new venture

Alyssa Whitehead-Bust, former top Denver schools administrator, launches new consulting firm

PHOTO: Denver Public Schools
Alyssa Whitehead-Bust, former chief academic and innovation officer for Denver Public Schools.

A former top Denver Public Schools administrator who left the district earlier this year is teaming up with the former CEO of an East Coast charter school network to start a consulting firm.

Alyssa Whitehead-Bust was DPS’s chief academic and innovation officer until January. Before serving as a district administrator, she was the founding principal of Highline Academy, a successful DPS charter school that opened in 2004. And before that, she worked as a consultant, helping to start more than 15 charter schools across the country.

In announcing her departure from DPS, Whitehead-Bust said she concluded the district had “a lot of good work underway” that she trusted would continue.

“It inspires me to want to go make a difference in a new system,” she said last December. She has been mentioned as a possible candidate for open superintendent jobs around the country.

Whitehead-Bust, who still lives in Denver with her family, said that since leaving DPS, she has worked with districts including Boston Public Schools, Tulsa Public Schools and the Cleveland Metropolitan School District.

She said she’s also worked with organizations such as the Washington-based Center on Reinventing Public Education and charter management organizations such as Aspire Public Schools, which has schools in California and Tennessee.

Her partner in her newest venture is Evan Rudall, a former teacher and charter school founder who subsequently served as CEO of the Uncommon Schools charter network, which has schools in New York, New Jersey and Massachusetts. He was also the founding CEO of Zearn, a nonprofit that creates digital math lessons.

In her time at DPS, Whitehead-Bust led the team that authorizes the district’s charter and innovation schools. Her team had several other duties as well, including designing and choosing curriculum and tests used by DPS schools, and putting in place training for teachers. She also created the Imaginarium, DPS’s research and development lab.

family feud

Unified against Trump, the country’s would-be Democratic governors are divided on education

PHOTO: RJ Sangosti/The Denver Post
Donald Trump campaigned at the Jefferson County Fairgrounds in Golden, October 29, 2016.

Coming to a Democratic primary near you: a clash over education issues.

In several big states, governors who have supported charter schools are on their way out or facing a re-election fight in 2018. And while the party is united in its distaste for President Donald Trump, candidates vying for state leadership from California to Georgia are split on key education issues.

To simplify: In one camp are those who favor charter schools and accountability policies based in part on test scores, exemplified by the group Democrats for Education Reform. In the other camp are those — most prominently teachers unions — who emphasize greater investment in schools and are skeptical of solutions that focus on charters and choice.

Those tensions are growing, as the current president and his unpopular Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos make education reform a tougher sell than it was under President Obama, who supported charter schools.

“I do expect this fight to play out to some degree in Democratic primaries up and down the ballot,” said Shavar Jeffries, the DFER president. “The old-line forces see an opportunity to use the historically toxic Trump-DeVos brand to reverse progress we’ve made under Presidents Clinton and Obama.”

The National Education Association did not respond to a request for comment and a spokesperson for the American Federation for Teachers declined to comment on Democratic primaries.

So far, few candidates are publicly hashing out differences on education, and Jeffries said it’s too early to discuss specific races. But candidates’ past records and recent statements suggest that education will play an important role, particularly in the jockeying for endorsements from monied players like DFER and local unions. Meanwhile, Democratic supporters of charter schools are increasingly being linked to DeVos.

Here are five upcoming governors’ races where education could be a key issue in the Democratic primary.

In California, Newsom knocks Villaraigosa on schools

Antonio Villaraigosa and Gavin Newsom (Photos: David Starkopf / Office of the Mayor, Brian Kusler / Creative Commons)

It’s southern versus northern California: former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa is facing former San Francisco Mayor (and current lieutenant governor) Gavin Newsom in the race for governor of the country’s most populous state.

Villaraigosa has been a staunch supporter of charter schools and a frequent critic of teachers unions. Newsom has less of a record on education, but has hinted at differences between the two.

“I believe in public education and will fight like mad for our public schools,” Newsom said earlier this year. “This is not the case of every Democrat running for governor.”

California’s unusual primary system — in which all candidates, regardless of party, run on the same ticket and the top two vote-getters face each other in the general election — means it’s possible Villaraigosa and Newsom will face each other in the November 2018 general election.

California state treasurer John Chiang and former state schools superintendent Delaine Eastin are also running for the Democrats, though they trail in recent polls.

The next governor will replace Jerry Brown, who had started two charters of his own before taking office and has been a strong supporter of the privately managed, publicly funded schools. Brown even recently vetoed a bill to ban for-profit charters, though many charter school advocates have supported such a change.

