Rallying cry

At DeVos protest, opponents seek to tie Trump education appointee to Denver school board

Hundreds of protesters circled the hotel where Betsy DeVos is scheduled to speak Thursday. (Photo by Marissa Page/Chalkbeat)

Several hundred protesters, many of them teachers, gathered at the state Capitol Wednesday to rail against what they called the privatization of public education under U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, who is scheduled to give a speech in Denver Thursday.

With local school board elections looming in November, speakers at Wednesday’s rally sought to tie the policies championed by billionaire Republican DeVos to those enacted by Denver Public Schools Superintendent Tom Boasberg and Democrats on the nonpartisan school board.

“In November, we have the opportunity to take our school board back!” said Rachael Lehman, a parent of an East High graduate.

She called for “a school board revolution,” saying “DeVos-style policies” have harmed Denver’s traditional schools, three of which the school board recently voted unanimously to close after years of lagging test scores.

DeVos has become a national target of teachers unions and progressive Democrats. Before Trump appointed her education secretary, she used her personal wealth to push for the expansion of charter schools and private school vouchers, which unions staunchly oppose.

Unions in Colorado and across the country have already begun using DeVos’s image and unpopularity to push back against charter school-friendly legislation and policies. And more is expected during the fall school board elections.

Four seats on the seven-member Denver school board are up for grabs in this November’s election. All seven seats are currently held by members who support DPS’s brand of education reform, which embraces school choice, though not vouchers. Boasberg has repeatedly sought to differentiate DPS’s approach from DeVos’s.

“We believe that public dollars should be used for public schools that are open to all kids, whether they are district-run or charter,” he said earlier this year.

A sweep by candidates who oppose the district’s reforms could change its direction.

One of those candidates, recent Manual High graduate Tay Anderson, planned the rally, which drew teachers, parents, students and others from across the state. Toward the end, Anderson took the microphone to call out current Denver board members for attending.

“They want to show up when they need your vote!” he said.

“But we can tell them, ‘Screw you. You’re fired in November!’”

Board member Mike Johnson, who is running for re-election, was at the rally, holding a sign he made that said, “What is scarier? Grizzly? Or Betsy?” To compare DPS’s policies to those promoted by DeVos, who has criticized the district, “is just a mistake,” he said.

“I think that everybody there, including myself, believes the Trump agenda for public education is disastrous,” Johnson said of rally attendees, “and I think that we ought to be fighting this fight together instead of using it for our own local purposes.”

Johnson was the only DPS board member Chalkbeat saw at the rally. Board vice president Barbara O’Brien, who is also running for re-election, said she asked rally organizers if she could speak but “they made it clear that I wasn’t welcome.”

Some rally speakers appealed directly to DeVos. Denver teacher JoZi Martinez implored her to “leave public education to the experts: we the teachers and the administrators in the trenches.”

“This is not a monarchy and you are clearly not a queen, Ms. DeVos,” she said.

The crowd cheered when she urged DeVos to step down. Pleas to stop voucher programs, reduce standardized testing and provide free community college also got big applause.

Mentions of the group Democrats for Education Reform, which has been active in Denver school board elections, elicited loud boos. When state Sen. Michael Merrifield, a Colorado Springs Democrat and former public school music teacher, condemned members of his own party for supporting education reform, rally attendees began chanting “shame, shame!”

After the speeches, Anderson grabbed a bullhorn and led the protesters on a march to the downtown Hyatt Regency hotel. They snaked around the city-block-sized hotel, waving signs and shouting, “This is what democracy looks like!” among other chants.

The annual meeting of the conservative American Legislative Exchange Council, or ALEC, is taking place at the hotel Wednesday through Friday. On Thursday, DeVos is scheduled to address the lawmakers, lobbyists and business leaders from around the country in attendance.

Another target of teachers unions, ALEC is known for providing its members with model legislation and policies that promote free-market education reform principles.

