Future of Schools

Dougco GOP active in Jeffco races

Apparently confident of victory in Douglas County, Republican Party officials there want to lend a hand to GOP-backed school board candidates in Jefferson County as Election Day draws closer.

Dougco Republican Party chairman Mark Baisley sent an email Thursday notifying party volunteers that they’ll be calling on behalf of Jefferson County school board candidates Preston Branaugh and Jim Powers until Tuesday.

“Thank you for all of the phone calls that you have been making to get the vote out. The returns reported by the Douglas County Clerks office show that we are well ahead,” he wrote.

“We are shifting our focus to help our Republican friends in Jefferson County with their races. If you sign in to the website to make more calls, please note the change in the script, as we will be calling Jefferson County residents from now until November 1. Thanks!”

A copy of the email was forwarded to Education News Colorado and others. Jeffco school board candidates Lesley Dahlkemper and Jill Fellman, Branaugh and Powers’ opponents, cited it Friday on their Facebook pages.


“I don’t understand why my opponent wants Jefferson County to be like Douglas County,” Dahlkemper said. “I don’t understand why my opponent needs to go outside of Jefferson County for help.”

Powers, who is opposing Dahlkemper for the District 4 seat representing central Jeffco, responded to a request for comment on the email with a statement: “My position on vouchers is unchanged. I am not running for the Jeffco school board to implement vouchers.”

Douglas County has frequently cropped up in the campaigns to lead the state’s largest school district.

In 2009, Dougco’s Republican Party actively endorsed a four-member slate of conservatives in the non-partisan board races. The slate was elected and, 18 months later, the Dougco school board unanimously approved the state’s first district-run voucher pilot.


So when Jeffco’s Republican Party decided this year to actively promote conservative school board candidates Branaugh and Powers, also known as “the dads,” the two were repeatedly questioned about their positions on vouchers.

Their responses, particularly in early candidate forums, were not definitive. In one forum attended by EdNews, the men said the issue was unlikely to come up during their four-year terms on the board – since the Dougco voucher plan is in limbo pending appeals – so it was a moot point.

Both Dahlkemper and Fellman have consistently said they oppose vouchers.

Dahlkemper accuses her opponent, Powers, of “flip-flopping” on the issue, saying at one forum that vouchers should be “on the table” and at another that he was neither for nor against them. In a later forum attended by EdNews, Powers said, “I have no reason to push a voucher system.”

Branaugh on Friday said he was not aware of Baisley’s email to Dougco GOP volunteers to help Jeffco school board candidates. When he was forwarded a copy, he wrote that it was “interesting” and added, “I do not support sending public dollars to private schools.”

Fellman, who is vying with Branaugh for the District 3 seat representing central and northeast Jeffco, said it’s “really kind of sad that our opponents are reaching out to Douglas County to get people to call into Jefferson County.”

Baisley, who acknowledged sending the email, said he had offered help to Jeffco earlier in the year and that the candidates’ campaigns had recently requested he follow through.


“We would like to see parents better represented by their elected officials,” he said, saying the current Dougco school board reflects the sentiments of county voters “like never before.”

“There’s a lot of folks throughout the state who call us the envy of Colorado when it comes to school board representation and where we can help out our neighbors, yeah, we will do so.”

Baisley said there’s nothing “earth-shattering” about party volunteers in one place lending aid to another, noting those in 49 states are now calling Iowa on behalf of their presidential picks.

Nor does he see is as providing an unfair advantage, noting teachers’ union have long been involved in school board campaigns and helping select those who later negotiate their contracts.


“Is that not a conflict of interest?” he said. “That’s the kind of ‘fairness’ we’ve been up against as citizens for generations and the Republican Party in Colorado has just caught on to that.”

Don Ytterberg, Jeffco’s GOP chair, did not respond to a request for comment.

The Republican Party’s involvement in non-partisan school board races in Douglas and Jefferson counties has been the subject of media reports, such as this piece from 9News.