Colorado candidates tote hefty education résumés

Jared Polis, Michael Johnston, and Cary Kennedy ((Photos: Third Way Think Tank / Creative Commons, Nic Garcia, City Energy Project / Creative Commons)

In John Hickenlooper, Democratic advocates of charter schools have had a staunch ally in the Denver statehouse. They’re hoping to keep it that way, as Hickenlooper exits and a number of prominent Democrats, all with extensive education backgrounds, vie to replace him.

The field includes two long-time supporters of charter schools.

One is Jared Polis, a congressman who helped start a network of charter schools (and who once got into a Twitter spat with education reform critic Diane Ravitch). Then there’s Michael Johnston, a former state senator and school principal who authored the state’s controversial teacher evaluation law, which relies heavily on student test scores. Johnston, who spearheaded a failed statewide ballot initiative to increase school spending, has already drawn significant support from the education reform world, inside and outside Colorado.

Neither has emphasized traditional education reform issues so far, though: Polis has focused on expanding pre-K; Johnston has emphasized tuition-free college.

Another prominent Democrat, former state treasurer Cary Kennedy, also seems likely to focus on education issues besides charter schools, including increasing teacher pay and reducing the number of standardized tests.

“I want all our kids to be thinkers and creative problem-solvers, not just good test-takers,” said Kennedy, who wrote a 2000 state constitutional amendment that required regular education funding increases.

Lieutenant Governor Donna Lynne is also considering jumping in, and businessman Noel Ginsburg, who founded a youth apprenticeship organization, is running.

Whoever wins will likely face a hard-fought general election in this perennial swing state.

Georgia candidate linked to DeVos at progressive conference

Stacey Abrams and Stacey Evans

Term limits mean that Georgia’s Republican Governor Nathan Deal, a big charter-school supporter, will leave office next year. Two Democrats are running to replace him: Stacey Abrams and Stacey Evans, both state representatives.

Evans recently came in for criticism at a progressive conference for her support of charter schools and a tax-credit scholarship program, which functions like a school voucher program. Some attendees held up signs that read “Evans = DeVos.”

Abrams, who is vying to be the nation’s first black female governor, responded with an implicit jab. “Activists in Atlanta peacefully protested this morning on the critical issue of preserving public education for every family in our state,” she said.

The nominee will likely face an uphill battle in this red state.

New York’s Cuomo under pressure on charters, education funding

Cynthia Nixon, Andrew Cuomo, and Stephanie Miner (Photos: Syracuse City Schools, MTA, Diana Robinson / Creative Commons)

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo is planning to run for a third term, but his record on education has left some progressives wary.

He has been a key ally of the state’s charter lobby, put in place teacher evaluations based heavily on student test scores (a stance he has since backed away from), and supported school-spending increases substantially lower than what funding advocacy groups like the Alliance for Quality Education have called for.

Cynthia Nixon, the prominent actress and long-time spokesperson for the union-backed Alliance, has said she’s considering a run. She has said her campaign would focus on education issues, particularly school funding. Cuomo also risks a challenge from a more conventional candidate: Syracuse mayor Stephanie Miner, who has polled within striking distance of the incumbent.

That said, a primary against the powerful and well-financed Cuomo is far from guaranteed and if it happens, is likely a long shot.

Tennessee candidates may differ on charters

Craig Fitzhugh and Karl Dean (Photos: Sean Braisted / Creative Commons, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers)

Tennessee Democrats haven’t won a statewide office in over a decade, but that hasn’t deterred two Democrats from running for the state’s top office.

One is Karl Dean, who pushed to expand charter schools as the mayor of Nashville. But local charter advocates have faced a number of setbacks, including the defeat of several favored school board candidates. Dean has said charter schools will not be the centerpiece of his education agenda, though his record on education has already come under criticism from charter school critics.

Opposing Dean in the primary will be Craig Fitzhugh, the minority leader in the Tennessee house of representatives. He has generally been more skeptical of charter schools and drawn more support from unions than Dean.

The winner will likely be an underdog in the general election battle to replace Bill Haslam, the current Republican governor, who has strongly backed the expansion of charter schools.

real-world experience

Meet the Memphis educator leading the charge to take down her city’s Confederate monuments

PHOTO: Andrea Morales
Tami Sawyer and Earle Fisher lead a rally in response to a white supremacist march in Charlottesville last weekend.

Hours after white supremacists marched in Charlottesville, Tami Sawyer’s phone was abuzz.

Some Memphis teachers wanted to talk over their plans to discuss the weekend’s violence with their students. She was also fielding questions from local news outlets about efforts to remove Memphis’ own Confederate statues — the issue that drew white supremacists to the Virginia college town.

The first messages were part of Sawyer’s role at Teach for America, where she serves as the local director of diversity and cultural competence. The others came out of her own activism — and her flurry of responses illustrate what life looks like for many educators stepping outside of the classroom to advocate for social justice.

“It’s a constant wheel,” she said. “I will go to bed probably about 1 a.m. because I stay up on social media and firing off emails and I wake up and I do it all over again tomorrow.”