Charter schism

Independent charter schools look to raise their profile, apart from networks and Betsy DeVos

PHOTO: Coalition of Community Charter Schools
Veter education journalist John Merrow moderates a panel at the Independent Charter School Symposium.

Stand-alone charter schools say they’re often overlooked in favor of big-name networks like KIPP — while at the same time being unfairly tied to Betsy DeVos’s agenda.

At a symposium last week, a number of school leaders agreed to try to change that by launching a new national organization dedicated to independent, or “mom-and-pop,” charters.

“When people think of charters, they do not think of us,” said Steve Zimmerman, an organizer of the conference and founder of two independent charter schools.

In a hotel conference room in Queens, leaders from nearly 200 schools across 20 states unanimously called for the group’s creation. They also adopted a progressive manifesto that tried to separate the members from the Trump administration and common criticisms of the charter schools.

It marks yet another fissure in the nation’s charter school movement, which has seen political and philosophical divides open up in the wake of U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos’s appointment.

And while the loose group of independent charters does not yet have a name or a clear funding plan, its leaders believe they can provide a louder, more democratic voice for their concerns than existing charter advocacy groups, which they say are too focused on expanding networks.

“The National Alliance [for Public Charter Schools] truly believes they act in the interest of all charter schools. And to some degree they do,” said Zimmerman, referring to the country’s top national charter advocacy group. “The truth is, though, that they can’t really represent the real interests of independent charter schools because their funders really believe in the network model.”

National Alliance spokeswoman Vanessa Descalzi said the group supports independent charters.

“Advocating for independent, community-based schools is in the National Alliance’s DNA,” she said. “Where folks feel we could do more, we look forward to continued discussion and seeking solutions together.”

A response to testing, and to Trump

Zimmerman is the co-director of the Coalition of Community Charter Schools, an organization for independent charters based in New York City that co-sponsored last week’s conference. That symposium, he said, came out of a desire to shift the discussion around measuring schools away from just test scores.

“We felt that there was too much thinking of outcomes as being the bottom line of the enterprise … and that was keeping our schools from being innovative,” he said. “It felt like a zero sum pissing game of comparing test scores all the time.”

When the Trump administration took office, a new set of concerns arose for many leaders of schools like his. In Zimmerman’s telling, there was “too much coziness between major players in the charter world and the incoming administration.”

He declined to offer specifics. But Eva Moskowitz, the head of the Success Academy network in New York, met with Trump soon after he was elected, and the National Alliance initially praised a Trump budget proposal featuring deep cuts to education spending but an increase for charter schools. Both have since distanced themselves further from the administration.

“To have in any way the charter world associated with that felt that it was really going to hurt our message,” Zimmerman said.

A distinct approach to judging charter schools

The manifesto adopted at the conference emphasizes a community-oriented vision for charter schooling — and a response to many common criticisms of charter schools.

Charters should be “laboratories of innovation” that seek to collaborate with districts, it says. Charter schools should serve “students who reflect our communities and neighborhoods, particularly students with the greatest educational needs,” and their leaders should create workplaces that are “collaborative, not adversarial” for teachers.

And while the group calls for schools to be held accountable for results, the mission statement says “real accountability must be rooted in the development of the whole child and the needs of society.” That’s a different emphasis from advocates who promote charter schools because they are more effective, as measured by test score gains.

In some ways that philosophy is more aligned with that of more conservative charter school supporters, including DeVos, who have argued for more innovation and less emphasis on test results.

“Some of these folks really feel like [charter] authorization has gotten too strict and has cut back innovation,” Zimmerman said. “And I believe so too.”

But Zimmerman distanced the group from a free-market approach. He is strongly opposed to private school vouchers, though said that’s not a stance the new organization has codified in its manifesto.

Zimmerman also points to issues with the Trump administration more broadly. The new group’s manifesto offers thinly veiled criticism: “We embrace our diverse communities, which include immigrants, people of color, children with disabilities, the homeless, English language learners, people of all faiths, and the LGBTQ community.”

A spokesperson for DeVos did not respond to a request for comment.