Earlier this week, Douglas County school board candidate Susan Meek filed a complaint over mailers which depict an “official Republican ballot” and list the GOP-backed candidates.

The Secretary of State’s Office found no violation. One Dougco candidate, incumbent board member Justin Williams, declared on his Facebook page that it’s his First Amendment right to announce his affiliation.

“This is yet another example of partisan politics in nonpartisan school board races,” Meek said. “It is unfortunate the Secretary of State has chosen to cast a blind eye on the political maneuverings that have taken over these races.

“Candidates are required to sign a affidavit indicating the race as nonpartisan — clearly, this is not the case. Our children and communities deserve better than the political games politicians play.”

  • Check the EdNews Election Center for more information on school board candidates in Douglas and Jefferson counties.

First Person

I’ve spent years studying the link between SHSAT scores and student success. The test doesn’t tell you as much as you might think.

PHOTO: Photo by Robert Nickelsberg/Getty Images

Proponents of the New York City’s specialized high school exam, the test the mayor wants to scrap in favor of a new admissions system, defend it as meritocratic. Opponents contend that when used without consideration of school grades or other factors, it’s an inappropriate metric.

One thing that’s been clear for decades about the exam, now used to admit students to eight top high schools, is that it matters a great deal.

Students admitted may not only receive a superior education, but also access to elite colleges and eventually to better employment. That system has also led to an under-representation of Hispanic students, black students, and girls.

As a doctoral student at The Graduate Center of the City University of New York in 2015, and in the years after I received my Ph.D., I have tried to understand how meritocratic the process really is.

First, that requires defining merit. Only New York City defines it as the score on a single test — other cities’ selective high schools use multiple measures, as do top colleges. There are certainly other potential criteria, such as artistic achievement or citizenship.

However, when merit is defined as achievement in school, the question of whether the test is meritocratic is an empirical question that can be answered with data.

To do that, I used SHSAT scores for nearly 28,000 students and school grades for all public school students in the city. (To be clear, the city changed the SHSAT itself somewhat last year; my analysis used scores on the earlier version.)

My analysis makes clear that the SHSAT does measure an ability that contributes to some extent to success in high school. Specifically, a SHSAT score predicts 20 percent of the variability in freshman grade-point average among all public school students who took the exam. Students with extremely high SHSAT scores (greater than 650) generally also had high grades when they reached a specialized school.

However, for the vast majority of students who were admitted with lower SHSAT scores, from 486 to 600, freshman grade point averages ranged widely — from around 50 to 100. That indicates that the SHSAT was a very imprecise predictor of future success for students who scored near the cutoffs.

Course grades earned in the seventh grade, in contrast, predicted 44 percent of the variability in freshman year grades, making it a far better admissions criterion than SHSAT score, at least for students near the score cutoffs.

It’s not surprising that a standardized test does not predict as well as past school performance. The SHSAT represents a two and a half hour sample of a limited range of skills and knowledge. In contrast, middle-school grades reflect a full year of student performance across the full range of academic subjects.

Furthermore, an exam which relies almost exclusively on one method of assessment, multiple choice questions, may fail to measure abilities that are revealed by the variety of assessment methods that go into course grades. Additionally, middle school grades may capture something important that the SHSAT fails to capture: long-term motivation.

Based on his current plan, Mayor de Blasio seems to be pointed in the right direction. His focus on middle school grades and the Discovery Program, which admits students with scores below the cutoff, is well supported by the data.

In the cohort I looked at, five of the eight schools admitted some students with scores below the cutoff. The sample sizes were too small at four of them to make meaningful comparisons with regularly admitted students. But at Brooklyn Technical High School, the performance of the 35 Discovery Program students was equal to that of other students. Freshman year grade point averages for the two groups were essentially identical: 86.6 versus 86.7.

My research leads me to believe that it might be reasonable to admit a certain percentage of the students with extremely high SHSAT scores — over 600, where the exam is a good predictor —and admit the remainder using a combined index of seventh grade GPA and SHSAT scores.

