In Denver, Duncan promotes preschool expansion and K-12 tax measure

U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan greets attendees at a town hall on early education in Denver.
U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan greets attendees at a town hall on early education in Denver.

U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan on Friday asked Colorado voters to support President Barack Obama’s attempt to expand access to early-childhood education and endorsed efforts here to pass a $950 million tax increase to overhaul the state’s school financing system.

“I desperately hope it moves forward,” Duncan said of the proposed tax increase, which voters will accept or reject in November.

The education secretary described the choice facing Colorado voters as reflective of a “fundamental tension” underlying much of the debate over education spending nationally. “Do we believe in education as an investment, or as an expense?” he said.

Some critics of the education tax measure worry that pouring more money into the education system does little to ensure that it will improve. But Duncan characterized the changes in funding structure that would accompany the tax increase as a smart investment.

“I will never support simply investing in the status quo,” Duncan said. Rather, he described the changes prescribed in the state’s accompanying school finance reform bill, such as increasing funding to districts that serve greater concentrations of students in poverty or learning English, as potentially transformative to the state’s educational system.

“The implications [of the funding overhaul] are truly national,” he said.

Duncan’s stop in Denver was part of his effort to sell the Obama administration’s pre-school expansion plan and also to spotlight state and national attempts to expand college access and affordability. His first stop of the day was at Clayton Early Learning, where he toured early childhood facilities and, along with Lt. Gov. Joe Garcia and others, held a town hall meeting on the president’s plan. Duncan then visited Escuela Tlatelolco, where he was joined by Garcia as well as U. S. Senator Michael Bennet and Gov. John Hickenlooper for a second town hall meeting on college access and affordability, especially for Hispanic students.

Precise details of the administration’s preschool plan aren’t yet known, but Duncan emphasized that the federal Department of Education would be partnering with state and local governments to scale up programs that have been shown to succeed.

“For me, the key to all of this is really just partnership,” he said.

Duncan compared the proposal to the administration’s Race to the Top program, though he noted that there are no plans for states to compete for funding. The proposal does include plans to incentivize states to adopt full-day kindergarten policies. The Obama administration’s education policies and strategy of spurring states to adopt them through incentives have been hailed in some quarters for driving much-needed action and decried in others as unwarranted federal intrusion on local decision-making.

Early estimates of Colorado’s share of the president’s budget request, should the proposal move forward and the state choose to participate, say that Colorado would receive nearly $42 million in the program’s first year, which, combined with a smaller state match, would provide more than 5,000 low- and middle-income children with preschool services. Similarly, the administration’s proposal would send Colorado more than $7 million to expand home visits from nurses, social workers, and other education professionals to low-income families to promote healthy child development and early learning.

And while Duncan spoke to the Denver audiences, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a Republican-written re-write of the No Child Left Behind law that hands much school oversight currently held by the federal government to states and significantly cuts federal education funding. Obama has threatened to veto the House version if it moves forward and, speaking to reporters after the town halls, Duncan characterized the bill as “not a real thing.”

Bennet said that he anticipated the Senate would put forth a much different version of the federal education bill rewrite and also characterized the House version as political grandstanding.

“It was a political exercise as much as anything else,” Bennet said.

call out

Our readers had a lot to say in 2017. Make your voice heard in 2018.

PHOTO: Chris Hill/Whitney Achievement School
Teacher Carl Schneider walks children home in 2015 as part of the after-school walking program at Whitney Achievement Elementary School in Memphis. This photograph went viral and inspired a First Person reflection from Schneider in 2017.

Last year, some of our most popular pieces came from readers who told their stories in a series that we call First Person.

For instance, Carl Schneider wrote about the 2015 viral photograph that showed him walking his students home from school in a low-income neighborhood of Memphis. His perspective on what got lost in the shuffle continues to draw thousands of readers.

First Person is also a platform to influence policy. Recent high school graduate Anisah Karim described the pressure she felt to apply to 100 colleges in the quest for millions of dollars in scholarships. Because of her piece, the school board in Memphis is reviewing the so-called “million-dollar scholar” culture at some high schools.

Do you have a story to tell or a point to make? In 2018, we want to give an even greater voice to students, parents, teachers, administrators, advocates and others who are trying to improve public education in Tennessee. We’re looking for essays of 500 to 750 words grounded in personal experience.

