He lives several states away but Jonah Edelman has become something of a lightning rod in the Denver Public Schools’ board elections.

standlogoThis likely surprises no one more than Edelman himself, the founder of the grassroots parent organizing group Stand for Children, who is prone to such non-controversial statements as these:

“New teachers need to get paid a lot more, that’s just a glaring problem in this society,” he said in a November speech to educators that was, understandably, well-received. “All teachers should get paid more but new teachers should get paid significantly more.”

On the touchier topic of charter vs. neighborhood schools, a debate which has overshadowed much of the DPS race, Edelman recently described it as “a tough issue.”

“Because anybody whose kids are in a district school or who’s working in a district school see charters … through a zero sum lens,” he said in a February talk in Portland, Ore., where Stand is based. “I tend to see it more from the standpoint of supporting good schools, no matter what the structure is.”

When an audience member chided him a few minutes later for not being radical enough, Edelman didn’t argue.

“That’s my goal,” he said, “to kind of be in the middle.”

Stand comes to Denver

That Edelman is in the metaphorical middle of the DPS race stems largely from something he describes as “a screw-up.”

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Jonah Edelman

Critics say the only screw-up was their uncovering of Stand’s illegal political tactics.

Christopher Scott, a candidate for the at-large seat on the Denver school board, describes Stand as “the controversial out-of-state special interest group” that is “here to influence Denver elections.”

The hubbub tracks back to April, when Stand first came to Colorado and launched two organizers to recruit parents to work on local and state education issues, including political races.

They sent emails to DPS principals, asking for meetings to talk about Stand and for help in identifying parents who might want to get involved.

It’s not uncommon for organizers to start with principals, said Ricardo Martinez, co-founder of the Denver-based parent advocacy group Padres y Jovenes Unidos.

“It’s best to have a good working relationship with the leadership of the school,” Martinez said. “You want to let people know you’re working in the school. It’s not necessarily asking for permission, it’s just to warn them.”

But the Stand emails raised a red flag because they dropped the name of a senior DPS administrator, Brad Jupp, which sparked questions about whether the meetings were sanctioned by the district.

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Brad Jupp

Some principals complained to DPS, prompting the district’s in-house attorney, John Kechriotis, to question Jupp, who is currently on loan to the U.S. Department of Education in D.C., working on teacher quality.

“I am not sure if you are aware that Stand for Children is utilizing your name to get meetings at DPS schools,” Kechriotis wrote in an email. “… since this is directly tied to a public election, that can’t be done.”

“Didn’t know and they didn’t ask,” Jupp shot back. “I’ll let them know they should drop it.”

Critics raise questions

“It was just a screw-up where the intention there was simply to be direct about who referred us,” Edelman said. “There was no other motive.”

But the disclosures that Edelman and DPS Superintendent Tom Boasberg were childhood friends, and that Boasberg’s sister was a member of Stand’s national board, only heightened the concern, for some, that DPS leaders were trying to influence the school board race.

boasberg
Tom Boasberg

Four of the seven board seats are up for grabs next month, making it possible the board’s dynamic – which tends to be pro-Boasberg and “pro-reform” – could shift.

In fact, the flier Stand sent to principals lists “Strengthen the Denver school board’s pro-education reform majority by helping elect four pro-reform candidates” among the group’s 2009 priorities.

Jeanne Kaplan, who has since secured her seat on the DPS board because she’s unopposed, believed the message was aimed at her because she has questioned the approval of some charter schools.

“I really do believe what is being proposed on the reform agenda is part of the solution,” she said. “I don’t think it can be the only solution.”

As for Stand, “I’m just sad they came with a divisive message,” Kaplan said, “because there’s certainly more room for parental involvement.”

Edelman said he came to Colorado twice, in November and in January, after his national board decided Stand should expand its work beyond four states – Oregon, Washington, Tennessee and Massachusetts.

He said he met with Boasberg’s predecessor, U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colorado, on the second trip.

“I made the decision after the second trip to move forward,” Edelman said, and his board agreed. “I didn’t talk to Boasberg before making the decision.”

DPS race “pro and con”

Those who met with Edelman last November, such as Padres’ Martinez, back up his contention that he was considering Colorado for expansion months before the school board races began.

“I consider the school board race a pro and a con, frankly,” Edelman said. “The pro of it was there’s an opportunity to help. It feels like there’s an important race where the involvement of parents and educators focused only on which candidates would be best for children would help …

“The con, of course, is that it has the potential to be conflictive and ideally we would start working on initiatives, projects that would be less so.”

In September, Stand for Children released its endorsements of candidates in the three contested races — Mary Seawell for the at-large seat, Vernon Jones in northeast Denver and Ismael Garcia in southwest Denver. Two of those candidates – Seawell and Garcia –  have since been endorsed by Mayor John Hickenlooper and The Denver Post.

Scott, the at-large candidate who has been most critical of Stand, did not win their endorsement.

His campaign issued a statement last week taking aim at DPS Board President Theresa Peña for supporting Stand, calling it “yet another example … of special interest influence.”

Peña said she supports Stand as she supports other education groups, naming examples such as Great Education Colorado, which promotes better funding for K-12 education.

Nicolas Weiser, a DPS dad who founded the Denver Education Advocacy Network or DEAN with Scott last year, said the criticism stems from the frustrations of DPS parents who feel their concerns are dismissed even as district leaders solicit outside groups that will agree with them.

