Who Is In Charge

Can Colorado afford education reform?

The question of paying for education innovations, put off for another day when the legislators passed the Colorado Achievement Plan for Kids in 2008, was back on the table Friday as lawmakers and state education officials wrestled with future K-12 funding.

Department of Education officials (foreground) met with legislators at a JBC hearing Dec. 11, 2009.
Department of Education officials (foreground) met with legislators at a JBC hearing Dec. 11, 2009.

A phalanx of Colorado Department of Education brass met with nearly two-dozen legislators for the annual hearing at which the department is supposed to answer budget questions from the Joint Budget Committee.

Gov. Bill Ritter has proposed a 6.1 percent cut in state aid to schools in 2010-11, and that unprecedented proposal has sparked a debate about the interpretation of Amendment 23 and has school districts scrambling to weigh increasing class sizes, laying off teachers, freezing salaries, closing schools and more.

But the hearing focused less on budget details and more on issues like the value of the federal Race to the Top program; well-worn arguments on high-stakes testing and education reform, and the unknown future costs of education innovations set in motion by the legislature in 2008.

The CAP4K program passed that year requires formal descriptions of both school readiness and postsecondary and workforce readiness, adoption of new state content standards, selection of a new statewide testing systems, alignment of local high school graduation requirements with the state standards and coordination of college entrance requirements with the new K-12 system. Implementation is scheduled to stretch into 2014.

The measure (Senate Bill 08-212) didn’t include any funding but did require that a professional three-part study of potential costs be conducted. The first part of the report is due next March, but the full cost study won’t be done until October 2011.

Rep. Jack Pommer, D-Boulder
Rep. Jack Pommer, D-Boulder

JBC Chair Rep. Jack Pommer, D-Boulder, said, “We bypassed that [funding] process in this bill. … We never should have done that.”

Rep. Judy Solano, D-Brighton, said, ‘I don’t really see how our state in our current financial condition can afford to complete CAP4K … is there talk of suspending or delaying parts of it?”

Much of the legislative heartburn over CAP4K costs seems to center on the potential cost of a new testing system. (The readiness descriptions have been written, and the State Board of Education adopted the new standards on Thursday. And, CDE staff and a task force are hard at work on new tests, which must be adopted by SBE in a year.)

A Nov. 20 memo to JBC staff from CDE Deputy Commissioner Ken Turner (who’s since left the department for an education job overseas) said, “On the low side the estimate may be $50 million. One the high side it could run to $80 million” to launch a new testing system and train teachers how to use it.

Rep. Mike Merrifield, D-Colorado Springs
Rep. Mike Merrifield, D-Colorado Springs

And Rep. Mike Merrifield, D-Colorado Springs and chair of the House Education Committee, zeroed in on current testing costs, asking “If we were to get a waiver and suspend CSAPs for a year, what would it save us?”

Solano, House Ed vice chair and the legislature’s leading CSAP critic, concurred, asking, “Is that possible?”

Rich Wenning, CDE associate commissioner, said the state spends about $19 million a year on CSAPs, with $5.6 million of that covered by the federal government. Obtaining a waiver would probably take as much time as it will to get a new test in place, he said.

SBE member Elaine Gantz Berman, D-1st District, responded, “I would think that if we were going to pursue a waiver around testing we would be sending a very mixed message … and it would affect our Race to the Top application. … You can’t have accountability without some sort of annual test. … We’d have to look at how badly do we want Race to the Top. I’m not sure it [requesting a waiver] is a risk we want to take.”

Member Randy DeHoff, R-6th District, noted that the new testing system is envisioned to include more than the once-a-year snapshot provided by the CSAPs.

Pommer was not persuaded, commenting, “I find it difficult to believe another test will help teachers teach better.” (Pommer also was dismissive of R2T, saying, “It’s almost entirely political and ideological … it’s just a bribe.”)

