Schools the focus in last mayoral debate

The two candidates for mayor of Denver pitched their education credentials during their final debate Tuesday night, but the event served mostly to highlight the views they share.

With the campaign pitting Michael Hancock against Chris Romer now down to its final week, the 256-seat auditorium at Teller Elementary School in east Denver was filled with a standing-room only crowd for the one-hour evening event hosted by 10 education advocacy groups.

Denver mayoral candidates Chris Romer and Michael Hancock.
Denver mayoral candidates Chris Romer (left) and Michael Hancock.

One of the few moments of contrast came when Hancock called attention to the fact that he has been endorsed by what he identified as the four “progressive” members of the Denver Public Schools Board of Education.

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He didn’t name them but Hancock was referring to board president Nate Easley, Mary Seawell, Theresa Pena and Bruce Hoyt, who have consistently backed the reform agenda of Superintendent Tom Boasberg.

Romer quickly followed by saying it is time to stop identifying “groups within school boards by labels and adjectives.”

He cited a recent conversation with board member Andrea Merida, a frequent Boasberg critic who has endorsed Romer, along with board member Jeannie Kaplan.

After telling Merida “We agree on nothing related to reform,” Romer said that Merida proceeded to cite several areas on which they actually do see eye to eye.

“Let’s focus on what we agree on, and not focus on the adjectives and labels,” Romer said.  “If you take a divided board to the public, you’re going to get a divided result.”

Both candidates said they would support specific candidates in November’s DPS elections but declined to name names. Three seats are on the ballot, and Hancock said “there’s no election more important” in Denver this year than those contests.

A Denver Post/9News poll released Sunday found education the most important issue for 22 percent of the voters surveyed, second only to economic development, which was cited by 30 percent of those contacted.

Both candidates have aired television ads focusing on education. In a spot titled “18 Miles,” which first aired in April, Hancock drew attention to the fact that his son faces an 18-mile trip each day from the family’s home in Green Valley Ranch to East High School “because our neighborhood school is one of many across Denver that is failing.”

Hancock hit on that theme from the stage Tuesday.

“As mayor, my vision is that every child, no matter where they live in Denver, will have access to quality schools in their neighborhood.

“Today there are too many zip codes in Denver, neighborhoods where families are having to move along or opt out, to find quality schools … we can do better than that,” Hancock said.

Romer’s most recent television ad, titled “Dream,” promotes his background as founder of the Colorado I Have a Dream Foundation, a non-profit program that helps disadvantaged Denver students graduate from high school, and his having served as a superintendent of New America Schools.

Romer also helped craft Amendment 23, the 2000 ballot measure that established a funding formula for the state’s public schools.

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Denver mayoral candidates Chris Romer and Michael Hancock debate education issues in the final tilt of the 2011 election. 

He used every opportunity to hit those highlights of his resume – and to mention by name public officials he’s worked with – in Tuesday night’s debate.

The two repeatedly characterized funding of public education as inadequate.

“We need to fund schools at least equal to the national average,” said Romer. “Between city hall and schools, I’ll take schools every day of the week. And that’s one of the reasons that I’m running for mayor.”

The two candidates are widely seen as not having a tremendous amount of daylight between them on the subject of education, something which was repeatedly shown in their remarks Tuesday night.

One example came when moderator Alexander Ooms asked the candidates whether they support public access to data linking teachers to the academic growth of their students.

“Sharing it publicly, putting it on the Web, I’m going to have to think a little bit more about that. I’d like to make sure that people aren’t gaming the system, and they’re sharing it within the organization,” said Romer.

Hancock said, “Having managed people, making any kind of evaluation or assessment public that could be construed as personnel information, would concern me a great deal. It’s a slippery slope that we’ve got to be very careful of.

“We never want to, I think, create a situation where teachers are being targeted by the public outside of that school building.”

Candidates offer mild criticism of DPS

Both candidates have been generally supportive of DPS’ Denver Plan, and of the contentious Far Northeast Denver schools turnaround proposal approved last November. Ooms asked where they would differ with DPS leadership.

“I was not a fan of some of the decisions on expanding certain charters, which I felt weren’t ready to do it,” said Romer, who touted his past involvement with three charter schools, including KIPP Denver and the Denver School of Science and Technology.

“I have my questions about the stresses of and strains of expanding some of the charters that weren’t quite ready to do it,” he added, cautioning that  expanding too quickly results in “robbing the mother ship to pay for the satellite. You’ve got to be very careful of that.”