Whether your piece is finished or you just have an idea to discuss, drop a line to Community Editor Caroline Bauman at

But first, check out these top First Person pieces from Tennesseans in 2017:

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

“A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.” —Anisah Karim     

Why I’m not anxious about where my kids go to school — but do worry about the segregation that surrounds us

“In fact, it will be a good thing for my boys to learn alongside children who are different from them in many ways — that is one advantage they will have that I did not, attending parochial schools in a lily-white suburb.” —Mary Jo Cramb

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

“Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.” —Grace Tatter

I went viral for walking my students home from school in Memphis. Here’s what got lost in the shuffle.

“When #blacklivesmatter is a controversial statement; when our black male students have a one in three chance of facing jail time; when kids in Memphis raised in the bottom fifth of the socioeconomic bracket have a 2.6 percent chance of climbing to the top fifth — our walking students home does not fix that, either.” —Carl Schneider

I think traditional public schools are the backbone of democracy. My child attends a charter school. Let’s talk.

“It was a complicated choice to make. The dialogue around school choice in Nashville, though, doesn’t often include much nuance — or many voices of parents like me.” —Aidan Hoyal

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

“In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.” —Laura Faith Kebede

Weekend Reads

Need classroom decor inspiration? These educators have got you covered.

This school year, students will spend about 1,000 hours in school —making their classrooms a huge part of their learning experience.

We’re recognizing educators who’ve poured on the pizazz to make students feel welcome. From a 9th-grade “forensics lab” decked out in caution tape to a classroom stage complete with lights to get first graders pumped about public speaking, these crafty teachers have gone above and beyond to create great spaces.

Got a classroom of your own to show off? Know someone that should be on this list? Let us know!

Jaclyn Flores, First Grade Dual Language, Rochester, New York
“Having a classroom that is bright, cheerful, organized and inviting allows my students to feel pride in their classroom as well as feel welcome. My students look forward to standing on the stage to share or sitting on special chairs to dive into their learning. This space is a safe place for my students and we take pride in what it has become.”

Jasmine, Pre-K, Las Vegas, Nevada
“My classroom environment helps my students because providing calming colors and a home-like space makes them feel more comfortable in the classroom and ready to learn as first-time students!”


Oneika Osborne, 10th Grade Reading, Miami Southridge Senior High School, Miami, Florida
“My classroom environment invites all of my students to constantly be in a state of celebration and self-empowerment at all points of the learning process. With inspirational quotes, culturally relevant images, and an explosion of color, my classroom sets the tone for the day every single day as soon as we walk in. It is one of optimism, power, and of course glitter.”

Kristen Poindexter, Kindergarten, Spring Mill Elementary School, Indianapolis, Indiana
“I try very hard to make my classroom a place where memorable experiences happen. I use songs, finger plays, movement, and interactive activities to help cement concepts in their minds. It makes my teacher heart so happy when past students walk by my classroom and start their sentence with, “Remember when we…?”. We recently transformed our classroom into a Mad Science Lab where we investigated more about our 5 Senses.”


Brittany, 9th Grade Biology, Dallas, Texas
“I love my classroom environment because I teach Biology, it’s easy to relate every topic back to Forensics and real-life investigations! Mystery always gets the students going!”


Ms. Heaton, First Grade, Westampton, New Jersey
“As an educator, it is my goal to create a classroom environment that is positive and welcoming for students. I wanted to create a learning environment where students feel comfortable and in return stimulates student learning. A classroom is a second home for students so I wanted to ensure that the space was bright, friendly, and organized for the students to be able to use each and every day.”

D’Essence Grant, 8th Grade ELA, KIPP Houston, Houston, Texas
“Intentionally decorating my classroom was my first act of showing my students I care about them. I pride myself on building relationships with my students and them knowing I care about them inside and outside of the classroom. Taking the time to make the classroom meaningful and creative as well building a safe place for our community helps establish an effective classroom setting.”


Jayme Wiertzema, Elementary Art, Worthington, Minnesota
“I’m looking forward to having a CLASSROOM this year. The past two years I have taught from a cart and this year my amazing school district allowed me to have a classroom in our school that is busting at the seams! I’m so excited to use my classroom environment to inspire creativity in my students, get to know them and learn from their amazing imaginations in art class!”


Melissa Vecchio, 4th Grade, Queens, New York
“Since so much of a student’s time is spent inside their classroom, the environment should be neat, organized, easy to move around in but most of all positive. I love to use a theme to reinforce great behavior. I always give the students a choice in helping to design bulletin boards and desk arrangements. When they are involved they take pride in the classroom, and enjoy being there.”