Upset time

Observers: political realities more than ed issues led to Flores’ State Board win

Greenish shading shows precincts won by Val Flores; brownish tones show votes for Taggart Hansen.

Voter turnout, ballot position and hurried, low-visibility campaigns likely were more important than education issues in Val Flores’ victory over Taggart Hansen in the Democratic primary for the 1st District seat on the State Board of Education.

Flores, a retired teacher and professor, won 59 percent of the vote in the race, a surprise to many and a defeat for the coalition of education reform advocacy groups and funders that have been repeatedly successful in a string of Denver Public Schools board races.

The differences in the two campaigns were stark. Flores raised a bit under $20,000 in contributions and non-cash support. Hansen raised more than $35,000 in cash, loans and non-monetary support – and two independent expenditure committees spent more than $100,000 to back him.

But the Flores campaign wiped out the financial advantage, and she swept much of Denver, as the city elections division map above shows. (Greenish shaded precincts were won by Flores; brownish ones by Hansen.) The 1st District also includes a small part of northern Arapahoe County, where Flores also won neatly.

Hansen, a lawyer for CH2M Hill, was backed by reform groups Stand for Children and Democrats for Education Reform, along with some of the same corporate and legal community contributors active in past races for the DPS board. Flores was supported by the Denver Classroom Teachers Association, the Colorado Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers.

The person vacating the seat, Democrat Elaine Gantz Berman, confessed to being “stunned” by the outcome. “I’m deeply disappointed,” said Berman, who publicly backed Hansen.

Flores praised her supporters’ “grassroots campaign” for gaining the victory, and her campaign manager, Dave Sabados, said she won partly because “I don’t think Democrats support the corporate [education reform] agenda.”

Reform-group leaders put a brave face on the race’s outcome and said they don’t think it reflects voter attitudes about education reform policies.

“Denver voters support more innovative ideas for our public education system,” said Sonja Semion, executive director of Stand for Children Colorado. “We don’t often get the full variety of Denver sentiment in a primary election.”

“We were clearly disappointed by the results,” said Jennifer Walmer, state director of Democrats for Education Reform Colorado. “I don’t believe it’s an indictment on reform.”

Stand and DFER both are connected to the independent expenditure committees that support Hansen. Both groups issued statements saying they look forward to working with Flores.

But it may be political realities, not education issues, that led to Tuesday’s result. Here’s a look at some of the factors involved, based on Chalkbeat Colorado research and on comments by people we interviewed.

Concentrated and low turnout

Only 38,033 Democrats voted in the Flores-Hansen race. By contrast, more than 107,000 votes were cast in the 2013 race for an at-large seat on the DPS board, won by former Lt. Gov. Barbara O’Brien, a reform favorite. A key difference is that only Democrats could vote in Tuesday’s election, while any voter regardless of registration can vote in non-partisan DPS races.

So, the lack of GOP and unaffiliated voters may have worked against a “reform” candidate like Hansen.

Low turnout may have been due to the fact that Democrats had no high-profile races – such as the four-way Republican gubernatorial primary – to motivate them to mail their ballots.

“The voters were completely disengaged from the primary. People didn’t have a clue the primary was happening in the Democratic Party,” said Berman. “People didn’t pay any attention to the endorsements,” which included Denver Mayor Michael Hancock, other politicians and the Denver Post editorial page.

Ballot position and name

Because she won a majority of delegates at the Democratic Party nominating assembly, Flores’ name was the first one listed on ballots.

“I think it certainly helps,” said Sabado. Julie Whitacre, a lobbyist for the CEA, said top-line designation usually is a boost for a candidate.

Some sources interviewed by Chalkbeat also said Flores’ Hispanic background may also have helped her. The elections division map shows strong support for her in west Denver, which has concentrations of Hispanic voters.

“The district is heavily Hispanic and minority, and I think they wanted a representative that fit their values,” said one source.

Low-key and short campaigns

Needless to say, members of the State Board aren’t the highest-profile elected officials in Colorado. Lack of voter knowledge makes factors like ballot position more important.

“Nobody really knows what the State Board does and who is running and what the issues are,” said Van Schoales, CEO of A+ Denver, a reform advocacy group.

And, even with significant spending such as that made on Taggart’s behalf, the campaigns had a hard time reaching all potential voters.

In an effort to target voters they considered most valuable, both campaigns tailored mailings and phone calls in some parts of the district and ignored others. Some voters reported receiving as many as a dozen Hansen mailings; Democrats in other parts of the cities received none.

Both campaigns used direct mail, social media and phone calls to make their cases.

Several people interviewed cited the shortness of the campaign as a possible factor in the race. Flores and Hansen were placed on the ballot by a Democratic Party assembly in early April, leaving less than three months to campaign before the primary.

Prior to 2012, the primary election was held in late August, giving candidates a much longer period to reach out to voters.

Schoales called it a “superfast campaign” that didn’t give the candidates much time to get their message to Democratic voters.

