Denver decides

Happy Haynes edges challenger Robert Speth in DPS at-large race

Robert Speth with a supporter at his election watch party at a northwest Denver restaurant (Melanie Asmar).

Denver school board president Allegra “Happy” Haynes narrowly prevailed over upstart challenger Robert Speth in unofficial final results released Wednesday morning for the contested at-large DPS board seat.

Haynes tallied 53,729 votes and Speth had 52,918, according to Denver elections returns. The incumbent had trailed in earlier returns.

While close, Haynes’s margin appeared to put the result out of the range of a recount. In a two-person race, a recount is triggered if the difference between the two candidates is effectively a quarter of one percent, according to the secretary of state’s office.

A loss to the virtually unknown Speth would have been a stunning turn for Haynes, a Denver political fixture. Speth framed himself as an outsider, a check against what he describes as a “rubber stamp” board backing the district’s decade-old reforms.

If Haynes’ result holds — and at this point it should be a formality, with results becoming official in the coming weeks —it would mean a school board united behind the reforms of Denver Public Schools Superintendent Tom Boasberg.

Two other candidates prevailed Tuesday night over Boasberg critics. Lisa Flores won by healthy margin in northwest Denver’s District 5, and incumbent Anne Rowe easily held onto southeast Denver’s District 1 seat.

Haynes declined comment Tuesday night to a Chalkbeat reporter about early returns that showed her behind, then left an election party that also featured supporters of three Denver city ballot measures. Speth was cautious in his remarks Tuesday night.

In the race for a seat to represent northwest and west Denver, Flores defeated opponent Michael Kiley, 53 percent to 47 percent.

In the southeast race, Rowe won 62 percent of the vote to challenger Kristi Butkovich’s 38 percent.

Three seats were up for grabs on the seven-member school board, which almost always supports the district’s vision of a mix of charter and traditional schools, paying teachers based on performance and closing underperforming schools.

Six candidates ran for the three seats. Three of the candidates, including the two incumbents, largely agree with that vision and three don’t. But even if the naysayers had all prevailed, they wouldn’t have held enough board seats to block the district’s reform-minded policies.

The most contentious race unfolded in northwest and west Denver, where Flores and Kiley sought to represent District 5 and replace Arturo Jimenez, who is term-limited. Jimenez is often the lone dissenting voice on the board.

Flores, a former senior program officer with the Denver-based Gates Family Foundation, was favored by reform groups that agree with DPS’s philosophy. Kiley, a program manager for a software company, was supported by the teachers union. He unsuccessfully ran for a board seat in 2013.

The two candidates differed on several key issues, including the use of “enrollment zones,” which are expanded school boundaries meant to increase participation in school choice and diversify schools. Flores is cautiously supportive while Kiley opposes them because, he says, students don’t always end up at their first-choice school.

“We know from Denver’s experiment with forced busing that parents with resources will choose the schools they prefer or leave the district,” he wrote in response to a question on a Chalkbeat questionnaire sent to all DPS candidates. (Read all of the responses here.)

Kiley and Flores also disagreed on charter schools. Kiley believes they should complement neighborhood schools, not replace them, and that charters shouldn’t have boundaries. Flores is more agnostic when it comes to school type.

“I believe that we need to focus less on the model of school governance and much more about knowing that it is successfully educating our children,” she wrote in response to a different question on the questionnaire.

As of Oct. 25, campaign finance reports showed that Flores raised a total of $110,219 thanks in part to more than 400 individual donors, which is more than contributed to any other candidate. Notable donors included Kent Thiry, CEO of Denver-based DaVita Healthcare Partners ($5,000); Michelle Yee of San Francisco, whose husband co-founded LinkedIn ($4,000); Colorado congressman Jared Polis ($2,000); and Facebook chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg ($2,000), who also wrote the bestselling book, “Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead.”

Kiley has gotten the bulk of his support — $84,000 of the $111,469 he’d raised by Oct. 25 — from teachers unions, which prefer his vision of strong “neighborhood schools” that offer comprehensive music, arts and sports programs in addition to academics.

In the past few weeks, cash has also flowed into the at-large race between Haynes and Speth. Haynes is a former Denver city councilwoman who’s worked for two mayors and champions many of the district’s policies. Speth is a father of two who works in the telecommunications industry. He’s been critical of DPS’s direction.

“The city of Denver should and CAN do better,” Speth wrote in response to Chalkbeat’s questionnaire. “The decisions that are being made in education today are wrong.”

Haynes, meanwhile, largely supports the reform work of DPS Superintendent Tom Boasberg, calling him “extraordinarily effective.”

Haynes and Speth disagree on other topics too, including how test scores should be used to rate schools. Haynes applauds DPS’s rating system for taking several factors into account when rating a school, including parent engagement and progress made on closing achievement gaps between, for example, low-income and non-low-income students. Speth argues the system still relies too heavily on students’ academic growth.

Speth was a late entrant to the race; he didn’t kick off his campaign until early September. Shortly after he did, Haynes’s fundraising skyrocketed. In two weeks in October, she more than quadrupled the amount of money she’d raised in the previous year, bringing her fundraising total to $90,629. Thiry ($5,000), Yee ($4,000) and Polis ($1,000) also contributed to her campaign.