Hancock referred to the wave of DPS schools that have been approved, or are pending approval, for innovation status. Such designation has been approved for 13 schools – with more coming.

“I know many principals and teachers have been frustrated by not receiving, I think, the money and autonomy that’s tied to their innovation status,” said Hancock.

“Give them their innovation status. Give them the ability to control their own destiny. If it means releasing them from the bureaucratic reins, then release them. Allow the teachers and schools … the ability to control their destiny. And I think DPS is like a parent who can’t let go. And so we’ve got to push them a little bit. We’re going to have to nudge them a little bit, to begin to release these schools and give them the real innovation status that they deserve, and that they’ve approved.”

Both were asked how they would work with DPS as mayor but suggested little beyond communication with the school board and superintendent.

Romer and Hancock were invited to speculate on what they would tell the other after the election, if their opponent won.

“I hope that Chris knows that he can call me particularly with regards to community engagement,” said Hancock.

Said Romer, “We do need to do this Northeast thing right. We are a trajectory to do something really important. We need to do it right. Michael’s leadership and his willingness to stand up was really important. … I would reach out to him immediately to make sure we did this correctly and we thought it through.”

Poll shows Hancock with edge

Although it was the final debate of the campaign, Tuesday’s event was the first head-to-head confrontation between the two since publication of the Post/9News poll, which showed Hancock with a 10-point lead over Romer.

That poll, conducted by SurveyUSA, put Hancock at 49 percent, Romer at 39 percent, 11 percent undecided and a plus-or-minus 4.3 percent margin of error.  The automated telephone survey was conducted May 23-May 27 with 548 likely and actual voters.

For the first time, the Denver mayoral runoff is being conducted by all-mail ballot. Through last Friday, 29,925 – or just under 10 percent – of the issued ballots have been returned and verified. June 7 is the deadline for ballots to be turned in.

Prior to the mayoral primary on May 3, the Denver Classroom Teachers Association endorsed James Mejia, who finished third. Meija has endorsed Romer, but the DCTA didn’t endorse anyone in the runoff.

Video highlights from Tuesday’s mayoral debate – opening statements

Q & A on education funding, school board endorsements, sharing teacher data

Election Forum

Tennesseans are about to get their first good look at candidates for governor on education

Former Tennessee Gov. Phil Bredesen speaks as his successor, Gov. Bill Haslam, listens during a 2017 forum hosted by the State Collaborative on Reforming Education. Tennesseans will elect their next governor in November.

For almost 16 years, two Tennessee governors from two different political parties have worked off mostly the same playbook when it comes to K-12 education.

This year, voters will choose a new governor who will determine if that playbook stays intact — or takes a different direction from the administrations of Bill Haslam, a Republican leaving office next January, and Phil Bredesen, the Democrat who preceded him.

Voters will get to hear from all but one of the major candidates Tuesday evening during the first gubernatorial forum televised statewide. Organizers say the spotlight on education is fitting since, based on one poll, it’s considered one of the top three issues facing Tennessee’s next governor. Both K-12 and higher education are on the table.

Candidates participating are:

  • Mae Beavers, a Republican from Mt. Juliet and former Tennessee state senator;
  • Randy Boyd, a Republican from Knoxville and former commissioner of Economic and Community Development and a Republican from Knoxville;
  • Karl Dean, a Democrat and former mayor of Nashville;
  • Rep. Craig Fitzhugh, a Democrat from Ripley and minority leader in the Tennessee House of Representatives;
  • Rep. Beth Harwell, a Republican from Nashville and speaker of the Tennessee House of Representatives;
  • Bill Lee, a Republican businessman from Williamson County

The seventh major candidate, U.S. Rep. Diane Black, a Republican from Gallatin, is in the midst of a congressional session in Washington, D.C.

The next governor will help decide whether Tennessee will stay the course under its massive overhaul of K-12 education initiated under Bredesen’s watch. The work was jump-started by the state’s $500 million federal Race to the Top award, for which Tennessee agreed to adopt the Common Core academic standards for math and English; incorporate students’ scores from standardized tests in annual teacher evaluations; and establish a state-run turnaround district to intervene in low-performing schools at an unprecedented level.