Speaking with EdNews after the meeting, Sen. Chris Romer, D-Denver, downplayed talk about delaying CAP4K implementation. Romer was one of the prime sponsors of the legislation.

“I believe we need to move further, faster, quicker on CAP4K, and we should not use the budget challenges to slow that transition down.”

“I did not hear any voices from CDE or the state board” saying we should slow the process down. “I heard the same familiar voices [of legislators] who don’t believe in standards-based education.”

Romer continued, “I understand they are frustrated by the cost of assessments,” but he predicted the actual costs “will be fraction of” the $80 million figure, and “We clearly are going to get money from the feds to pay for a large portion of those new assessments.”

“I’m sure that the governor won’t support [delaying CAP4K] nor will I nor a majority of the Senate.”

Education Commissioner Dwight Jones (left) and Bob Schaffer, chair of the State Board of Education, prepare for a JBC hearing on Dec. 11, 2009.
Education Commissioner Dwight Jones (left) and Bob Schaffer, chair of the State Board of Education, prepare for a JBC hearing on Dec. 11, 2009.

Back to budget woes

There was a little time during the three-hour meeting to discuss the immediate budget crisis.

“School districts have never experienced a reduction on the level proposed,” Jones said, a comment seconded by Vody Herrmann, CDE’s school finance expert.

Herrmann also noted that in the current, 2009-10 budget school districts likely will have to absorb more than a long-expected $110 million, or 2 percent cent. She was referring to the potential cost of higher-than-projected pupil counts and a dramatic rise in the number of at-risk students.

Pommer said, “I think we’ve made it pretty clear that the $110 million is gone.” While it’s “hard for us to know” if cuts will be higher, Pommer added, “I think it’s safe to say we won’t be adjusting for the number of students or for at risk.”

As background, Herrmann noted that about 95,000 additional students have entered schools around the state since the start of the decade, and that the number of at-risk students has grown by 104,000. “Every child that’s come into our school system in the last 10 years basically could be considered poverty level … it just raises more challenges for school districts.”

Last word

Pommer gave Jones the final chance to speak, after various legislator questions and comments on property taxes, what makes a good teacher and childhood obesity had been exhausted.

The commissioner, who’d opened the meeting by saying “traditional road maps haven’t gotten us where we want to go” and that the education system “requires immediate and urgent transformation,” closed by saying, “We can’t go backwards.”

Follow the money

Final Denver school board campaign finance reports show who brought in the most late money

PHOTO: Denver Post file
Victoria Tisman, 8, left, works with paraprofessional Darlene Ontiveros on her Spanish at Bryant-Webster K-8 school in Denver.

Final campaign finance reports for this year’s hard-fought Denver school board elections are in, and they show a surge of late contributions to Angela Cobián, who was elected to represent southwest Denver and ended up bringing in more money than anyone else in the field.

The reports also showed the continued influence of independent groups seeking to sway the races. Groups that supported candidates who favor Denver Public Schools’ current direction raised and spent far more than groups that backed candidates looking to change things.

No independent group spent more during the election than Raising Colorado, which is affiliated with Democrats for Education Reform. In the week and a half before the Nov. 7 election, it spent $126,985. That included nearly $57,000 to help elect Rachele Espiritu, an incumbent supportive of the district’s direction who lost her seat representing northeast Denver to challenger Jennifer Bacon. Raising Colorado spent $13,765 on mail opposing Bacon in that same period.

Teachers union-funded committees also were active in the campaign.

Individually, Cobián raised more money in the days before the election than the other nine candidates combined. She pulled in $25,335 between Oct. 30 and Dec. 2.

That includes a total of $11,000 from three members of the Walton family that founded Walmart: Jim, Alice and Steuart. The Waltons have over the years invested more than $1 billion in education-related causes, including the creation of charter schools.