Stand’s ties to Boasberg, Peña and Bennet make it more likely that group will be heard, Weiser said, while ordinary parents feel they are not.

“The real issue is that DPS has not found a way to create processes that promote genuine buy-in from parents,” he said.

But one parent who joined Stand said the members – Denver parents and teachers – make the decisions.

Valissa Tsoucaris, who has two children at Odyssey Charter School in Stapleton, said the role of the two Stand staff members in Denver “has basically been getting people together in the same room and saying, what do you guys want?”

“They have really held back on providing input at all,” she said. “Even when directly asked, what do you think? They pretty much throw it back and say, this is what you guys are supposed to do.”

To date, Stand has about 100 members in Denver, focused around schools including Odyssey and Montclair Academy and around groups such as Teach for America members and alums.

Tsoucaris said members spent “several hours over several meetings” putting together a specific list of questions for candidates, then invited them all for interviews before making the endorsements.

“It was really illuminating to see such drastically different bases of knowledge,” she said, “and to hear what they had to say about what we as a group decided we care about.”

Education plus politics

Edelman, the son of Children’s Defense Fund founder Marian Wright Edelman, began Stand in an effort to marry child advocacy and grassroots organizing.

“Stand didn’t start off working on public education at all,” he said, noting the 1996 Stand for Children rally from which it grew encompassed many issues.

The rally, which Edelman worked on at his mother’s request, drew 300,000 people to D.C. for what was the largest rally for children in U.S. history. Stand’s first chapter was founded in Oregon in 1999.

“It’s really evolved organizationally toward public education based on the fact public education is the most salient and fundamentally important issue of so many issues facing kids,” he said.

Stand’s grassroots approach is similar to those of two other parent groups in Denver, Padres Unidos and Metropolitan Organizations for People or MOP.

But Stand differs in that its members get directly involved in politics – something Padres and MOP, which are non-profit 501(c)3 organizations, can’t do – and it works at the local and statewide levels.

“We don’t choose cities,” Edelman said when asked about coming to Denver, “we choose states.”

In Oregon, for example, Stand has a state affiliate and 16 different chapters. The state strategy team is made up of members of each of the different chapters.

Among the issues that Stand has tackled in Oregon are increased funding for schools and improved mentoring programs for new teachers.

Becca Uherbelau, spokesperson for the Oregon Education Association, the statewide teachers union, called Stand “a great advocate for K-12 and a very good partner.”

“They’ve partnered with us and other education advocates to increase mentoring for new teachers and for school funding generally,” she said. “They’ve also helped us fight merit pay for teachers at the ballot, which voters just rejected for the second time.”

Currently, Stand and OEA are among the advocates for a “tax fairness package” that will soon go before voters to increase funding for K-12 schools, she said.

“I think the only thing we hope for now and in our future interactions with Stand is that they keep their efforts focused on a statewide level,” Uherbelau said. “There has been some concern about the local groups showing interest in collective bargaining.”

Next steps for Denver’s Stand

In other states, Stand has lined up opposite the teachers’ union on issues.

The Stand affiliate in Washington partnered with the state PTA and other groups in support of what was hailed as a landmark education bill that overhauled the state’s school finance system.

The Washington teachers’ union vigorously fought the bill – and lost.

In Colorado, Edelman has met with Tony Salazar, executive director of the state teachers’ union.

“There’s a whole lot we agree on, in terms of Colorado schools being dramatically underfunded and about the need for fiscal reform,” Edelman said. “There’s some stuff that may be more challenging for us to figure out …

“The goal is always going to be to speak directly to each other and be transparent and be straight with each other.”

Stand, like the Colorado Education Association, is a dues-based membership organization and only members can contribute to political work.

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Lindsay Neil

But they differ in that Stand does not write checks to candidates, according to Edelman and to Lindsay Neil, formerly of the Colorado Children’s Campaign and now Stand’s executive director in Colorado.

Instead, Stand offers volunteer time, consulting and other in-kind services. The Denver chapter of Stand had raised $2,850 as of Oct. 8 for its DPS candidates, mostly from Stand’s national board members.

It expended $1,622 of that on in-kind services for its endorsed candidates – Seawell, Garcia and Jones.

The Denver Classroom Teachers Association endorsed different candidates in the DPS race. The DCTA, as of Oct. 8, had given checks totally $28,000 to its three candidates – Christopher Scott, Andrea Merida and Nate Easley.

After Election Day, on Nov. 3, Neil said Stand will focus on organizing outside of Denver and crafting a policy agenda for the Legislature.

“Each state works on issues particular to its state and then its agendas are set and driven by members,” she said. “We don’t have a national agenda, so to speak.”

Tsoucaris, the Odyssey parent, believes the parent-driven model will be politically powerful.

“I don’t invest my time just anywhere,” the attorney said. “I’m extremely busy, I’m a single mother, I’ve got plenty of opportunities to provide service … so I really looked into these guys to decide if I wanted to put my energy into them and I decided I did.”

She believes parents at her school are much like those at other DPS schools.

“The Odyssey community is engaged and active and advocating for our kids and our school,” she said. “Stand provided us a way to sort of come together and look beyond the walls of our school and see how we could impact our kids’ education but also impact all kids’ education.”

Nancy Mitchell can be reached at nmitchell@pebc.org or 303-478-4573.