Who Is In Charge

Prop. 103 panel mixes it up

Two advocates of “polar extremes” and two guys somewhat in the middle provided a lively discussion of Proposition 103 Friday for an audience at the University of Colorado Denver.

Sen. Rollie Heath, D-Boulder
Sen. Rollie Heath, D-Boulder

The leading backer and a top opponent made fairly familiar arguments while two other participants provided some interesting handicapping about the ballot measure’s prospects.

Sen. Rollie Heath, D-Boulder and author of the ballot measure, gave his vigorous standard pitch about why he feels the five-year hike in state income and sales taxes is needed to provide additional funding for education at all levels.

“The sole purpose of this is to stop the bleeding,” said Heath, noting significant recent reductions for both K-12 schools and state colleges.

Penn Pfiffner, a former legislator who’s with the Independence Institute and chairs the opposition group Too Taxing for Colorado, argued that there’s no guarantee the additional revenue would go to education. “There’s only an intention” to do that. “There’s no accountability, no reporting,” he said.

Pfiffner touched on some other opposition critiques – it’s unwise to raise taxes in a bad economy and that spending doesn’t guarantee improved student achievement – but repeatedly returned to the argument that the increased revenue won’t necessarily go to schools.

Heath countered, “This money has got to go to education,” citing the provision of the proposal that reads: “All revenues raised by the increase in taxes … shall be appropriated by the General Assembly only for the costs of public education preschool through twelfth grade and public post-secondary education.”

Todd Snidow and Penn Pfiffner
Todd Snidow (left) and Penn Pfiffner

Pfiffner said, “This entire discussion presumes … there is no way we can cut anything.” Brandishing a copy of the Independence Institute’s “Citizens Budget,” he added, “There are alternatives to raising fees and taxes.” (Vouchers and tax credits are the cornerstones of that document’s suggestions for education funding.)

Eric Sondermann, a veteran political and communications consultant, told the crowd, “I feel like Admiral Stockdale,” referring to 1993 third-party vice presidential candidate James Stockdale, who famously said at a debate, “Who am I? Why am I here?”

Then casting himself as “the hard bitten political analyst,” Sondermann said he disagreed with Pfiffner’s overall distaste for taxes but, “My question is one of timing.”

“The conventional wisdom is this is not the right time to do this,” he said, noting the weak economy and the lack of the well-funded business and political support behind Proposition 103. In contrast, he cited the example of Referendum C, the successful 2005 ballot measure that changed some provisions of the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights and increased state revenues.

Sondermann also said, “There’s no bipartisan cover this time,” recalling that Republican then-Gov. Bill Owens supported Ref. C. Current Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper has declined to take a public position on Proposition 103.

Eric Sondermann
Eric Sondermann

“The consequences of failure are high,” Sondermann warned, predicting that there will be little appetite for future school-funding proposals if Proposition 103 gets only about 40 percent of the vote. He did say, “you’ve promoted a discussion” for later if support for the measure is in the high 40s.

The last school funding measure on the statewide ballot, 2008’s Amendment 59, gained 45.7 percent of the vote.

Heath’s response to Sondermann was, “If I believed in the conventional wisdom, I wouldn’t be here.”

The fourth panelist, Todd Snidow, was the one who described Heath and Pfiffner as “polar extremes.” Snidow is senior vice president of George K. Baum & Co., a financial firm that advises school districts on bond issues and tax hikes.

Snidow is more in Heath’s camp – “It’s not a pretty picture” was his description of Colorado school funding. But he did say that among school districts seeking local tax increases this year, “There is some concern about ballot fatigue and ballot confusion.”

He said districts are being careful to avoid linking their proposals to Proposition 103. He also said the fact that the statewide tax hike would last for only five years “could be a game changer” for voters. (See this Education News Colorado story about this year’s local ballot proposals.)

The hour-long session was sponsored by the Buechner Institute of Governance at UCD’s School of Public Affairs. Todd Ely, a Buechner staffer, quizzed the panelists, followed by audience questions. The event, which attracted about 100 people, was sponsored by Snidow’s firm.