Total money raised, spent by candidates
  • Angela Cobián: $123,144, $105,200
    Barbara O’Brien: $117,464, $115,654
    Mike Johnson: $106,536, $103,782
    Rachele Espiritu: $94,195, $87,840
    Jennifer Bacon: $68,967, $67,943
    Carrie A. Olson: $35,470, $35,470
    Robert Speth: $30,635, $31,845
    “Sochi” Gaytan: $28,977, $28,934
    Tay Anderson: $18,766, $16,865
    Julie Bañuelos: $12,962, $16,835

Cobián was supported in her candidacy by donors and groups that favor the district’s brand of education reform, which includes collaborating with charter schools. In the end, Cobián eclipsed board vice president Barbara O’Brien, who had been leading in contributions throughout the campaign, to raise the most money overall: a total of $123,144.

The two candidates vying to represent central-east Denver raised about $5,000 each in the waning days of the campaign. Incumbent Mike Johnson pulled in $5,300, including $5,000 from Colorado billionaire Phil Anschutz. Teacher Carrie A. Olson, who won the seat, raised $4,946 from a host of donors, none of whom gave more than $500 during that time period.

The other candidates raised less than $5,000 each between Oct. 30 and Dec. 2.

O’Brien, who staved off two competitors to retain her seat representing the city at-large, spent the most in that period: $31,225. One of her competitors, Julie Bañuelos, spent the least.

money matters

In election of big spending, winning Aurora candidates spent less but got outside help

Four new board members, Kyla Armstrong-Romero, Marques Ivey, Kevin Cox and Debbie Gerkin after they were sworn in. (Photo courtesy of Aurora Public Schools)

A slate of Aurora school board candidates that won election last month were outspent by some of their rival campaigns — including in the final days of the race — but benefited from big spending by a union-backed independent committee.

Outside groups that backed the winning slate spent more overall during the campaign, but wound down as pro-education reform groups picked up their spending in the last period right before the election. Those efforts were not enough to push their candidates to victory.

According to the last campaign finance reports turned in on Thursday and covering activity from Oct. 26 through Dec. 2, Gail Pough and Miguel Lovato spent the most from their individual contributions.

Together Pough and Lovato spent more than $7,000 on calls, canvassing and consulting fees. Both candidates were supported by reform groups and had been reporting the most individual contributions in previous campaign finance reports.

But it was the slate of candidates endorsed by the teachers union — Kevin Cox, Debbie Gerkin, Kyla Armstrong-Romero and Marques Ivey — that prevailed on election night.

How much did candidates raise, spend?

  • Gail Pough, $12,756.32; $12,328.81
  • Lea Steed, $1,965.00; $1,396.16
  • Kyla Armstrong Romero, $7,418.83; $3,606.12
  • Kevin Cox, $2,785.54; $2,993.07
  • Miguel Lovato, $16,856.00; $16,735.33
  • Jane Barber, $1,510.32; $1,510.32
  • Debbie Gerkin, $4,690.00; $4,516.21
  • Marques Ivey, $5,496.50; $5,638.57
  • Barbara Yamrick, did not file

The slate members spent varying amounts in the last few days before the election. For instance, Cox, who won the most votes, spent $403 while Ivey who recorded the fewest votes of the four winning candidates, spent $2,056.

Most of the slate candidates’ spending went to Facebook ads and consulting fees.

The four also reported large amounts in non-monetary contributions. Collectively, the slate members reported about $76,535 in non-monetary contributions, mostly from union funds, to cover in-kind mail, polling, office space and printing. All four also reported a non-monetary contribution in the form of a robocall from the Arapahoe County Democratic Party.

Other financial support for candidates, through independent expenditure committees, showed that the group Every Student Succeeds which was backed by union dollars and was supporting the union slate, spent less in the last days than the reform groups Raising Colorado and Families First Colorado which were supporting Pough and Lovato.

Overall, the independent expenditure committee groups spent more than $419,000 trying to sway Aurora voters.

Incumbent Barbara Yamrick failed to file any campaign finance reports throughout the campaign.

This story has been updated to include more information about in-kind contributions to the union-backed candidates.