Who Is In Charge

Testing the conventional wisdom

Will hard-nosed political assumptions be upended on Tuesday when the votes are counted on Proposition 103?

Election logoSen. Rollie Heath, father of the proposal to temporarily increase state tax rates to help fund education, thinks so. “I don’t have anybody now telling me we don’t have a chance,” the Boulder Democrat told Education News Colorado late last week.

Republican former legislator Victor Mitchell said he thinks Prop. 103 will lose, but he did use the phrase “cautiously optimistic” when saying making that prediction during an interview. Mitchell heads one opposition group, Save Colorado Jobs.

Veteran political observer Eric Sondermann said, “By every indication this thing should not be viable.” Sondermann is chairman of the Denver communications consulting firm SE2.

Reviewing the conventional wisdom

The conventional wisdom about Prop. 103 goes something like this:

Voters won’t support a statewide tax increase in tough economic times.

Mitchell notes “low consumer and business confidence,” and opposition speakers have been stressing the economic argument during campaign appearances.

Last year voters around the state approved the vast majority of school district tax increases, despite an unemployment rate of nearly 9 percent. The jobless rate is down to 8.3 percent now, but national consumer confidence is lower than it was last fall.

A tax increase can’t be passed without massive and visible business and political support.

Sondermann harks back to Referendum C, the 2005 ballot measure that modified the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights to generate more state revenue but didn’t raise tax rates.

Ref. C proponents “had probably 20 times more money” than Heath, “they had a media drumbeat like this state hasn’t seen … they had a halfway decent economy … and they had a Republican governor providing a bipartisan veneer,” Sondermann noted. Then-Gov. Bill Owens supported Ref. C, which was placed on the ballot by the legislature and passed with 52 percent of the vote.

Eric Sondermann
Eric Sondermann
“None of those are present today; even the Democratic governor is not on board,” Sondermann noted.

There’s been much media chatter about Gov. John Hickenlooper’s refusal to take a stand of Prop. 103. He cites a 2010 campaign promise about not seeking or supporting a tax increase during his first year in office.

But Heath was happy with Hickenlooper’s recent announcement that he would veto any later effort to change the terms of Prop. 103 if it passes. (The proposal would change state law, not the constitution, so it could be legally changed by the legislature. Opponents have repeated raised that possibility on the campaign trail. The proposition’s language requires the additional funds raised the rate increase be devoted to public education, from preschool to universities. The legislature would decide how to split the money and couldn’t supplant existing education funding with the new money.)

And Lt. Gov. Joe Garcia, Hickenlooper’s No. 2 and the administration’s point man on education, repeatedly has made sympathetic noises about Prop. 103 but stopped short of an endorsement.

Part of the reason Heath hasn’t gained support from heavyweight business and political interests involves disagreement over the “big fix.”

That phrase refers to the conflicting constitutional provisions governing state and local spending, property tax limits and education funding that have left lawmakers with little room to maneuver in the current revenue squeeze.

A variety of civic, good government and business groups have been talking about a “big fix” but haven’t reached agreement on what it should look like and when it should be presented to voters.

Heath’s point, which he’s made repeatedly while campaigning, is that students and schools can’t wait after three years of significant education budget cuts. “While we are dealing with the big fix do we do nothing or do we do something? Give these kids a chance.” The Prop. 103 tax-rate hikes would be in effect for five years, enough time in Heath’s mind for interest groups to agree on the big fix.

Countering the conventional wisdom

Heath’s counter to the conventional wisdom comes from the impressions he’s gained stumping the state.

Barbara O'Brien, Rollie Heath
Sen. Rollie Heath, D-Boulder, (right) talks about Proposition 103 on Oct. 27. Former Lt. Gov. Barbara O'Brien is at the left, and Paula Stephenson of the Colorado Rural Schools Caucus at center.
“We’ve been very pleased with the momentum it’s gathering,” he said late last week at a news conference intended to drum up a little last-minute coverage of the largely grassroots campaign. He said he sees “a sense or urgency about education” funding needs as he talks to people around the state.

Because of that, he said, “I think you’re going to see very different voting patterns” than Democrats voting for Prop. 103 and Republicans voting against.

Among the lineup of supporters at the event was education reform advocate and former Lt. Gov. Barbara O’Brien. “Doing reform well costs money,” she said.

Heath likes to cite the high number of signatures gathered to get the proposition on the ballot (142,824, well above the 86,105 required) as evidence of under-the-radar support.

He’s also fond of mentioning endorsements from small-town school boards and newspapers.

