what's next?

With all ballots finally counted, the outcome is clear: A return to differences of opinion on the Denver school board

PHOTO: RJ Sangosti/The Denver Post

When new members are sworn in later this month, the Denver school board will gain something it hasn’t had, to any significant degree, in two years: dissenting voices.

Two candidates who disagree with some of Denver Public Schools’ more controversial improvement strategies won seats Tuesday, according to final unofficial returns posted Thursday night, in a hard-fought election that featured more negativity than usual. Two candidates who agree with the district’s direction also won seats, meaning the seven-member board will retain its majority in favor of policies such as universal school choice and collaborating with charter schools.

Superintendent Tom Boasberg sounded a positive note about the results, emphasizing the winning candidates’ similarities instead of their differences.

“A natural and healthy part of elections is for folks to have a real vigorous competition of ideas,” he said. “An equally important, if not more important, part is that after the elections, folks come together, continue to debate and discuss very vigorously and recognize there’s lots in common.”

He added that “so much of what (the district is) doing — around early literacy, teacher leadership and social justice — I think you’ll see a very high degree of support for.”

School board president Anne Rowe said she believes the prevailing candidates “care deeply about our kids and want to work hard to continue to push this district forward.”

“I see us continuing forward on the path we are on,” she said. “And when you talk about the values and what we all care about, I think folks would be in agreement on those things.”

The four candidates who won Tuesday’s election include one incumbent, Barbara O’Brien, and three newcomers: Jennifer Bacon, Angela Cobián and Carrie A. Olson. While the three hold differing policy opinions, they have one thing in common: They’ve all been at the front of a classroom. Bacon and Cobián are former teachers, while Olson is a current teacher.

Olson and Bacon were endorsed by the Denver Classroom Teachers Association, which has pushed back against a district policy to close low-performing schools and called for a moratorium on new charter schools, which are publicly funded but independently run.

Cobián was not endorsed by the union. She and O’Brien were backed by groups that support the district’s strategy, which includes cultivating a “portfolio” of traditional district-run schools and more autonomous schools — and encouraging families to choose between them.

Tuesday’s election was a reversal of fortunes for the union, whose political influence had eroded over the years. In 2009, the board was split between a vocal three-member minority backed by the union and a four-member majority who supported the district’s direction. By 2013, the union had lost two seats, resulting in a board split 6-to-1. And in 2015, no union-backed candidates won. For the past two years, the board has frequently voted 7-0 in support of DPS proposals.

Union president Henry Roman said that in this year’s election, “Denver voters affirmed their commitment to public education and their support for our students.”

Backers of the district’s strategies faced a challenging electoral environment: Donald Trump’s election, and his elevation of Betsy DeVos as education secretary, enlivened progressive activists and voters — a bloc that includes members and supporters of labor unions.

Parker Baxter, the director of the Center for Education Policy Analysis at the University of Colorado Denver, said the major takeaway is not that union-backed candidates won two seats on a seven-member board, but that the pro-reform members hung onto their majority.

“The opponents of that agenda needed to win all-out here,” Baxter said. That they didn’t, he said, means the debates may be more heated but the outcomes will be the same.

Jeani Frickey Saito, the executive director of Stand for Children Colorado, a pro-reform group that endorsed O’Brien and Cobián, said the organization is pleased overall with the election results and doesn’t expect “a significant shift in where the district is headed.” An independent expenditure committee affiliated with Stand spent money to elect pro-reform candidates.

On the other side, Scott Gilpin, a parent active in a community group called Our Denver, Our Schools that opposes the district’s portfolio strategy, said the election didn’t turn out as he’d hoped. Just one of the candidates the group endorsed, Olson, prevailed.

An independent expenditure committee affiliated with Our Denver, Our Schools spent money, too, to elect its candidates, though its war chest was nowhere near the size of those of pro-reform groups, a factor Gilpin said “makes a huge difference.”

“We were hoping to win four seats; we won one seat,” he said. “I don’t consider that a victory.”

Olson, who has been a DPS teacher for 33 years and currently works at West Leadership Academy, faces a significant hurdle to joining the board. A district policy adopted in 1987 prohibits employees, including teachers, from serving because it would present a conflict of interest.

Olson said that “the first thing I’d like to do is speak with my six new colleagues about revisiting this 30-year-old policy and seeing if we can revise that, because I think the people have spoken very clearly that they want educators on the school board.”

The new board members are scheduled to be sworn in Nov. 27, and the board has two meetings scheduled before then. But board president Rowe said Wednesday the board is not scheduled to discuss the policy at those meetings.

“There is a precedent that employees of the district do not serve on a board of education,” Rowe said. “There are really sound reasons why that makes sense.”

The election attracted a degree of national attention given that Denver is known nationally for its reform strategies. Even though the board majority held, the outcome should be a lesson to supporters of school choice and charter schools that teachers unions and other opponents can effectively mobilize in a low-turnout election, said consultant and author David Osborne, who wrote admiringly of DPS’s strategies in a new book about reforming education systems.