Sawyer, a 35-year-old Memphis native, is the face of #takeemdown901, the newest campaign to remove two Confederate monuments from parks in downtown Memphis.

It’s a messy fight: The city owns the land, but can’t remove the statues on its own. State officials, angered by a 2015 Memphis city council vote to remove one, took control over what the city can do with its monuments.

And though the city has vowed to sue the state if it blocks the removal of the other monument, Sawyer and others aren’t satisfied with that pace.

“Jefferson Davis is known to have said that it is the duty of the white Christian man to own black people because they are unintelligent,” Sawyer said. “So, why is it important for me? It’s because a man that told me that I was dumb and needed to be picking his cotton can’t stand in my city. My nieces can’t come up under that shadow.”

But the fight against the Confederate monuments is just the latest facet of a longer, and personal, campaign for Sawyer.

She grew up in Memphis and went to St. Mary’s Episcopal, a private school. After graduating from the University of Memphis and spending about a year in law school at Howard University, Sawyer worked for U.S. Navy in Washington focusing on diversity hiring practices.

She returned to Memphis in 2013, as the uproar surrounding the merger and subsequent de-merger of its suburban and city schools was at its height. But local activism, she thought, seemed to be too much talk and too little action.

When 18-year-old Michael Brown was killed in Ferguson, Missouri in 2014, she decided to organize a local protest.

“Next thing I knew, I had a lot to say and people listened,” she said. “And I didn’t know what to do with that except to keep talking and keep organizing.”

PHOTO: Andrea Morales
Memphis reacts to the white supremacist rallies in Charlottesville and the violence against counter protestors by gathering at the Nathan Bedford Forrest statue.

In 2015, Sawyer organized a vigil for a black Memphis teen, Darrius Stewart, who was killed by a white police officer. About 200 people gathered, including a large contingent of Teach for America teachers.

TFA teachers “came of their own accord,” Sawyer recalled, “and that was just impressive to me.”

Earle Fisher, a Memphis pastor and activist who is always within arm’s length of Sawyer at rallies or press conferences, noted that day was when the two “met on the battlefield.”

“As has been the case ever since, she was directing me on how things were meant to go at the rally she had organized,” he said. “There’s a reason we call her Tami Lou Hamer.”

Soon after that vigil, Sawyer joined TFA, overhauling the local chapter’s curriculum to help teachers understand how racism and poverty affect their students and their community.

Teach For America is not affiliated with Sawyer’s activism, but her work to remove statues of Jefferson Davis and Nathan Bedford Forrest is in keeping with organization’s recent efforts to connect more with the black and Hispanic communities they serve in.

Athena Turner, the group’s executive director in Memphis, came to the city 11 years ago when 85 percent of the city’s public school students were black and 88 percent of the TFA teachers working in the city were white. Now, about half of TFA teachers are people of color.

“From when I was a corps member to now, the organization has gotten a lot more explicit about the ways in which our commitments and values of diversity and equity and inclusion play out in all aspects of our work,” Turner said. Sawyer’s work, she said, “demonstrates those values pretty explicitly.”

TFA, like many other education organizations, has also grappled with how to help teachers address racism in the classroom in the years following the death of Trayvon Martin, the Florida teenager killed in 2012. The organization has deep ties to the Black Lives Matter movement that has emerged since: Prominent activists, including DeRay Mckesson and Brittany Packnett, were TFA teachers and later worked for the teacher training organization.

Sawyer herself sees helping teachers understand students’ culture and the broader fight for equity in Memphis as deeply connected. That desire fueled her decision to run, unsuccessfully, for state representative last year.

More recently, just after Sawyer launched an online petition to remove the Confederate statue — a petition that came out of a goal-setting exercise at a TFA summer staff retreat — Sawyer spoke to a group of students at GRAD Academy, a local charter school.

The conversation quickly turned from issues in the classroom to problems in their city.

“I told them you have to self-advocate,” Sawyer recalled. “And then someone said, ‘Is that what you’re doing with these statues?’ And I said yes. We have to advocate for ourselves. No one is going to take these statues down for us, right?”

The next week, several teens from that program showed up at a community meeting she organized.

“I don’t understand why we still have statues of people who didn’t want us to be anything,” 15-year-old Beyonce Cox said. “They didn’t want us African-Americans to have power, they wanted us to stay down.”

Helping students gain that sense of citizenship and agency — for Sawyer, that’s the point of her work.

“You raise an engineer in South Memphis who can figure out how to run a metro through Memphis because he’s going to remember how his mom and grandma couldn’t get around and carrying groceries in the rain,” she said.

“In the grand scheme of things, taking down the statues won’t change transportation. It won’t change access to fresh foods or economic justice. But it will teach us how to advocate for ourselves.”