When I used that formula to simulate admissions, diversity increased, somewhat. An additional 40 black students, 209 Hispanic students, and 205 white students would have been admitted, as well as an additional 716 girls. It’s worth pointing out that in my simulation, Asian students would still constitute the largest segment of students (49 percent) and would be admitted in numbers far exceeding their proportion of applicants.

Because middle school grades are better than test scores at predicting high school achievement, their use in the admissions process should not in any way dilute the quality of the admitted class, and could not be seen as discriminating against Asian students.

The success of the Discovery students should allay some of the concerns about the ability of students with SHSAT scores below the cutoffs. There is no guarantee that similar results would be achieved in an expanded Discovery Program. But this finding certainly warrants larger-scale trials.

With consideration of additional criteria, it may be possible to select a group of students who will be more representative of the community the school system serves — and the pool of students who apply — without sacrificing the quality for which New York City’s specialized high schools are so justifiably famous.

Jon Taylor is a research analyst at Hunter College analyzing student success and retention. 

Urgent repairs

Crumbling Detroit school buildings will cost $500 million to repair. It’s money the district doesn’t have

The water-damaged, mold-infested Palmer Park Preparatory Academy was closed for months while crews replaced the roof and made other repairs.

The buildings in Michigan’s largest school district have been so neglected and so poorly maintained for so long that a new review put the price tag for bringing them up to current standards at half a billion dollars — money the district says it doesn’t have.

“We would have to dramatically cut personnel to even put a dent in this problem,” Superintendent Nikolai Vitti told the school board’s finance committee during a meeting at the district’s Fisher building headquarters Friday morning. “And even then, we would not be able to make substantial improvement.”

The review, whose results one school board member called “tragically awful,” was conducted over the last several months by an architecture and engineering firm called OHM advisors. It assessed the condition of the 106 buildings that currently house district schools, including roofs, interiors, and systems like plumbing and electrical.

It found that nearly a third of school buildings are in an “unsatisfactory” or “poor” condition, while roughly a third are considered in good repair.

The review did not take into account 19 vacant buildings that the district owns and is responsible for securing and maintaining so that they don’t become a danger to the community.

That means that the “unbelievably frustrating” picture painted by the review “undershoots” the problem, said school board member Sonya Mays, the finance committee chairwoman.

What makes the situation even more extreme is the fact that the main Detroit district does not have the same ability to borrow money for construction projects that other Michigan districts do.

When the state spent $617 million to create the new Detroit Public Schools Community District in 2016, the new law freed the new district from millions of dollars in debt that had hobbled the old Detroit Public Schools. But it put restrictions on the new district’s ability to borrow money.

Instead, the $617 million included $25 million for buildings improvements — including some pressing repairs that became national news that year when teachers walked out of their classrooms to protest building conditions, shutting down schools for days.

Vitti said much of that $25 million has been spent or is committed this year for projects like the the repair of the roof at the Palmer Park Preparatory Academy, an elementary school that’s been closed for months since a leaky roof triggered a mold problem.

“The $25 million is literally a drop in the bucket of what the overall need is,” Vitti told the finance committee.

He called for an urgent discussion to figure out which buildings should be repaired, which ones should be replaced, and which ones should be considered for closure.  

“What we’ve done in this review is at least define the problem,” Vitti said. “Now that we have solid data … we will have to think broadly and deeply” about what to do next.

Options could include returning to Lansing for additional help from the state or partnering with businesses or philanthropy to raise private funds for repairs.

Vitti noted that if nothing is done to repair these buildings, the cost of bringing them up to acceptable standards will swell to $1.2 billion by 2023.

If we don’t make a high level of investment, which frankly we do not have the revenue to do, this problem only compounds itself in the years to come,” Vitti said.

Scroll down to see the presentation Vitti gave to the finance committee, which includes specifics on which schools are most in need of work.