The race thickens

State Sen. Michael Merrifield, who pushed for dramatic cuts in testing, considers gubernatorial run

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
State Sen. Michael Merrifield, center, at a committee hearing on the nation's new education laws on Dec. 13.

A second Colorado lawmaker with deep ties to public education is considering a run for the governor’s mansion in 2018.

State Sen. Michael Merrifield of Colorado Springs confirmed to Chalkbeat he is weighing joining what could a crowded Democratic primary as a voice for the party’s progressive wing.

One of Merrifield’s Democratic colleagues from the Senate Education Committee is also considering a run — outgoing Sen. Michael Johnston, the standard bearer for the state’s education reform movement. The two lawmakers often clashed on policies such as linking teacher evaluations to student academic growth.

Others who have been mentioned as potential Democratic candidates include former U.S. Sen. and Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar, U.S. Rep. Ed Perlmutter and former state treasurer Cary Kennedy.

Merrifield, a former music teacher who has served on both the House and Senate education committees, said he’s been encouraged to run by Democrats across the state after November’s election.

“I think the state party has been far too Denver-centric for a number of years,” he said, suggesting the state’s Democrats have abandoned rural parts of the state and labor organizations. “I think Democrats need to get back to their roots.”

Merrifield, 69, said he believes he can rally the growing progressive wing of the Democratic Party in Colorado that supported U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders during the presidential primaries. Sanders won the Colorado presidential caucus.

“Many of those names being bandied about will have difficulty arousing excitement from the base,” he said. “And that’s one thing that I’ve always been able to do in all of my races: get support from unions, and teachers, and mom and pop business owners.”

Merrifield is considered among the most liberal of Democrat lawmakers in the General Assembly. But his Senate district is split almost evenly among Democrats, Republicans and unaffiliated voters.

On education issues, Merrifield has staunchly opposed numerous education reform efforts and has proposed bills to slash the amount of standardized testing in schools.

What would a Merrifield governorship mean for the state’s public schools?

“It’d be a wonderful thing for public education, with a capital P-U-B-L-I-C education,” he said. “It’d not be a very good thing for those who want to privatize, corporatize, ‘voucherize’ and ‘charterize’ public education.”

Merrifield said he didn’t know when he’d make a decision. Among the factors he’s raising is whether he can raise the kind of money needed to mount a statewide campaign.

“It would be a huge undertaking,” Merrifield said. “I think so far, what I’m seeing is a path. Not a well-beaten path, but a path through the forest.”

ColoradoPolitics.com first reported Merrifield’s potential gubernatorial run.

Raise your voice

Memphis, what do you want in your next school superintendent?

PHOTO: Kyle Kurlick for Chalkbeat

Tennessee’s largest school district needs a permanent leader. What kind of superintendent do you think Shelby County Schools should be looking for?

Now is the chance to raise your voice. The school board is in the thick of finalizing a national search and is taking bids from search firms. Board members say they want a leader to replace former superintendent Dorsey Hopson in place within 18 months. They have also said they want community input in the process, though board members haven’t specified what that will look like. In the interim, career Memphis educator Joris Ray is at the helm.

Let us know what you think is most important in the next superintendent.  Select responses will be published.

Asking the candidates

How to win over Northwest Side voters: Chicago aldermen candidates hone in on high school plans

PHOTO: Cassie Walker Burke / Chalkbeat Chicago
An audience member holds up a green sign showing support at a forum for Northwest side aldermanic candidates. The forum was sponsored by the Logan Square Neighborhood Association.

The residents filing into the auditorium of Sharon Christa McAuliffe Elementary School Friday wanted to know a few key things from the eager aldermanic candidates who were trying to win their vote.

People wanted to know which candidates would build up their shrinking open-enrollment high schools and attract more students to them.

They also wanted specifics on how the aldermen, if elected, would coax developers to build affordable housing units big enough for families, since in neighborhoods such as Logan Square and Hermosa, single young adults have moved in, rents have gone up, and some families have been pushed out.

As a result, some school enrollments have dropped.

Organized by the Logan Square Neighborhood Association, Friday’s event brought together candidates from six of the city’s most competitive aldermanic races. Thirteen candidates filled the stage, including some incumbents, such as Aldermen Proco “Joe” Moreno (1st  Ward), Carlos Ramirez-Rosa (35th Ward), and Milly Santiago (31st Ward).

They faced tough questions — drafted by community members and drawn at random from a hat — about bolstering high school enrollment, recruiting more small businesses, and paving the way for more affordable housing.

When the audience members agreed with their positions, they waved green cards, with pictures of meaty tacos. When they heard something they didn’t like, they held up red cards, with pictures of fake tacos.

Red cards weren’t raised much. But the green cards filled the air when candidates shared ideas for increasing the pull of area open-enrollment high schools by expanding dual-language programs and the rigorous International Baccalaureate curriculum.

Related: Can a program designed for British diplomats fix Chicago schools? 

“We want our schools to be dual language so people of color can keep their roots alive and keep their connections with their families,” said Rossana Rodriguez, a mother of a Chicago Public Schools’ preschooler and one of challengers to incumbent Deb Mell in the city’s 33rd Ward.  

Mell didn’t appear at the forum, but another candidate vying for that seat did: Katie Sieracki, who helps run a small business. Sieracki said she’d improve schools by building a stronger feeder system between the area’s elementary schools, which are mostly K-8, and the high schools.

“We need to build bridges between our local elementary schools and our high schools, getting buy-in from new parents in kindergarten to third grade, when parents are most engaged in their children’s education,” she said.

Sieracki said she’d also work to design an apprenticeship program that connects area high schools with small businesses.

Green cards also filled the air when candidates pledged to reroute tax dollars that are typically used for developer incentives for school improvement instead.

At the end of the forum, organizers asked the 13 candidates to pledge to vote against new tax increment financing plans unless that money went to schools. All 13 candidates verbally agreed.

Aldermen have limited authority over schools, but each of Chicago’s 50 ward representatives receives a $1.32 million annual slush fund that be used for ward improvements, such as playgrounds, and also can be directed to education needs. And “aldermanic privilege,” a longtime concept in Chicago, lets representatives give the thumbs up or down to developments like new charters or affordable housing units, which can affect school enrollment.

Related: 7 questions to ask your aldermanic candidates about schools

Aldermen can use their position to forge partnerships with organizations and companies that can provide extra support and investment to local schools.

A January poll showed that education was among the top three concerns of voters in Chicago’s municipal election. Several candidates for mayor have recently tried to position themselves as the best candidate for schools in TV ads.