Pfiffner seemed to feel he was in unfriendly territory, saying at one point, “There are a lot people in this room whose living comes from the state” and referring to “a roomful of professors” at another. “I hope some of you will hear today … and not just say it’s all that conservative stuff,” he told the audience.



  • State income tax rate would rise to 5 percent from 4.63 percent
  • State sales tax rate would go to 3 percent from 2.9 percent
  • New rates are same as those in effect in 1999
  • Higher rates would end in 2017

Revenue use

  • Proposition would raise an estimated $3 billion over five years
  • Additional revenue could be spent only on preschool programs, K-12 schools and state colleges and universities
  • Legislature would decide how to split revenues
  • Spending would have to be in addition to levels of 2011-12


Who's In Charge

Who’s in charge of rethinking Manual High School’s ‘offensive’ mascot?

PHOTO: Scott Elliott/Chalkbeat
Manual High School is one of three Indianapolis schools managed by Charter Schools USA.

As other schools in Indiana and across the nation have renounced controversial team names and mascots in recent years, Emmerich Manual High School in Indianapolis has held onto the Redskins.

One of the reasons why the school hasn’t given it up, officials said during a state board of education meeting this week, is because it’s unclear whose responsibility it would be to change the disparaging name.

Is it the obligation of the district, Indianapolis Public Schools, which owns the building and granted the nickname more than 100 years ago?

Is it the duty of the charter operator, Charter Schools USA, which currently runs the school?

Or is it the responsibility of the state, which took Manual out of the district’s hands in 2011, assuming control after years of failing grades?

“I don’t care who’s responsible for it,” said Indiana State Board of Education member Gordon Hendry, as he acknowledged the uncertainty. “I think it’s high time that that mascot be retired.”

The mascot debate resurfaced Wednesday as state officials considered the future of Manual and Howe high schools, which are approaching the end of their state takeover. Charter School USA’s contracts to run the schools, in addition to Emma Donnan Middle School, are slated to expire in 2020, so the schools could return to IPS, become charter schools, or close.

Manual is only one of two Indiana schools still holding onto the Redskins name, a slur against Native Americans. In recent years, Goshen High School and North Side High School in Fort Wayne have changed their mascots in painful processes in which some people pushed back against getting rid of a name that they felt was integral to the identity of their communities.

Knox Community High School in northern Indiana also still bears the Redskins name and logo.

“The term Redskins can be absolutely offensive,” said Jon Hage, president and CEO of Charter Schools USA. “We’ve had no power or authority to do anything about that.”

He suggested that the state board needs to start the process, and that the community should have input on the decision.

An Indianapolis Public Schools official told Chalkbeat the district didn’t have clear answers yet on its role in addressing the issue.

Even if the state board initiates conversations, however, member Steve Yager emphasized that he does not want the state to make the decision on the mascot.

“We don’t have to weigh in on that,” Yager said. “I feel like that’s a local decision.”


Tennesseans reflect on Candice McQueen’s legacy leading the state’s schools

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Education Commissioner Candice McQueen speaks with Arlington High School students during a school visit Tuesday that kicked off a statewide tour focused on student voices.

As Candice McQueen prepares to leave her role as Tennessee education commissioner in January, education leaders, advocates, and parents are weighing in on her impact on the state’s schools.

McQueen 44, will become the CEO of National Institute for Excellence in Teaching in mid-January after about four years under the outgoing Gov. Bill Haslam administration.

Her tenure has been highlighted by overhauling the state’s requirements for student learning, increasing transparency about how Tennessee students are doing, and launching a major initiative to improve reading skills in a state that struggles with literacy. But much of the good work has been overshadowed by repeated technical failures in Tennessee’s switch to a computerized standardized test — even forcing McQueen to cancel testing for most students in her second year at the helm. The assessment program continued to struggle this spring, marred by days of technical glitches.

