Colorado

Vouchers a tricky issue in DPS races

Vouchers have popped up as an issue in two of three Denver school board races, even though all nine candidates in the three races this year have expressed opposition to using public money for private schools.

The issue has been raised by two candidates who have tried to tie vouchers to groups that have opposed them or endorsed other candidates.

Arturo Jimenez
DPS board member Arturo Jimenez appeared at a rally on Oct. 11, 2011. At left is Sen. Lucia Guzman, D-Denver, a former DPS board member.

The issue surfaced most recently in northwest Denver’s increasingly heated District 5 battle between Jennifer Draper Carson and incumbent Arturo Jimenez.

When a newly-formed committee called Latinos for Education Reform placed ads in several community newspapers criticizing the records of both Jimenez and board member Andrea Merida – who is not up for re-election this year – the Jimenez campaign initially complained of “race-baiting.”

But Jimenez followed that with a newsletter to supporters claiming LFER is misrepresenting itself and that its ads “are being pushed by pro-voucher individuals and special-interest groups,” making reference to “radical pro-voucher activists from Douglas County.”

Jimenez, backed by about 100 supporters, appeared at a noon event Tuesday at Viking Park in Denver near North High School. A series of supporters passionately declared their support for Jimenez, including former Denver Mayor Wellington Webb.

“Negative campaigning in Denver does not work,” said Webb, who has recorded a robo-call for Jimenez that went out Tuesday across the northwest district.

Following the event, Jimenez said in a brief interview that vouchers are relevant in the race.

“We’re not just talking about LFER,” said Jimenez. “We’re talking about all the groups who are outside special interests. All have ties that have varying degrees of support to privatization of public schools, and I think the people of Denver reject that soundly.”

Thirty-eight names appeared on the LFER ad, including Myles Mendoza, who lives in Douglas County, having moved there from Jimenez’s district. Mendoza hosted a reception at his home in May in support of National School Choice Week, which was honoring the Douglas County school board’s passage of a voucher pilot. That program has been halted by a Denver judge.

“It is no surprise that he (Jimenez) is doing this now,” Mendoza said in a prepared statement. “In the past week, the focus on his voting record has gained prominence with articles in EdNews Colorado (“Claiming Credit for West Denver Prep” 10/5/11) and in The Denver Post (“Pity Denver’s Voters” by Vincent Carroll, 10/9/11). He is trying to avoid accountability for these actions by deflecting criticism into other areas.

“His voting record has been consistently against ed reform policies our kids need.”

Marco Antonio Abarca, a spokesman for LFER said, “It is absurd to say that we are pro-voucher. It’s typical of the cynicism of Arturo Jimenez to draw that conclusion from one event hosted by one person on our list.”

Abarca cited former state Sen. Polly Baca, listed on Jimenez’s campaign website as a supporter. “She has vouchers in her background. It would be unfair to say that Arturo supports vouchers because one of his supporters did. If we were to do that, we would be guilty of the same cynicism as Arturo Jimenez.”

Baca is also listed on the host committee for a Thursday community leadership luncheon organized by ACE Scholarships, co-founded by Colorado voucher proponent Alex Cranberg, and featuring Howard Fuller, who was the superintendent of the Milwaukee Public School District when the city started the nation’s first publicly-funded school voucher program.

Others appearing both as supporters on Jimenez’s site and as hosts for the Fuller event are Escuela Tlatelolco president and CEO Nita Gonzalez, and Zee Ferrufino, owner and CEO of the KBNO Spanish Radio Group.

At Tuesday’s event, Jimenez said “reform” is a term too often used as a wedge in Denver.

Jennifer Draper Carson
Jennifer Draper Carson

“We’ve had enough of those who claim to support reform and progress but waste our time and our money deliberately trying to divide us into opposing sides,” Jimenez told his supporters.

Draper Carson, Jimenez’s opponent, recently reiterated her opposition to vouchers.

“Public funds belong in the public education system, not in the parochial or private school systems,” she said. “Our public education system is sorely underfunded as it is, and we need to focus every dollar possible on improving our public schools so that every child has access to a great public school.”

Vouchers also raised in District 1

Before vouchers surfaced in the northwest district race, they popped up in the District 1 race between Anne Rowe and Emily Sirota in southeast Denver.

Following endorsements of Rowe, Draper Carson and at-large candidate Happy Haynes by the Colorado chapter of Democrats for Education Reform, Sirota on Aug. 16 wrote “Saying NO To Vouchers” for Huffington Post Denver. (See EdNews story on the endorsements.)

Emily Sirota
Emily Sirota

Labeling DFER a “front group” with a pro-voucher agenda, she wrote, “Most troubling of all, the group’s Colorado affiliate is advised by an outspoken advocate for vouchers who also runs a local education policy organization my opponent co-chaired.”

The piece didn’t name Van Schoales, who assumed his post as executive director of A+ Denver on Aug. 1, and previously was executive director of Education Reform Now. Rowe prominently cites her service as a founding co-chair of A+ Denver in her campaign literature.

“I am not now, nor have I ever been, what I would describe as a strong voucher proponent,” said Schoales, who said his comments were offered as his own perspective, not that of A+ Denver. He added that he considered vouchers a “total red herring” in the DPS races.

“I haven’t heard the issue raised except as a means of disparaging somebody else,” said Schoales, who is listed as an advisory committee member for DFER. “But nobody is proposing it as a policy agenda or as an initiative for Denver on any side.”

Rowe has issued a flat “no” at candidate forums when asked about support for vouchers.

“I want to continue my focus on creating great educational environments within DPS. … I don’t think vouchers play any role in that,” Rowe said on Tuesday. “Hopefully now we can put this to rest.”

The Sirota campaign may not be ready to do that.