There is evidence that nonprofit charter networks do a slightly better job, on average, boosting test scores than independent charter schools. Those findings may explain, in part, why independent charter school leaders bristle at focusing on those metrics.

Zimmerman offered raised specific concerns about the National Alliance, which is funded by philanthropies including the Arnold, Broad, Gates, and Walton foundations. (Chalkbeat is also supported by the Gates and Walton foundations.) Those funders are focused on the replication of networks with high test scores, making the Alliance limited in its ability to represent independent schools, he said.

Christopher Norwood, who runs Florida’s independent charter school group, agreed that the networks exert outsized influence. He pointed to his state, where a recently passed bill to support the creation of new charters in areas where traditional public schools are struggling was limited to networks already operating at least three schools.

“There’s no charter management association of America because their interests are being promoted through the charter associations,” said Norwood, who along with Zimmerman, emphasized that he is not opposed to networks of charters.

Descalzi disputed that characterization of the Alliance.

“The National Alliance represents all public charter schools — including those which belong to a network or function as independent single sites — and we appreciate when any of our constituents take proactive steps to identify areas of need and provide resources to their communities,” she said.

Challenges await a new national organization

The top challenge for any nonprofit getting started is garnering funding. That will be amplified for the independent charters seeking to offer an alternative to charter school establishment — and the groups that financially supported them.

“It’s a huge hurdle,” Zimmerman said.

Zimmerman said the Walton Family Foundation, one of the charter sector’s largest benefactors turned down requests to sponsor last week’s conference. “They don’t necessarily see how we fit into their strategic vision, but I’m hoping they will,” he said.

Marc Sternberg, the Walton Foundation’s education program director, disputed the idea that the philanthropy is focused on replicating existing schools, saying they support “all types of schools,” including both “proven charter management organizations” and single schools. In the past eight years, nearly half of the schools funded by Walton’s charter start-up grant program were independent charters, according to the foundation.

Norwood says the new group for independent charters will look into funding itself through membership dues and from sponsorships. (The symposium was supported by a number of businesses that work with charters.)

It’s also unclear how much interest there truly is among the diffuse independent charters across the country for an alternative membership group. The conference brought together a few hundred leaders of the many thousands of such schools.

For now, the organization is its infancy, and Zimmerman says the next step will be creating a national advisory committee to craft a strategic plan.

The work is necessary, he said, if independent charters want to sidestep the problems of the broader sector, which has seen its popularity drop.

“They win battles but they’re losing the war, if the war is hearts and minds of people,”  Zimmerman said, referring to existing charter school advocacy groups and their funders. “We really have to separate ourselves from them as a matter of definition.”

Colorado Votes 2017

We asked the 2017 Aurora school board candidates nine questions. Here are their responses.

PHOTO: Kathryn Scott/The Denver Post
AURORA, CO - AUGUST 29: Max Gonzalez, 4, center, Gunnar Riley, 4, left, and Brooklyn Jones, 4, take turns looking through a camera as they spend part of their first week getting to know their new friends at Beck Preschool inside the Beck Recreation Center on August 29, 2017 in Aurora, Colorado. (Photo by Kathryn Scott/The Denver Post)

This fall, thousands of Coloradans will vote in dozens of local school board races across the state.

In many cases, their votes will determine the philosophical direction of their school districts. Should there be more charter schools? How much should the district pay teachers? How should the district boost learning for its most vulnerable students? These are just some of the policy questions school boards consider. And with majority control up for grabs on many boards, the stakes are especially high in 2017.

In order to help voters decide who to vote for, Chalkbeat surveyed candidates in some of the most hotly contested races. Below are their responses, which have been lightly edited for clarity.

To use our survey, readers can select specific races, then click on a candidate’s name to show or hide their responses.

For more information about this year’s election, click here for our previous coverage and click here for our campaign diary that’s filled with tidbits from the trail.

Interested in more than one school district? Click here for candidate surveys from Denver and Jefferson County.