Who Is In Charge

War chests bulk up in district campaigns

Supporters of the proposed Jefferson County Schools tax increases have raised more than $145,000 for their campaign to pass measures 3A and 3B, far outpacing the $5,145 raised by an opposition group.

Election 2012 LogoBut a group supporting Cherry Creek’s proposed tax hike has raised even more, $157,414, and doesn’t face organized opposition.

And in Aurora, the group supporting that district’s tax proposal, Aurora Citizens for Excellent Schools, raised more than $121,000.

The two Jeffco groups, Citizens for Jeffco Schools and No on 3A/3B, as well as Citizens for Cherry Creek Schools and the Aurora committee all filed campaign finance reports with the secretary of state’s office ahead of Tuesday’s deadline for committees involved in school district elections.

Learn more

Find contributors by going to these pages and clicking on the “View Expenditures” link at the bottom on each page

Info on district proposals

The Jeffco school district is asking voters to approve a $99 million bond issue and a $39 million operating revenue increase. Cherry Creek is seeking a $125 million bond and a $25 million operating increase. Aurora is seeking an operating increase of $15 million.

The campaign committee supporting Denver’s proposed tax measures didn’t file its full report early. But preliminary documents, called major contribution reports, submitted recently give an indication of the money being raised.

Together for Denver’s Schools reported major contributions of $96,000. Larger donors included PCL Construction at $5,000, CDL Homes of Westminster with $10,000, Infinity Communities of Greenwood Village at $5,000, the Texas-based Weekley Group of Companies at $10,000, KB Homes with $10,000 and New Town Builders of Denver at $10,000.

Also, oilman Ron Williams gave $10,000 and Bernadette Marquez donated $25,000. Williams is chair and CEO of the Gary-Williams Co., the major funder of the Piton Foundation, which in turn is a significant contributor to education initiatives. Marquez, along with her husband, Timothy, have their own foundation and have been major donors to educational causes, including the Denver Scholarship Foundation.

In the last 30 days before an election, campaign committees are required to file major contribution reports on gifts of $1,000 or more within 24 hours of receipt.

Denver voters will decide a $466 million bond and a $49 million operating increase.

Jeffco fundraising

Citizens for Jeffco Schools reported raising $145,102 and having $48,656 remaining in its bank account for the reporting period that covered July 22 through Oct. 10. Most of the group’s $66,934 in spending was on printing and mailing costs.

The Jefferson County Education Association donated $30,000, and the JCEA’s parent union, the Colorado Education Association, gave $7,000. The campaign committee also received $5,000 from the Jefferson Foundation and $4,000 from Haselden Construction. The Jefferson County Administrators’ Association gave $2,351.50. (A larger JCAA amount recorded in Department of State records is incorrect.)

During the previous reporting period, which ran from June 18 to July 21, Citizens for Jeffco Schools received $20,000 from Robert W. Baird & Co. of Milwaukee, Wisc., the district’s investment banker and $15,000 from FirstBank Holding Co. of Lakewood.

The Jeffco opposition group, No on 3A/3B, received only one large contribution, $5,000 from Frank Bannister, president of Western Oil and Gas Development in Oklahoma City.

Details on Cherry Creek

Citizens for Cherry Creek Schools’ total fundraising is $157,414, and the group had $61,553 remaining in the bank. The bulk of its spending has been on mailing costs and consultant MIDG Group of Denver.

The Cherry Creek Administrators’ Association donated $8,000 and the CEA contributed $6,000. Larger corporate contributions include $5,000 from Adolfson and Peterson, a construction firm that works with many school districts; $5,000 from South Quincy Residential Developers; $10,000 from MDC Holdings; and $5,000 from Meritage Homes. The committee also received contributions from several architectural firms and donations from nearly two dozen school parent-teacher organizations in the district.

Sources of support in Aurora

Aurora Citizens for Excellent Schools has raised $121,587 and has $66,507 on hand. Most of the $55,079 spent in the most recent period was for campaign consulting.

Major contributions include $42,000 from the Aurora Public Schools Education Foundation, $2,000 from the Kaiser Foundation Health Plan of Colorado, $10,000 from RB Capital Markets, $3,000 from CEA, $10,000 from Benson Mineral Group, $5,000 from Stapleton developer Forest City Enterprises and $10,000 from Daniel Ritchie, CEO of the Denver Center for the Performing Arts and a well-known figure in education circles.

Around the state

The four large metro-area districts are among 30 Colorado school districts seeking voter approval this year for a combined total of about $1.03 billion in bond issues and property tax increases for operating expenses.

About $664 of the total is accounted for by the Denver and Jefferson County proposals.

Twenty-one districts have proposed bond issues, with 14 of those are to raise local matches for state construction grants. Fifteen districts are seeking increases for operating funds. Seven districts are seeking both.

Nov. 2 is the next reporting deadline for campaign committees involved in district tax elections.

Other campaign finance reports

Monday was the reporting deadline for legislative candidates and the political committees that contribute to them.

There was modest activity reported in the latest period by the education-related groups that EdNews has been tracking this election season.

The JCEA Small Donor Committee gave $2,500 to the House Majority Project, a Democratic Party group, and $2,000 to Democratic Rep. Max Tyler in District 28, one of several battleground races in Jefferson County this year. He also received $2,250 from the Public Education Committee, the CEA’s main political arm. It was the group’s only candidate contribution during the latest reporting period.

The St. Vrain Valley Education Association Small Donor Committee contributed $1,000 each to House candidates Daniel Kagan, Deb Primavera, Jonathan Singer, Matt Jones and Mike Foote and to Senate hopefuls Andy Kerr and Evie Hudak. Contributions of $500 each went to House candidates Cherilyn Peniston and Dave Young and to Senate contender Crestina Martinez. All are Democrats.

Disclosure: The Piton Foundation is a funder of Education News Colorado.

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.