The race thickens

State Sen. Michael Merrifield, who pushed for dramatic cuts in testing, considers gubernatorial run

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
State Sen. Michael Merrifield, center, at a committee hearing on the nation's new education laws on Dec. 13.

A second Colorado lawmaker with deep ties to public education is considering a run for the governor’s mansion in 2018.

State Sen. Michael Merrifield of Colorado Springs confirmed to Chalkbeat he is weighing joining what could a crowded Democratic primary as a voice for the party’s progressive wing.

One of Merrifield’s Democratic colleagues from the Senate Education Committee is also considering a run — outgoing Sen. Michael Johnston, the standard bearer for the state’s education reform movement. The two lawmakers often clashed on policies such as linking teacher evaluations to student academic growth.

Others who have been mentioned as potential Democratic candidates include former U.S. Sen. and Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar, U.S. Rep. Ed Perlmutter and former state treasurer Cary Kennedy.

Merrifield, a former music teacher who has served on both the House and Senate education committees, said he’s been encouraged to run by Democrats across the state after November’s election.

“I think the state party has been far too Denver-centric for a number of years,” he said, suggesting the state’s Democrats have abandoned rural parts of the state and labor organizations. “I think Democrats need to get back to their roots.”

Merrifield, 69, said he believes he can rally the growing progressive wing of the Democratic Party in Colorado that supported U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders during the presidential primaries. Sanders won the Colorado presidential caucus.

“Many of those names being bandied about will have difficulty arousing excitement from the base,” he said. “And that’s one thing that I’ve always been able to do in all of my races: get support from unions, and teachers, and mom and pop business owners.”

Merrifield is considered among the most liberal of Democrat lawmakers in the General Assembly. But his Senate district is split almost evenly among Democrats, Republicans and unaffiliated voters.

On education issues, Merrifield has staunchly opposed numerous education reform efforts and has proposed bills to slash the amount of standardized testing in schools.

What would a Merrifield governorship mean for the state’s public schools?

“It’d be a wonderful thing for public education, with a capital P-U-B-L-I-C education,” he said. “It’d not be a very good thing for those who want to privatize, corporatize, ‘voucherize’ and ‘charterize’ public education.”

Merrifield said he didn’t know when he’d make a decision. Among the factors he’s raising is whether he can raise the kind of money needed to mount a statewide campaign.

“It would be a huge undertaking,” Merrifield said. “I think so far, what I’m seeing is a path. Not a well-beaten path, but a path through the forest.”

ColoradoPolitics.com first reported Merrifield’s potential gubernatorial run.

rules and regs

New York adds some flexibility to its free college scholarship rules. Will it be enough for more students to benefit?

PHOTO: Office of Governor Andrew M. Cuomo
Governor Andrew Cuomo delivered his 2017 regional State of the State address at the University at Albany.

New York is offering more wiggle room in a controversial “Excelsior” scholarship requirement that students stay in-state after graduating, according to new regulations released Thursday afternoon.

Members of the military, for example, will be excused from the rule, as will those who can prove an “extreme hardship.”

Overall, however, the plan’s rules remain strict. Students are required to enroll full-time and to finish their degrees on time to be eligible for the scholarship — significantly limiting the number who will ultimately qualify.

“It’s a high bar for a low-income student,” said Sara Goldrick-Rab, a leading expert on college affordability and a professor at Temple University. “It’s going to be the main reason why students lose the scholarship.”

The scholarship covers free college tuition at any state college or university for students whose families earn less than $125,000 per year. But it comes with a major catch: Students who receive Excelsior funding must live and work in New York state for the same number of years after graduation as they receive the scholarship. If they fail to do so, their scholarships will be converted to loans, which the new regulations specify have 10-year terms and are interest-free.

The new regulations allow for some flexibility:

  • The loan can now be prorated. So if a student benefits from Excelsior for four years but moves out of state two years after graduation, the student would only owe two years of payments.
  • Those who lose the scholarship but remain in a state school, or complete a residency in-state, will have that time count toward paying off their award.
  • Members of the military get a reprieve: They will be counted as living and working in-state, regardless of where the person is stationed or deployed.
  • In cases of “extreme hardship,” students can apply for a waiver of the residency and work requirements. The regulations cite “disability” and “labor market conditions” as some examples of a hardship. A state spokeswoman said other situations that “may require that a student work to help meet the financial needs of their family” would qualify as a hardship, such as a death or the loss of a job by a parent.
  • Students who leave the state for graduate school or a residency can defer repaying their award. They would have to return to New York afterwards to avoid having the scholarship convert to a loan.

Some of law’s other requirements were also softened. The law requires students to enroll full-time and take average of 30 credits a year — even though many SUNY and CUNY students do not graduate on time. The new regulations would allow students to apply credits earned in high school toward the 30-credit completion requirement, and stipulates that students who are disabled do not have to enroll full-time to qualify.

early running

Denver school board race opens up as Rosemary Rodriguez announces she won’t seek re-election

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Board member Rosemary Rodriguez speaks at Abraham Lincoln High (Chalkbeat file)

Denver school board member Rosemary Rodriguez said Wednesday that she is not running for re-election, putting her southwest Denver seat up for grabs in what will likely be a contentious school board campaign this fall with control of the board at stake.

Rodriguez told Chalkbeat she is retiring from her job as senior advisor to Democratic U.S. Senator Michael Bennet and plans to sell her home and buy a smaller one that belonged to her grandparents.

That home is not in her school board district, District 2, but in the district represented by board member Lisa Flores. With the exception of at-large members, Denver school board members must live in the districts they represent.

“If it weren’t the case, I would still be running,” Rodriguez said.

During her four-year tenure, Rodriguez worked with community groups and others to spotlight student achievement in southwest Denver, leading to new schools and better transportation.

Former Denver Public Schools teacher and Denver native Angela Cobian announced Wednesday that she is running for the seat. Rodriguez has endorsed Cobian, a political newcomer who works for the nonprofit Leadership for Educational Equity, which helps Teach for America members and alumni get involved in politics and advocacy.

All seven current board members support Denver’s nationally known brand of education reform, which includes a “portfolio” of traditional district-run, charter, magnet and innovation schools.

With four of the the board’s seats up for grabs this November, the campaign presents an opportunity for opponents of those reforms to again try to get a voice on the board.

The field is still very much taking shape. The most competitive race so far involves District 4 in northeast Denver. Incumbent Rachele Espiritu, who was appointed to the seat last year, announced her campaign earlier this month. The board chose Espiritu after its initial pick, MiDian Holmes, withdrew after a child abuse case came to light and she was not forthcoming with all the details.

Also filing paperwork to run in District 4 is Jennifer Bacon, who was a finalist in the process that led to the board picking Espiritu. Auontai “Tay” Anderson, the student body president of Manual High School, declared his candidacy for the northeast Denver seat in April.

Incumbents Mike Johnson and Barbara O’Brien have not yet filed election paperwork with the state. Two candidates have declared for O’Brien’s at-large seat: Julie Banuelos and Jo Ann Fujioka.