“It just underlines what I think we all know, which is you have to keep your eye on the political ball and you have to win the political battle over and over and over,” said Osborne, director of the Washington-based Progressive Policy Institute’s Reinventing America’s Schools Project.

Echoing others, Osborne said he thinks the Trump presidency may make it more difficult for pro-reform candidates to prevail. “It may turn many Democrats away from charter schools because Trump supports them,” he said. “I do worry about that and it could be happening.”

Observers said it’s difficult to gauge the effectiveness of efforts to tie local pro-reform candidates to Trump and DeVos, who is unpopular in Denver. Union-backed political committees sent mailers depicting Cobián and incumbent Rachele Espiritu as Trump allies, a claim they vehemently rejected. Cobián won her race to represent southwest Denver, while Espiritu, an appointee running for re-election in northeast Denver, lost hers.

In the three-person race to represent the city at-large, the campaign of candidate Robert Speth sent a mailer comparing incumbent Barbara O’Brien to DeVos.

O’Brien benefited from having more than one opposition candidate challenging her: She won 40.5 percent of the vote, while Speth garnered about 35 percent and former teacher Julie Bañuelos won 23 percent. Bañuelos earned a significant share of the vote considering she ran a shoestrings campaign with no support from outside groups, including those funded by teachers unions.

The only race that didn’t feature such a mailer — or much drama at all — was the contest between Olson and incumbent Mike Johnson to represent central-east Denver. That race was the closest in early returns, but Olson’s lead kept growing as more ballots were counted and she ended up defeating Johnson 54 percent to 46 percent.

The Johnson-Olson race also attracted the least amount of money from independent political committees attempting to sway voters, according to campaign finance reports that tracked spending through Election Day, and less attention from organizations that marshal volunteers to knock on doors.

Students for Education Reform Action Network, which deploys high school and college students to canvass, sat out that race entirely. Though Johnson supports reform, the organization did not endorse any candidate in central-east Denver, a wealthier and less diverse part of the city. A spokeswoman explained it prioritizes “working with communities that reflect the backgrounds and experiences of our members, which are typically low-income and students of color.”

The Denver and statewide teachers unions weren’t very active in the race, either. Though the union endorsed Olson, it concentrated the bulk of its efforts on helping elect two other candidates: Xóchitl “Sochi” Gaytán, who lost to Cobián in southwest Denver, and Bacon, who defeated Espiritu and another challenger, Tay Anderson, in northeast Denver.

The region represented by the northeast Denver seat is large and includes neighborhoods with a wide range of income levels and racial diversity, including historically African-American neighborhoods and new developments that have attracted a lot of white families.

A map produced by the Denver Elections Division before the final unofficial results were posted showed Bacon won precincts in the far northeast neighborhoods of Green Valley Ranch and Montbello, where she lives, and in closer-in northeast neighborhoods including Northeast Park Hill. Espiritu won in precincts in the Stapleton neighborhood, where she lives.

Who's In Charge

Who’s in charge of rethinking Manual High School’s ‘offensive’ mascot?

PHOTO: Scott Elliott/Chalkbeat
Manual High School is one of three Indianapolis schools managed by Charter Schools USA.

As other schools in Indiana and across the nation have renounced controversial team names and mascots in recent years, Emmerich Manual High School in Indianapolis has held onto the Redskins.

One of the reasons why the school hasn’t given it up, officials said during a state board of education meeting this week, is because it’s unclear whose responsibility it would be to change the disparaging name.

Is it the obligation of the district, Indianapolis Public Schools, which owns the building and granted the nickname more than 100 years ago?

Is it the duty of the charter operator, Charter Schools USA, which currently runs the school?

Or is it the responsibility of the state, which took Manual out of the district’s hands in 2011, assuming control after years of failing grades?

“I don’t care who’s responsible for it,” said Indiana State Board of Education member Gordon Hendry, as he acknowledged the uncertainty. “I think it’s high time that that mascot be retired.”

The mascot debate resurfaced Wednesday as state officials considered the future of Manual and Howe high schools, which are approaching the end of their state takeover. Charter School USA’s contracts to run the schools, in addition to Emma Donnan Middle School, are slated to expire in 2020, so the schools could return to IPS, become charter schools, or close.

Manual is only one of two Indiana schools still holding onto the Redskins name, a slur against Native Americans. In recent years, Goshen High School and North Side High School in Fort Wayne have changed their mascots in painful processes in which some people pushed back against getting rid of a name that they felt was integral to the identity of their communities.

Knox Community High School in northern Indiana also still bears the Redskins name and logo.

“The term Redskins can be absolutely offensive,” said Jon Hage, president and CEO of Charter Schools USA. “We’ve had no power or authority to do anything about that.”

He suggested that the state board needs to start the process, and that the community should have input on the decision.

An Indianapolis Public Schools official told Chalkbeat the district didn’t have clear answers yet on its role in addressing the issue.

Even if the state board initiates conversations, however, member Steve Yager emphasized that he does not want the state to make the decision on the mascot.

