities to waive their rights under IDEA and under-serving those students. Existing voucher programs also allow private schools discriminate against LGBT students.

Proponents point to evidence that public schools improve in response to competition from vouchers, as well as older studies showing that some students attending a private school are more likely to graduate from high school and attend college.

When Chalkbeat asked Secretary DeVos, as she was leaving through a side entrance, what she thought of recent research on school choice, she responded only, “We’re not taking questions.”