Here are reactions from education leaders and thinkers across the state:

Gini Pupo-Walker, senior director of education policy and programs at Conexión Américas:

“It was her commitment to transparency, equity, and strong accountability that helped create a nationally recognized framework that places students at its center. Commissioner McQueen’s commitment to inclusion and engagement meant that our partners across the state had the opportunity to weigh in, share their experiences, and to ask hard questions and conduct real conversations with policymakers. Tennessee continues to lead the nation in innovation and improvement in K-12 education, and that is due in no small part to Commissioner McQueen’s leadership.”

Shawn Joseph, superintendent of Metro Nashville Public Schools, who in August co-penned a letter declaring “no confidence” in state testing:

“Since joining MNPS just over two years ago, I’ve had the pleasure of working closely with Commissioner McQueen and her team. She has been a strong advocate for Tennessee’s children, and I especially want to thank her for her support of the work that is taking place in Nashville. We send her our very best wishes — and our hearty congratulations for accepting her new role.”

JC Bowman, executive director of Professional Educators of Tennessee:

“Commissioner Candice McQueen is one of the most visible members of the Haslam Administration. She took over the department during a dark period in public education, and she made a significant difference within the department, particularly in the infrastructure. Those changes are not readily noticeable, as they include systems, processes and human capital. There are some exceptional people within the Department of Education working to make public education a success in our state. It is unfortunate that online testing continues to be a point of contention, but the state is moving in a positive direction. The next Commissioner of Education and the 111th Tennessee General Assembly will need to make adjustments in student assessment as we move forward.   We will always be grateful to Commissioner McQueen for her unwavering support of increasing teacher salaries and commitment to student literacy.”

Sharon Griffin, leader of the state-run Achievement School District:

“I have truly appreciated Dr. McQueen’s leadership and vision for the Department of Education.  From a distance and even closer in recent months, I have clearly seen the integrity and passion she brings to the work of improving student outcomes.  We have absolutely connected around our shared belief in how what’s in the best interest of students should guide our work.”

Jamie Woodson, CEO of SCORE:

“Tennessee students have been served very well by the steady and strong leadership of Commissioner McQueen. Her priorities have been the right ones for our children: improving student achievement, with a specific focus on reading skills; advocating for great teaching and supporting teachers to deliver high-quality instruction; and emphasizing that students and schools with the greatest needs must receive targeted focus and support in order to improve.”

Sarah Carpenter, executive director of parent advocacy group Memphis Lift:

“Memphis parents want decision makers to be accessible, and we appreciate that Commissioner McQueen made a point to build relationships and hear concerns from the entire community. Hopefully, the next education commissioner will bring parents to the table for conversations about our kids’ education.”

Mendell Grinter, leader of Memphis student advocacy group Campaign for School Equity:

“In our collaborative work and position in the educational landscape, we have witnessed firsthand how Commissioner McQueen has served as a tireless advocate for students and families in Tennessee. Over the past two years her leadership has inspired school leaders, and teachers alike to recognize the sense of urgency for improving school equity and academic outcomes for more students.”

Andy Spears, author of Tennessee Education Report and vocal critic of state test, TNReady:

“After what can charitably be called a rocky tenure at the helm of the Tennessee Department of Education, Candice McQueen has miraculously landed another high-level job. This time, she’ll take over as CEO of the National Institute for Excellence in Teaching, an organization apparently not at all concerned about the track record of new hires or accountability.”

Beth Brown, president of Tennessee Education Association:

“As candidates for the state’s next commissioner of education are considered, it is my hope that serious consideration is given to an individual’s experience in our own Tennessee public schools… Students and educators are struggling with two major issues that must be tackled by the next commissioner: high-stakes standardized tests and a lack of proper funding for all schools. Our schools need a leader who understands that the current test-and-punish system is not helping our students succeed. Governor Bill Haslam has made significant increases in state funding for public education, but there is still much work to be done to ensure every child has the resources needed for a well-rounded public education.”