Decision time

An education voter’s guide to the 2014 election

The political scene for education

The results of Colorado’s 2014 elections could have important implications for education policy, even if education hasn’t necessarily been a high visibility issue in many campaigns.

At the state level, a shift in partisan control of the governor’s office or the legislature could mean changes in academic standards (including use of the Common Core State Standards), testing and more flexibility for local school districts. But how such changes might play out is difficult to predict, given the possibility of split partisan control of the governorship and the two houses of the General Assembly.

Education groups with money – campaign committees affiliated with the Colorado Education Association and Democrats for Education Reform – are putting their campaign contribution bets on Democrats. And the reform-oriented group Climb Higher Colorado recently announced availability of a “truth squad” – executives of the Colorado Children’s Campaign, Colorado Succeeds and Stand for Children – for comment on issues like Common Core and PARCC tests.

Voters statewide will decide if school districts will receive a modest amount of additional funding from expansion of casino gambling and if district-union negotiation sessions will be conducted in public. Schools districts around the state have proposed a record total amount of bond issues and property tax overrides, and Denver voters will decide on a tax increase for the Denver Preschool Program.

And several seats are up for election on Colorado’s only two elected statewide education bodies, the State Board of Education and the University of Colorado Board of Regents.

Top of the ticket

Hickenlooper and Beauprez

Education has not been a high-profile issue in the race between Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper and GOP challenger Bob Beauprez.

Hickenlooper campaign materials don’t promote any new education initiatives but tout education measures he supported in recent legislative sessions, including early literacy, district financial transparency, increased funding for higher education and college scholarships, improved K-12 funding and streamlining of state early childhood programs. (See the campaign statement on education policy here.)

For the most part Beauprez’ education platform is short on details, supporting “high educational standards,” promising teachers “more flexibility” and less time spent on tests and support for school choice. Beauprez does criticize “one-size-fits-all federal approaches to education” and promises to take Colorado out of the Common Core State Standards – all standard GOP talking points these days. (See his full education statement here.)

Beauprez repeatedly has talked about the importance of early literacy, supporting many provisions already required by the READ Act, and promising his wife will launch a privately funded foundation to provide a new book every month to all Colorado children under age 5.

Education takes an even lower profile in Senate and congressional races.

Democratic Sen. Mark Udall’s website makes a brief reference to legislation on refinancing college debt, while GOP challenger Cory Gardner’s site mentions saving for college and his support of “efforts to entrust parents and educators with improving curriculum in their communities.”

In the hot 6th Congressional District race, Democratic challenger Andrew Romanoff’s site says, “Schools aren’t factories, and students aren’t widgets. We will continue to lose effective teachers if we force them simply to teach to a test.” GOP Rep. Mike Coffman’s site makes no mention of education.

The legislature

Colorado Capitol

The fight for legislative control is focused on the Senate, where Democrats currently have only an 18-17 majority. Ground zero is Jefferson County, where three Democratic incumbents are spending big to hold their seats. Among them are Andy Kerr, chair of the Senate Education Committee, and committee member Rachel Zenzinger.

Other Senate races feature two high-profile former Democratic House members, Mike Merrifield of Colorado Springs and Judy Solano in Adams County.

Democrats are expected to have an easier time retaining House control.

See the charts below for information about legislative races of particular interest to education. Hover over the name of a district to see a breakdown of registered voters by political party or over a candidate name to see more information about them.

State Senate

State House

State Board of Education

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There are two contested races this year. In the 3rd District Republican incumbent Marcia Neal Neal is being challenged by Democrat Henry Roman, former Pueblo 60 superintendent. Democratic incumbent Jane Goff faces Republican Laura Boggs, a former Jeffco school board member, in the 7th District.

An air of uncertainty has been added to the races by heavy independent spending in support of Democratic candidates by Democrats for Education Reform.

Democratic newcomer Valentina Flores is unopposed in the 1st District. In the 5th District GOP incumbent Paul Lundeen is running unopposed for the state House so will be replaced by a Republican appointee after the election.

» Learn more

Statewide ballot measures

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Two of this year’s four statewide ballot measure involve education.

The most visible is Amendment 68, the constitutional amendment that would allow creation of a casino in Arapahoe County, with some of the revenues earmarked for per-pupil grants to school districts statewide. Voters have been barraged with a heavy schedule of TV ads both for and against the measure. Education groups are neutral or opposed to the measure, as is traditional with proposed “sin taxes” to fund schools.

» Learn more

Proposition 104 has had a much lower profile. Backed by the conservative Independence Institute, the measure would require collective bargaining sessions between school district and employee unions be held in public. It also would require that school board strategy sessions be open. Education unions and interest groups are opposed.

» Learn more

Local district ballot measures

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It’s a record year for school district tax proposals – some two dozen districts are proposing a total of about $1.5 billion in bond issues and tax overrides just a year after voters statewide rejected a $1 billion income tax increase for K-12 funding.

Most of the money – about $1.1 billion – is being requested from voters in just two counties, Adams and Boulder. Five districts in western Adams all are on the Nov. 4 ballot, an apparently unprecedented event.

Despite a modest bump in school funding provided by the 2014 legislature, district leaders say that additional money is far from enough and that they have to ask voters for additional local revenues to cover building and program needs that can’t be put off.

» Learn more

Denver Preschool Program tax

In Denver voters will decide whether to increase and extend a sales tax that funds tuition credits for families participating in the Denver Preschool Program. The measure would increase the tax from .12 to .15 percent and extend it until 2026.

» Learn more

CU Board of Regents

Three seats on the nine-member board are being contested, and some observers think Democrats have a shot at gaining the majority on the board.

In the 6th District Democrat Naquetta Ricks and Republican John Carson are seeking the seat vacated by Republican Jim Geddes, who’s now on the Douglas County school board, where Carson formerly served. Ricks is outspending Carson, and Romanoff is given a chance at unseating Coffman in the same district.

In the 7th District, incumbent Democrat Irene Griego faces Libertarian Steve Golter in the 7th Congressional District. Both the 6th and 7th districts registration is evenly split among Democratic, Republican and unaffiliated voters.

In the traditionally Democratic 2nd District Democrat Linda Shoemaker, Republican Kim McGahey and Libertarian Daniel Ong are running.

» Learn more (Boulder Daily Camera)

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.