Top 10

From forest preschools to a secret apology, here are Chalkbeat Colorado’s must-read stories of 2018

PHOTO: Ann Schimke/Chalkbeat
Megan Patterson works with children to make a dam in a creek during a recent "forest school" class.

We spend a lot of time at Chalkbeat chasing the news to keep our readers informed about controversial policy changes, fast-moving debates, and late-breaking decisions.

But we also relish the opportunity to dig deep into issues affecting students and families, shine light on innovative ideas, and hear from dedicated educators making a difference. With that in mind, we’ve gathered 10 of our best stories from 2018.

These stories don’t necessarily chronicle the biggest education issues of 2018, from teacher walkouts to unprecedented state interventions. But they are stories we think are important and insightful, and that we enjoyed reporting and writing. We hope you enjoy reading them.

No walls: Forest preschools let kids run free, but can they change to reach diverse families?

One day this past summer, about a dozen children frolicked by a Jefferson County creek — making pretend tea in small metal buckets, and building dams with sticks and mud.

They were students at Worldmind Nature Immersion School, where children spend all their time outside. So-called forest preschools like Worldmind are beloved by many families but face significant regulatory and logistical barriers in expanding their footprint nationwide. Here in Colorado, a pilot program could lead a new kind of child care license designed for them.

And being licensed could help the schools confront another problem: a lack of diversity among their students. Read more.

Colorado was never ranked 46th for teacher pay. Does this change the debate?

It was an oft-cited statistic: that Colorado, despite its booming economy, ranked 46th in the nation for teacher pay. The eye-popping number found its way onto social media posts and signs at massive teacher rallies last spring. News outlets latched on to it, too.

But it was wrong. Colorado was actually ranked 30th in the nation.

Our story breaks down how the mistake happened (hint: a new data system, an unrevised report) — and how groups with different agendas seized on the snafu to score points. Read more.

This is the letter of apology that Adams 14 leaders never sent

The Adams 14 district in Commerce City is arguably the most troubled and low-performing in Colorado. Just last month, state officials directed Adams 14 to hire an external manager to oversee the district’s operations for at least the next four years.

Back in September, Adams 14 officials considered taking a rare step: saying sorry to the community. But an apology letter was never signed nor sent out.

Chalkbeat obtained a copy of the letter, which makes mention of “various and conflicting priorities, coupled with constant turnover and organizational disarray.” Read more.

Rising test scores and dwindling trust: Denver’s Tom Boasberg leaves a complicated legacy

Colorado’s largest school district experienced a big change this year when longtime leader Tom Boasberg announced he would step down after nearly 10 years in Denver Public Schools.

Because of his school improvement strategies — some of which were controversial and heightened tensions with the community — the district that the new superintendent, Susana Cordova, will inherit in January is vastly different than it was a decade ago.

One tangible difference: Schools that once served as anchors of the community but struggled academically have been closed or replaced. That disappearance was on display on one of Boasberg’s last days, when he held his cell phone close to his mouth and enunciated each word so his GPS would understand his direction: “Montbello High School.” Read more.

Parents in one Aurora high school are visiting classrooms and giving teachers feedback

Like many schools in Colorado, Aurora’s Rangeview High School has a test score gap between white and black students. But the assistant principal there came up with a unique way to try to address it: by inviting black parents to visit classrooms and observe how students are — or are not — engaging with the teacher’s lesson, and then provide suggestions for improvement.

“We give true and honest feedback,” said one parent involved, “if they looked or appeared comfortable, how they interacted with the environment, the temperature of the room.”

Although the assistant principal considers the African American Parent Committee an experiment, she said it’s generating uncomfortable but necessary conversations. Read more.

How education reform became a wedge issue among Colorado Democrats this election year

For years, more moderate Democrats, often working in unison with like-minded Republicans, championed education reform efforts ranging from school choice to holding educators accountable for student performance.

But partly because of backlash against President Donald Trump and his education secretary, those strategies no longer fly with many Democrats — especially left-leaning Democrats who see them as undercutting public education and devaluing the work of teachers.

That sentiment was palpable in Colorado’s Democratic gubernatorial primary, and could shape the next legislative session, which starts in January. “Education is the issue that really stands to divide the left in a very substantial way,” one observer said. Read more.

How a Colorado school district turned things around at 10,000 feet above sea level

School improvement efforts look a little different high in the Rocky Mountains. While many of the strategies used by the 1,000-student Lake County school district are familiar to urban settings, they’ve been retrofitted to meet the needs of a district that’s 100 miles west of Denver.

For example, instead of firing teachers and principals who weren’t accelerating student learning fast enough, the district adopted a new curriculum and gave its teachers lots of training.

“The belief that the people are the problem is wrong,” the superintendent said. “Our teachers are professionals, and we believe in them. We’re proving that there is a framework or a pathway for rural schools to improve that’s about building capacity within your own community.” Read more.

7 things to know about how Colorado schools punish their youngest students

After state lawmakers rejected a bill to limit the use of suspensions in the earliest grades, Chalkbeat wanted to know more about the early childhood discipline landscape in Colorado. Data from the Colorado Department of Education revealed several trends.