Straws in the wind lacking

Part of the reason so many observers are relying on the conventional wisdom about Prop. 103 is that the low-profile campaign doesn’t have most of the guideposts that accompany bigger campaigns – polls, intensive media coverage and the constant pounding of TV ads.

“It has been hard to handicap,” Sondermann admits.

Campaigners on both sides of the issue say they haven’t commissioned or know of any polls.

EdNews did find a poll released Oct. 11 by Public Policy Polling Inc. of Raleigh, N.C., a Democratic-oriented polling firm whose news release said, “This poll was not paid for or authorized by any campaign or political organization.”

The survey found 45 percent of respondents in favor of raising state tax rates for education, 47 opposed and 7 not sure. (Read news release.)

The poll surveyed 510 Colorado voters Aug. 4-7, more than two weeks before Prop. 103 was certified for the ballot. The survey was an automated telephone poll and asked 20 questions on a variety of issues from approval of Hickenlooper and Colorado’s two U.S. senators to “Do you think prostitution should be legal or illegal?” Only one question was asked about education taxes, and it was 15th on the list.

Supporters of Prop. 103 have been running TV ads on five network stations and some cable channels in the Denver market. Heath said the campaign is designed so that an individual viewer will see the ad 10-12 times.

Victor Mitchell of Save Colorado Jobs
Victor Mitchell of Save Colorado Jobs
Mitchell said opponents have been doing some radio ads. Part of the opposition campaign is a bit underground, being run by Compass Colorado, a new Republican-oriented effort run by Tyler Houlton, a former staffer for various Republican campaigns and officeholders.

Because of its particular non-profit status, Compass doesn’t have to report its spending to the Department of State.

Both supporters and opponents have done some automated telephone calls.

Total campaign spending as of Oct. 12 was just under $500,000, most of that by supporters. Campaign committees have to file a new report on Oct. 31.

For the most part, the campaigns have consisted of Heath, Mitchell and other speakers criss-crossing the state, talking to political and community groups, attending candidate forums and making the usual appearances on TV public affairs shows and before newspaper editorial boards.

There’s also been a modest level of online campaigning, with individual supporters and opponents airing their views on blogs on YouTube.

Will turnout matter?

Several observers think turnout could be key. As of Friday, 619,000 Colorado voters had turned in ballots, according to the Department of State.

Supporters think could turnout could reach a million and that might help them.

Sondermann takes an opposite view. “The huge variable here that that turnout is not only going to be sparse but it could be abysmal. That increases the possibility that something surprising could happen.”

He continued, “Higher turnout might not be Rollie’s ally here. … That’s supposition.” The key, Sondermann said, may be which counties have the highest turnouts.

A factor in turnout may be tax elections in local school districts. Forty bond and tax override proposals are on ballots in more than 30 districts around the state, totaling more than $560 million. (Prop. 103 would raise more than $500 in higher taxes every year.)

Heath acknowledged that some district officials were concerned that negative voter attitudes about Prop. 103 could hurt local proposals. Now, he said, “They understand if this doesn’t pass they’re going to be in the hole” financially.

A final thought

“If Rollie can get this thing passed, then all the conventional wisdom should be tossed out the window,” Sondermann said.

PROPOSITION 103

Provisions

  • 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

Resources

a closer look

Fact-check: Weighing 7 claims from Betsy DeVos’s latest speech, from Common Core to PISA scores

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy

In a speech Tuesday at the American Enterprise Institute, U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos made the case for giving up on the type of school improvement efforts favored by Presidents Obama and George W. Bush. In its place, she argued, the federal government should encourage tech-infused innovation and school choice.

Looking to weigh her claims? Here’s a closer look at a few.

1. DeVos: “The most recent Program for International Student Assessment, or PISA, report, with which you are all familiar, has the U.S. ranked 23rd in reading, 25th in science and 40th in math. And, you know this too: it’s not for a lack of funding. The fact is the United States spends more per pupil than most other developed countries, many of which perform better than us in the same surveys.”

This stats are accurate, but may not be fair. The U.S. does spend more per pupil, in raw dollars, than most other countries. But international comparisons of these sorts are complicated, and American spending is similar to countries with similarly sized economies.

As we’ve written previously, it’s also misleading to say that more money wouldn’t help American schools. A number of studies have found precisely the opposite, including a recent one showing how cuts to schools during the Great Recession lowered student test scores and graduation rates.

2. DeVos appeared to refer to Common Core as “federal standards,” saying, “Federally mandated assessments. Federal money. Federal standards. All originated in Washington, and none solved the problem.”