Tennessee has since enjoyed steady student growth and watched its national rankings rise, but the transition hasn’t been pain-free. Pushback on its heavy-handed turnaround district led to changes in school improvement strategies. Leaders also ordered new academic standards due to political backlash over the Common Core (though the revised standards are still basically grounded in Common Core).

A major issue now is whether the next governor and legislature will retain Tennessee’s across-the-board system of accountability for students, teachers, schools and districts. Snafus and outright failures with TNReady, the new standardized test that serves as the lynchpin, have prompted some calls to make the assessment just a diagnostic tool or scrap it altogether. Haslam and his leadership team have stood firm.

“We as Tennesseans made the right call — the tough call — on the policies we’ve pursued,” Education Commissioner Candice McQueen told Chalkbeat recently. “Nearly every other state has compromised in some way on some of these core foundational components of policy work, and we have not.”

The State Collaborative on Reforming Education, an advocacy group that works closely with Tennessee’s Department of Education, is a co-host of Tuesday’s forum. Known as SCORE, the group has sought to shape the election-year conversation with priorities that include teacher quality, improving literacy, and developing school leaders — all outgrowths of learnings during Tennessee’s Race to the Top era.

SCORE President David Mansouri said the goal is to maintain the momentum of historic gains in student achievement from the last decade. “The next administration’s education policy decisions will be crucial in determining whether Tennessee students continue to progress faster than students in other states and whether they graduate ready for postsecondary success,” he said Monday.

The one-hour forum will delve into a range of issues. College and career readiness, education equity, and school funding will be among the topics broached before each candidate is allowed a one-minute closing statement, according to David Plazas, a Tennessean editor who will help moderate the discussion.

“It will be really exciting,” Plazas promised. “We’re hoping the candidates are prepared to talk substantively on the issues and to avoid slogans.”

The event begins at 7 p.m. CT at Nashville’s Belmont University. Along with SCORE, it’s being co-hosted by USA TODAY NETWORK and Nashville’s NewsChannel 5. You can livestream the event here and learn more about attending or watching here.

Tennessee’s primary election is set for Aug. 2, with the general election on Nov. 6.

call out

Our readers had a lot to say in 2017. Make your voice heard in 2018.

PHOTO: Chris Hill/Whitney Achievement School
Teacher Carl Schneider walks children home in 2015 as part of the after-school walking program at Whitney Achievement Elementary School in Memphis. This photograph went viral and inspired a First Person reflection from Schneider in 2017.

Last year, some of our most popular pieces came from readers who told their stories in a series that we call First Person.

For instance, Carl Schneider wrote about the 2015 viral photograph that showed him walking his students home from school in a low-income neighborhood of Memphis. His perspective on what got lost in the shuffle continues to draw thousands of readers.

First Person is also a platform to influence policy. Recent high school graduate Anisah Karim described the pressure she felt to apply to 100 colleges in the quest for millions of dollars in scholarships. Because of her piece, the school board in Memphis is reviewing the so-called “million-dollar scholar” culture at some high schools.

Do you have a story to tell or a point to make? In 2018, we want to give an even greater voice to students, parents, teachers, administrators, advocates and others who are trying to improve public education in Tennessee. We’re looking for essays of 500 to 750 words grounded in personal experience.

Whether your piece is finished or you just have an idea to discuss, drop a line to Community Editor Caroline Bauman at [email protected]

But first, check out these top First Person pieces from Tennesseans in 2017:

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

“A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.” —Anisah Karim     

Why I’m not anxious about where my kids go to school — but do worry about the segregation that surrounds us

“In fact, it will be a good thing for my boys to learn alongside children who are different from them in many ways — that is one advantage they will have that I did not, attending parochial schools in a lily-white suburb.” —Mary Jo Cramb

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

“Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.” —Grace Tatter

I went viral for walking my students home from school in Memphis. Here’s what got lost in the shuffle.

“When #blacklivesmatter is a controversial statement; when our black male students have a one in three chance of facing jail time; when kids in Memphis raised in the bottom fifth of the socioeconomic bracket have a 2.6 percent chance of climbing to the top fifth — our walking students home does not fix that, either.” —Carl Schneider

I think traditional public schools are the backbone of democracy. My child attends a charter school. Let’s talk.

“It was a complicated choice to make. The dialogue around school choice in Nashville, though, doesn’t often include much nuance — or many voices of parents like me.” —Aidan Hoyal

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

“In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.” —Laura Faith Kebede