Among them: Young black boys are suspended at disproportionate rates. Some rural school districts have the highest early childhood suspension rates in the state.

And despite nationwide debate about the impact of harsh discipline on young children and local efforts to bring the numbers down, suspensions in the early grades are actually going up. Read more.

In Denver’s gentrifying neighborhoods, some middle-class parents are avoiding the school down the block

Many neighborhoods in Denver are gentrifying, with middle-class families moving into what have historically been working-class communities. That type of demographic shift could easily lead to neighborhood schools that are more integrated by family income and race.

But that doesn’t always happen in Denver. Instead, data show that wealthier families – more often than low-income families – are using Denver Public Schools’ universal school choice process to send their kids to schools elsewhere in the city.

That’s a problem because research shows integrated schools boost test scores for students from low-income families without lowering the scores of those from wealthier ones. Denver officials want to see those benefits, but allowing parents to choose may be thwarting them. Read more.

Why this Colorado principal hand delivers birthday cards to more than 2,000 students and staff

Northglenn High School Principal Sharee Blunt is Colorado’s 2018 School Principal of the year — but perhaps even more impressive is the enormous number of birthday cards she hand delivers each year. If you’re one of those people who can barely remember your spouse’s birthday, you’ll be floored by Blunt’s annual feat.

In our interview with Blunt, part of Chalkbeat’s “How I Lead” Q&A series with distinguished school leaders, she talks about what she realized after a mother’s emotional reaction, and why she gave a teacher a pass during a lesson that went awry. Read more.

union power

Charter teachers won big in nation’s first strike. What now?

PHOTO: Yana Kunichoff / Chalkbeat
Teachers from Acero charter schools in Chicago protest stalled negotiations Oct. 24, 2018, as they readied to vote on authorizing a strike.

Some 500 unionized teachers joined in the nation’s first charter strike last week, and succeeded in negotiating wage increases, smaller class sizes and a shorter school day. Their gains could foreshadow next year’s citywide contract negotiations — between the Chicago Teachers Union, with its contract expiring in June, and Chicago Public Schools.

“The issue of class size is going to be huge,” said Chris Geovanis, the union’s director of communications. “It is a critically important issue in every school.”

Unlike their counterparts in charters, though, teachers who work at district-run schools can’t technically go on strike to push through a cap on the number of students per class. That’s because the Illinois Education Labor Relations Act defines what issues non-charter public school teachers can bargain over, and what issues can lead to a strike.

An impasse on issues of compensation or those related to working conditions, such as length of the school day or teacher evaluations, could precipitate a strike. But disagreements over class sizes or school closures, among other issues, cannot be the basis for a strike.

The number of students per class has long been a point of contention among both district and charter school teachers.

Educators at Acero had hopes of pushing the network to limit class sizes to 24-28 students, depending on the grade. However, as Acero teachers capped their fourth day on the picket line, they reached an agreement with the charter operator on a cap of 30 students — down from the current cap of 32 students.

Andy Crooks, a special education apprentice, also known as a teacher’s aide, at Acero’s Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz school and a member of the teachers bargaining team, said that even having two fewer students in a classroom would make a huge difference.

“You really do get a lot more time with your students,” Crooks said. “And if you are thinking about kindergarten in particular, two less 5-year-olds really can help set the tone of the classroom.”

In district-run schools, classes are capped at 28 students in kindergarten through third grade, and at 31 students in fourth through sixth grade. But a survey by the advocacy group Parents 4 Teachers, which supports educators taking on inequality, found that during the 2017-2018 school year, 21 percent of K-8 classrooms had more students than district guidelines allowed. In 18 elementary school classrooms, there were 40 or more students.

The issue came up at last week’s Board of Education meeting, at which Ivette Hernandez, a parent of a first-grader at Virgil Grissom Elementary School in the city’s Hegewisch neighborhood, said her son’s classes have had more than 30 students in them. When the children are so young and active — and when they come into classrooms at so many different skill levels — “the teachers can’t handle 30 kids in one class,” she told the board.

Alderman Sue Garza, a former counselor, accompanied Hernandez. She also spoke before the board about classroom overcrowding — worrying aloud that, in some grades at one school in particular, the number of students exceeded the building’s fire codes. (Board chair Frank Clark said a district team would visit the school to ensure compliance fire safety policies.)

While the Chicago Teachers Union aren’t technically allowed to strike over class sizes, the union does have a history of pushing the envelope when it comes to bargaining.

Back in 2012, when the Chicago Teachers Union last went on strike, they ended up being able to secure the first limit on class sizes in 20 years because the district permitted the union to bargain over class size.

They also led a bargaining campaign that included discussion over racial disparities in Chicago education and school closures, arguing that these trends impacted the working conditions of teachers.

“Even if you can’t force an employer to bargain over an issue, you can push them to bargain over the impact of an issue,” Bob Bruno, a labor professor at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana, explained.

The Chicago Teachers Union also emerged from its 2012 negotiations with guarantees of additional “wraparound services,” such as access to onsite social workers and school counselors.