That’s off the mark. As advocates for the Common Core never tire of pointing out, the creation of the standards was driven by state leaders through the National Governors Association and Council of Chief State School Officers, with the support of several private organizations, most prominently the Gates Foundation. (Gates is a funder of Chalkbeat.) As DeVos notes earlier in the speech, the Obama administration did incentivize states to adopt the standards, though, and Secretary Arne Duncan was a vocal champion.

3. DeVos: “At the U.S. Department of Education, Common Core is dead.”

This is true, in a sense — the Every Student Succeeds Act, which passed before DeVos became secretary, prohibits the federal government from pushing states to adopt specific standards. But DeVos doesn’t control what academic standards states adopt, and most states are still using use some version of the Common Core.

4. DeVos: “Throughout both initiatives, the result was a further damaged classroom dynamic between teacher and student, as the focus shifted from comprehension to test-passing. This sadly has taken root, with the American Federation of Teachers recently finding that 60 percent of its teachers reported having moderate to no influence over the content and skills taught in their own classrooms. Let that sink in. Most teachers feel they have little – if any — say in their own classrooms.”

The statistic DeVos pulled from this poll is accurate, though her framing may be more negative than the results suggest. It asked teachers to rate how much control they had over “setting content, topics, and skills to be taught.” The most common answer was “a great deal” (at about 40 percent of teachers), and another 30 percent or so chose moderate control. Twenty percent said minor, and only 10 percent said they had no control.

5. DeVos: “To a casual observer, a classroom today looks scarcely different than what one looked like when I entered the public policy debate thirty years ago. Worse, most classrooms today look remarkably similar to those of 1938 when AEI was founded.”

This statement is misleading but has a grain of truth. We examined a similar claim when the TV program produced by the XQ prize argued that schools haven’t changed in 100 years. In short, DeVos is right that many basic trappings of school — a building, a teacher at the front of the class, a focus on math, reading, science, and social studies — have remained consistent. But this glosses over some substantial changes since 1938: the end of legally mandated race-based segregation, the rise of standards for special education students, and the expanded use of testing, among others.

6. DeVos: “While we’ve changed some aspects of education, the results we all work for and desire haven’t been achieved. The bottom line is simple: federal education reform efforts have not worked as hoped.”

This is a big assertion, and it’s always tricky to judge whether something in education “worked.” As DeVos pointed out, a federal study showed the federal school turnaround program didn’t help students. She also highlighted relatively flat international test scores, and others have pointed to flat national scores in recent years.

That said, there were substantial gains in math in fourth and eighth grade, particularly in the early 2000s.

But raw trend data like this can’t isolate the effects of specific policies, particularly when other unrelated changes — like the Great Recession — can also make a big difference. Studies on No Child Left Behind have shown positive results in math, but little or no effect in reading. An analysis of Race to the Top was inconclusive.

One bright spot: a program that paid performance bonuses through the federal Teacher Incentive Fund led to small test score bumps, according to a recent study by DeVos’s Department of Education.

7. In response to a question about school performance in Detroit, DeVos said she shouldn’t be credited — or blamed — for the results in the city. “You’re giving me a whole lot of credit to suggest that whatever happened in Detroit was as a result of what I did,” she said. “We have been long-term supporters of continued reform and choice in Michigan.”

This one is up for debate, though it’s clear DeVos has long been a major player in Detroit’s education scene. She has supported charter schools, which educate about half the public school students in that city, and been a major donor to Republican politicians and causes in the state. She started an influential advocacy group in the state called Great Lakes Education Project.

She was also a key opponent of a commission that would more tightly oversee Detroit charter schools, which ultimately failed amid GOP opposition. It’s clear she has had an impact in the city, but that doesn’t mean she’s gotten everything she’s wanted: in 2000, Michigan voters rejected a DeVos-funded effort to fund vouchers for private schools. She also hasn’t gotten her wish that Detroit have a traditional school district eliminated entirely.

DeVos on offense

DeVos criticizes Bush-Obama policies, saying it’s time to overhaul conventional schooling

PHOTO: U.S. Department of Education
U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos speaking to the Council of Great City Schools.

One era of federal involvement in education is over, U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos said Tuesday, in some of her most expansive public remarks since taking over the department last year.

DeVos used a speech at the American Enterprise Institute to hit on familiar themes: America’s schools haven’t changed in many years, failing to embrace technology while still spending more and more money. But she also offered a pointed skewering of the approach of her recent successors.

“Federally mandated assessments. Federal money. Federal standards. All originated in Washington, and none solved the problem,” said DeVos. “Too many of America’s students are still unprepared.”