Anne Bye Rowe
Anne Rowe

“Vouchers are still a valid issue for discussion,” said Sirota campaign spokesman Kevin Paquette. “Anne has stated at forums she does not support vouchers. However she is endorsed by an organization who, from all appearances, is pro-vouchers despite their best efforts to conceal that fact from the public.

“Emily welcomes the conversation with Anne so the voters of SD-1 can make an informed decision on where Anne really stands on this issue.”

Haynes, the at-large candidate endorsed by the DFER-Colorado chapter, also disavowed vouchers – again – after the issue sprung back to life in the northwest Denver race.

“I unequivocally oppose vouchers because we need to have public accountability for public dollars,” Haynes said. “We have the charter process in place that enables independent school ideas to become part of the public education system.”

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Memphis parent advocacy group trains first Spanish-speaking cohort

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Manuela Martinez (center left) and Lidia Sauceda (center right) are among 19 parents in the first Spanish-speaking class of Memphis Lift’s Public Advocate Fellowship.

Manuela Martinez doesn’t want Spanish-speaking families to get lost in the fast-changing education landscape in Memphis as the city’s Hispanic population continues to grow.

The mother of two students is among 19 parents in the first Spanish-speaking class of Memphis Lift’s Public Advocate Fellowship, a program that trains parents on local education issues.

“We want to be more informed,” said Martinez, whose children attend Shelby County Schools. “I didn’t know I had much of voice or could change things at my child’s school. But I’m learning a lot about schools in Memphis, and how I can be a bigger part.”

More than 200 Memphians have gone through the 10-week fellowship program since the parent advocacy group launched two years ago. The vast majority have been African-Americans.

The first Spanish-speaking cohort is completing a five-week program this month and marks a concerted effort to bridge racial barriers, said Sarah Carpenter, the organization’s executive director.

“Our mission is to make the powerless parent powerful …,” she said.

The city’s mostly black public schools have experienced a steady growth in Hispanic students since 1992 when only 286 attended the former Memphis City Schools. In 2015, the consolidated Shelby County Schools had 13,816 Hispanic children and teens, or 12.3 percent of the student population.

Lidia Sauceda came to Memphis from Mexico as a child; now she has two children who attend Shelby County Schools. Through Memphis Lift, she is learning about how to navigate Tennessee’s largest district in behalf of her family.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Hispanic parents attend a training with the Memphis Lift fellowship program.

“Latinos are afraid of talking, of standing up,” Sauceda said. “They’re so afraid they’re not going to be heard because of their legal status. But I will recommend this (fellowship) to parents. How do we want our kids to have a better education if we can’t dedicate time?”

The training includes lessons on local school options, how to speak publicly at a school board meeting, and how to advocate for your children if you believe they are being treated unfairly.

The first fellowship was led by Ian Buchanan, former director of community partnership for the state-run Achievement School District. Now the program is taught in-house, and the Spanish-speaking class is being led this month by Carmelita Hernandez, an alumna.

“No matter what language we speak, we want a high-quality education for our kids just like any other parent,” Hernandez said. “A good education leads to better opportunities.”

Stopping summer slide

On National Summer Learning Day, Memphis takes stock of programs for kids

PHOTO: Helen Carefoot
Torrence Echols, a rising first-grader in Memphis, builds a tower with giant legos at the Benjamin L. Hooks Library on National Summer Learning Day.

When it comes to summer learning, it’s been a better year for Memphis, where a range of new programs have helped to stem learning loss that hits hard in communities with a high number of low-income students.

On Thursday, Mayor Jim Strickland celebrated that work in conjunction with National Summer Learning Day and against the backdrop of the children’s reading room of the city’s main library.

He estimated that 10,000 children and teens are being reached this summer through learning programs spearheaded through Shelby County Schools, Literacy Mid-South, Memphis Public Libraries, churches and nonprofit organizations across the community.

That’s a record-breaking number, Strickland says, in a city with a lot of students struggling to meet state and local reading targets.

Summer learning loss, also known as summer slide, is the tendency for students to lose some of the knowledge and skills they gained during the school year. It’s a large contributor to the achievement gap, since children from low-income families usually don’t get the same summer enrichment opportunities as their more affluent peers. Compounded year after year, the gap widens to the point that, by fifth grade, many students can be up to three years behind in math and reading.

But this summer for the first time, Shelby County Schools offered summer learning academies across the city for students most in need of intervention. And Memphis also received a slice of an $8.5 million state grant to provide summer literacy camps at nine Memphis schools through Tennessee’s Read to be Ready initiative.

Literacy Mid-South used Thursday’s event to encourage Memphians to “drop everything and read!”

The nonprofit, which is providing resources this summer through about 15 organizations in Greater Memphis, is challenging students to log 1,400 minutes of summertime reading, an amount that research shows can mitigate learning loss and even increase test scores.

Reading is a problem for many students in Memphis and across Tennessee. Less than a third of third-graders in Shelby County Schools read on grade level, and the district is working to boost that rate to 90 percent by 2025 under its Destination 2025 plan.

The city of Memphis, which does not fund local schools, has made Memphis Public Libraries the focal point of its education work. This summer, the library is offering programs on everything from STEM and robotics to art and test prep.

Parents are a critical component, helping their kids to take advantage of books, programs and services that counter the doldrums of summer learning.

Soon after the mayor left the Benjamin L. Hooks Library on Thursday, Tammy Echols arrived with her son, Torrence, a rising first-grader at Levi Elementary School. Echols said they visit regularly to read books and do computer and math games.

“We always do a lot of reading and we’re working on learning sight words,” Echols said as she watched her son build a tower out of giant Lego blocks. “Torrence is a learning child and it’s easy to forget what you just learned if you’re not constantly reinforcing.”

You can find summer learning resources for families from the National Summer Learning Association.