Speth has raised less money: $60,196 as of Oct. 25, including $40,000 from the Denver Classroom Teachers Association Fund, a union-affiliated small donor committee.

Editor’s note: Chalkbeat receives financial support from the Gates Family Foundation. 

game plan

After years of school voucher rejections, backers consider another approach in Tennessee

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
The State Capitol in Nashville is home to the Tennessee General Assembly.

The campaign to introduce school vouchers to Tennessee has come up short for so many years that supporters are looking closely at another voucher-like approach to give families more control over public funding for their children’s education.

Education savings accounts have gained traction in some other states and are viewed as an attractive alternative for Tennessee in the debate about parental choice.

And with the inauguration soon of a new governor who promised to give parents more education options for their kids, this approach would fit the bill — and even offer a longer menu of services than traditional vouchers would.

“I would like to help lead the charge,” said Rep. Bill Dunn, a Knoxville Republican and fierce voucher proponent, who this week was elected speaker pro tempore of Tennessee’s House of Representatives.

“Education freedom, if it’s done correctly, gives students opportunities to do better, and public schools rise to the occasion through competition. Everybody wins,” Dunn added.

Not so fast, say public school officials who view any kind of voucher program as a major step toward privatizing education.

“Outside interests pushing ‘school choice’ options have learned that when ideas like vouchers become toxic to the public, they can be repackaged as education savings accounts, which might be more palatable to lawmakers,” said Amy Frogge, a Nashville school board member who opposes vouchers.

Both approaches raise the same concerns, said Frogge, citing a drain of funding from public schools, increased student segregation, and a lack of accountability for students whose families choose that route.

Education savings accounts, or ESAs, allow parents to withdraw their children from public schools and receive a deposit of public funds into government-authorized accounts. The money could be used to cover everything from private school tuition and tutoring to homeschool materials and online learning programs.

A voucher is taxpayer money that’s restricted to paying for private school tuition and fees for eligible students.

For years, Tennessee lawmakers have tried to start a voucher program and came close in 2016 with legislation sponsored by Dunn. But an unlikely alliance of Democrats and rural Republicans have foiled every attempt.

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
State Rep. Bill Dunn (center) looks straight ahead after tabling his voucher bill in 2016.

Dunn, who has since risen to the House’s No. 2 leadership position, thinks education savings accounts would be more appealing to rural legislators who see little local benefit in opening the door to vouchers in Tennessee.

“A voucher is dependent upon having a private school being available. But there’s more flexibility with an ESA and you could shop for a lot more educational services for your child no matter where you live,” he said, adding that a better educated workforce could lure more jobs to rural Tennessee.

A 2018 poll by the pro-voucher American Federation for Children found that voters are more open to voucher-like programs like education savings accounts  and “tax credit scholarships” than vouchers, even though all three would siphon off funding from public schools. That’s one reason that backers are avoiding the V-word and re-branding how they talk about “school choice.”

Leaders of the American Federation for Children say they wouldn’t be surprised to see legislation filed this year in Tennessee, whether for vouchers or education savings accounts.

“We’re supportive of both,” said state director Shaka Mitchell. “But because an ESA allows students’ education to be far more customized, I think it’s useful in some ways that a voucher isn’t.”


Do school vouchers work? Here’s what the research says


“School choice” advocates will have two powerful new allies in the governor’s office when Bill Lee is inaugurated on Jan. 19. The governor-elect has hired Tony Niknejad, former state director of the American Federation for Children, to be his policy director, while Brent Easley of TennesseeCAN, another pro-voucher group, is his legislative director.

But it’s uncertain whether Lee — a Williamson County businessman who won his first bid for office — will put his political muscle behind the divisive issue in his early months of governing, especially when he must develop his first proposed budget and a broader vision for his four-year administration.

PHOTO: Ned Jilton II/Kingsport Times-News
Bill Lee was elected Tennessee’s 50th governor in November and will take the oath of office on Jan. 19.

“There may be a lot of talk about vouchers or education savings accounts, but I don’t think it’s the right climate yet,” said Rep. Mark White of Memphis, who this week was named chairman of the House Education Committee.

One reason, he said, is accountability for recipients of education savings accounts and the services they choose.

“We’ve worked so hard making sure the public schools are accountable with testing that if we just give a parent money to go to a private school of their choice or to choose other services and we don’t have any accountability, then I would be against it,” White said. “If we’re talking about taxpayer dollars and we’re holding one group accountable, then we’ve got to hold everybody accountable.”

Tennessee already has one program that’s similar to education savings accounts. The state launched launched Individualized Education Accounts for students with certain disabilities in 2017, allowing families to receive up to $6,000 annually to pay for private educational services. This year, 137 students from 38 districts are participating, with 70 percent attending a private school and the rest homeschooled, according to the state’s most recent data.

“When we debated that limited-choice program, people got up and said it would be the end of the world and would destroy public education — but it hasn’t,” said Dunn.