She also gave a harsh assessment of one of the most controversial policies of the period. “Common Core is a disaster,” DeVos said, echoing her boss, President Trump. “And at the U.S. Department of Education, Common Core is dead.”

In place of those efforts, DeVos offered a different framework for improving education: overturning a host of conventional approaches to schooling.

“Why do we group students by age?” she asked. “Why do schools close for the summer? Why must the school day start with the rise of the sun? Why are schools assigned by your address? Why do students have to go to a school building in the first place? Why is choice only available to those who can buy their way out? Or buy their way in? Why can’t a student learn at his or her own pace? Why isn’t technology more widely embraced in schools?”

Some of these questions dovetail with DeVos’s embrace of private school choice programs and tech-infused approaches to schools, including fully virtual options. The emphasis on technology is aligned with a number of wealthy philanthropies that have embraced computer-based “personalized learning.”

They also mark a departure from the paradigm of previous administrations. No Child Left Behind, the law signed by President George W. Bush, and the Obama-era Race to the Top program both focused on improving academic standards, instituting tests, holding schools and teachers accountable for results, and expanding charter schools, though generally not private school voucher initiatives.

DeVos’s vision is more aligned with a strain of conservative thought that has grown increasingly skeptical of test scores. “I talk about accountability more in terms of transparency and information that parents can access to find out how the schools are doing for their child,” DeVos said in a follow-up session with Rick Hess of AEI, the conservative think tank whose board DeVos previously sat on.

This rift is not entirely surprising. Former secretary Arne Duncan has sharply criticized DeVos and Trump, and left-of-center charter advocates have attempted to separate themselves from an unpopular and polarizing president and secretary of education.

In a rare agreement with the American Federation of Teachers, DeVos argued that federal involvement had put too much focus on test scores, citing a poll commissioned by the union. “The result was a further damaged classroom dynamic between teacher and student, as the focus shifted from comprehension to test-passing,” she said.

The AFT responded icily on Twitter: “More American educators feel disrespected by DeVos than anyone else in the entire world. You can’t blame Bush & Obama for that.”  

Debates about evidence continue

Earlier at the event, “Bush-Obama school reform: Lessons learned,” researchers and policymakers conducted a post-mortem of the last couple of decades of federal school reform.

The results weren’t always pretty. Virtually all participants agreed that well-meaning efforts had proven difficult to implement and sustain: No Child Left Behind had become widely reviled for increasing testing; teacher evaluations pushed by the Obama administration continued to rate most teachers as effective and faced stiff opposition from teachers’ unions; Common Core became the target of conservative ire and the associated tests were scrapped in most states; and a comprehensive study of the federal school turnaround program found that it made little impact on test scores or graduation rates.

Evaluating large policies, like Race to the Top or Common Core, is inherently challenging.  Nationwide test scores have been fairly stagnant in recent years, though that may be due to the effects of the Great Recession.

At one session, participants suggested that not enough had been done to incorporate teachers’ perspective into federal policy. (Notably, no current teachers or union representatives participated in panels at the AEI event.)

Still, research suggests that No Child Left Behind substantially improved math achievement. Studies in some districts have found benefits of their revamped teacher evaluation systems, too.

Joanne Weiss, chief of staff at the Department of Education under Duncan, cautioned against judging policies too quickly. “At some point you gotta say, the results should be in today,” she said. “[But] we have a history in education of calling it too early and moving on to something else, and then 10 years later the research comes in.”

Nevertheless, DeVos seized on the mixed results of past efforts to make the case for her favored changes: more school choice and more innovation at the school level, not driven by the federal government.

She didn’t mention the research on those approaches, which is decidedly mixed and even negative in some cases.

A number of recent studies on school voucher programs have found showed they hurt student test scores, though they bounce back for some students who stay in private schools for several years. In DeVos’s account of disappointing federal programs, she did not mention a recent study of Washington D.C.’s voucher program, which showed drops in math achievement. (A few studies have found positive impacts on high school graduation rates and college attendance.)

Fully virtual charter schools, which DeVos has long backed, have posted even worse results. And some math programs that blend technology with more traditional classroom culture have posted positive results, but as a whole, the evidence base for those approaches remains thin.

DeVos’s skepticism of federal involvement also highlights the central paradox of her job: As the leader of the very agency she is critiquing, how will she advance her agenda without expanding the federal footprint?

So far, DeVos has rolled back a number of Obama-era regulations and supported a new federal tax break for private school tuition, while acknowledging its impact would be modest.

We also fact-checked seven claims — from Common Core to PISA test scores — DeVos made during her speech. Read more here.