“We don’t have to weigh in on that,” Yager said. “I feel like that’s a local decision.”

reaction

Tennesseans reflect on Candice McQueen’s legacy leading the state’s schools

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Education Commissioner Candice McQueen speaks with Arlington High School students during a school visit Tuesday that kicked off a statewide tour focused on student voices.

As Candice McQueen prepares to leave her role as Tennessee education commissioner in January, education leaders, advocates, and parents are weighing in on her impact on the state’s schools.

McQueen 44, will become the CEO of National Institute for Excellence in Teaching in mid-January after about four years under the outgoing Gov. Bill Haslam administration.

Her tenure has been highlighted by overhauling the state’s requirements for student learning, increasing transparency about how Tennessee students are doing, and launching a major initiative to improve reading skills in a state that struggles with literacy. But much of the good work has been overshadowed by repeated technical failures in Tennessee’s switch to a computerized standardized test — even forcing McQueen to cancel testing for most students in her second year at the helm. The assessment program continued to struggle this spring, marred by days of technical glitches.

Here are reactions from education leaders and thinkers across the state:

Gini Pupo-Walker, senior director of education policy and programs at Conexión Américas:

“It was her commitment to transparency, equity, and strong accountability that helped create a nationally recognized framework that places students at its center. Commissioner McQueen’s commitment to inclusion and engagement meant that our partners across the state had the opportunity to weigh in, share their experiences, and to ask hard questions and conduct real conversations with policymakers. Tennessee continues to lead the nation in innovation and improvement in K-12 education, and that is due in no small part to Commissioner McQueen’s leadership.”

Shawn Joseph, superintendent of Metro Nashville Public Schools, who in August co-penned a letter declaring “no confidence” in state testing:

“Since joining MNPS just over two years ago, I’ve had the pleasure of working closely with Commissioner McQueen and her team. She has been a strong advocate for Tennessee’s children, and I especially want to thank her for her support of the work that is taking place in Nashville. We send her our very best wishes — and our hearty congratulations for accepting her new role.”

JC Bowman, executive director of Professional Educators of Tennessee:

“Commissioner Candice McQueen is one of the most visible members of the Haslam Administration. She took over the department during a dark period in public education, and she made a significant difference within the department, particularly in the infrastructure. Those changes are not readily noticeable, as they include systems, processes and human capital. There are some exceptional people within the Department of Education working to make public education a success in our state. It is unfortunate that online testing continues to be a point of contention, but the state is moving in a positive direction. The next Commissioner of Education and the 111th Tennessee General Assembly will need to make adjustments in student assessment as we move forward.   We will always be grateful to Commissioner McQueen for her unwavering support of increasing teacher salaries and commitment to student literacy.”

Sharon Griffin, leader of the state-run Achievement School District:

“I have truly appreciated Dr. McQueen’s leadership and vision for the Department of Education.  From a distance and even closer in recent months, I have clearly seen the integrity and passion she brings to the work of improving student outcomes.  We have absolutely connected around our shared belief in how what’s in the best interest of students should guide our work.”

Jamie Woodson, CEO of SCORE:

“Tennessee students have been served very well by the steady and strong leadership of Commissioner McQueen. Her priorities have been the right ones for our children: improving student achievement, with a specific focus on reading skills; advocating for great teaching and supporting teachers to deliver high-quality instruction; and emphasizing that students and schools with the greatest needs must receive targeted focus and support in order to improve.”

Sarah Carpenter, executive director of parent advocacy group Memphis Lift:

“Memphis parents want decision makers to be accessible, and we appreciate that Commissioner McQueen made a point to build relationships and hear concerns from the entire community. Hopefully, the next education commissioner will bring parents to the table for conversations about our kids’ education.”

Mendell Grinter, leader of Memphis student advocacy group Campaign for School Equity:

“In our collaborative work and position in the educational landscape, we have witnessed firsthand how Commissioner McQueen has served as a tireless advocate for students and families in Tennessee. Over the past two years her leadership has inspired school leaders, and teachers alike to recognize the sense of urgency for improving school equity and academic outcomes for more students.”

Andy Spears, author of Tennessee Education Report and vocal critic of state test, TNReady:

“After what can charitably be called a rocky tenure at the helm of the Tennessee Department of Education, Candice McQueen has miraculously landed another high-level job. This time, she’ll take over as CEO of the National Institute for Excellence in Teaching, an organization apparently not at all concerned about the track record of new hires or accountability.”

Beth Brown, president of Tennessee Education Association:

“As candidates for the state’s next commissioner of education are considered, it is my hope that serious consideration is given to an individual’s experience in our own Tennessee public schools… Students and educators are struggling with two major issues that must be tackled by the next commissioner: high-stakes standardized tests and a lack of proper funding for all schools. Our schools need a leader who understands that the current test-and-punish system is not helping our students succeed. Governor Bill Haslam has made significant increases in state funding for public education, but there is still much work to be done to ensure every child has the resources needed for a well-rounded public education.”