Others point out that, although the state planned for more participants in the program, no one expected families to rush out of public schools. Anyone opting to use the accounts must waive their federal right to receive a “free and appropriate” public education. For students with disabilities, that usually costs far beyond the $6,000 a year allocated to participants.

One bill filed in the legislature’s first week seeks to expand the program to make more students eligible. Rep. Jay Reedy, a Republican from Erin, wants students who are already in private or home schools to be able to participate. Currently, families can apply only if their student is enrolled in public schools.

Full circle

On her first day as Denver superintendent, Susana Cordova visits the school where she was a student

PHOTO: Melanie Asmar/Chalkbeat
Susana Cordova addresses students at Barnum Elementary School on Jan. 7, her first day as Denver superintendent.

At a morning assembly marking the first day of Susana Cordova’s tenure as Denver schools superintendent, the most telling moment was not the speeches from current and former mayors pledging their support, or even the remarks from Cordova herself.

It was when Cordova whispered in the ear of third-grader Grace Sotelo. Grace was one of four students chosen to present Cordova with gifts, including a bouquet of flowers. Afterward, the third-grader stepped up for a brief turn at the microphone.

“Doctor — ” Grace said, then paused.

“Cordova,” the new superintendent whispered to her.

“Cordova,” Grace said. “We are proud of your success of being our — ”

“Superintendent,” Cordova whispered.

“Our superintendent,” Grace said. “We know you’ll be the best superintendent we’ve ever had.”

The interaction served as a reminder that the district’s new superintendent started her career in the classroom, teaching students like Grace.

The location of the event was also symbolic. It was held at the school that Cordova, a lifelong Denver resident, attended as a child: Barnum Elementary in southwest Denver. A printout of her fourth-grade school photo — straight-cut bangs, dimples, and a striped turtleneck — hung on a wall behind the risers.

PHOTO: Courtesy Denver Public Schools
Cordova in fourth grade

“When I was a student here at Barnum, one of my very favorite things to do was read,” Cordova told the first-, second-, and third-graders sitting criss-cross-applesauce on the gym floor.

“One of my favorite authors was a woman named Judy Blume. And she wrote a lot of good books. Maybe you’ve read some of them. But Judy Blume also said something that I think is really important. She said, ‘Our fingerprints don’t fade from the lives we touch.’

“That’s what education does. It touches lives. And I want to make sure that our fingerprints — all our fingerprints — are forever part of the story, so that our students are successful.”

Cordova, 52, officially assumed the role of superintendent of Denver Public Schools on Monday, making her the top boss of Colorado’s largest school district with about 93,000 students. Cordova was selected by the school board last month after a four-month national search. She succeeds Tom Boasberg, who served as superintendent for nearly 10 years.

Cordova was an internal candidate. A graduate of Denver’s Abraham Lincoln High School, she has worked for the district since 1989 as a teacher, principal, and district administrator. For the past two years, she served as deputy superintendent under Boasberg.

Cordova was the sole finalist for the top job, a decision that sparked accusations from some community members that the search was a sham. In choosing her, the school board noted her depth of experience, her willingness to listen to opposing viewpoints, and how she fit many of the criteria students, parents, and teachers wanted in the next superintendent.

Among them: Cordova is an educator. The previous two superintendents came from the business world. She is also Latina. The previous two superintendents were white men. Only 25 percent of Denver students are white, while 54 percent are Hispanic and 13 percent are black.

Cordova is also bilingual in English and Spanish, and started her career in Denver as a bilingual teacher. Currently, more than a third of Denver students are learning English as a second language. The most common first language spoken by students is Spanish.

Denver students, on the whole, have made academic gains over the past decade. Many people credit the progress to controversial strategies such as replacing struggling schools.

But Cordova faces several big challenges as superintendent, including narrowing persistent test score gaps between students of color and white students, and between students from low-income families and those from wealthier ones.

Last year, 69 percent of Denver students from high- and middle-income families met expectations on state literacy tests, compared with just 27 percent of students from low-income families. About two-thirds of Denver students belong to the latter category.

While Cordova has emphasized the importance of closing those gaps, she said on Monday that her sole focus for the next two weeks will be reaching an agreement on teacher pay with the Denver teachers union. The two sides have been negotiating changes to the district’s pay-for-performance system, called ProComp, for more than a year. The union has threatened to hold a strike vote if the two sides don’t reach an agreement by Jan. 18.

The union and the district are set to return to the negotiating table Tuesday for the start of several all-day bargaining sessions. Cordova said she plans to attend every one, a departure from her predecessor’s approach to contract negotiations.

“I’m very optimistic we can get to a good solution,” Cordova said in an interview following the event at Barnum. “My closest friends are DPS teachers. I deeply understand and know the complexities of what it means to be a teacher in the district.”

Toward the end of the interview, after the students had returned to class and the custodial staff was stacking the chairs, Cordova was approached by two women with district lanyards around their necks. They introduced themselves as teacher’s aides who’d worked for the district for more than 20 years each. One of them held out her cell phone.

“Could we have a picture with you?”

Yes, Cordova said. In the gymnasium of her old elementary school, festooned for the occasion with yellow and blue crepe paper, the new superintendent stood between them and smiled.