All in a Name

Colorado Democrats overwhelmingly reject Democrats for Education Reform at state assembly

More than 3,400 delegates gathered in the First Bank Center in Broomfield Saturday for the Democratic state assembly. (Erica Meltzer/Chalkbeat)

Delegates at the Colorado Democratic state assembly Saturday sent a clear message to the state chapter of Democrats for Education Reform: You don’t have a place in our party.

After booing down the head of the education reform organization, who described herself as a lifelong Democrat, delegates voted overwhelmingly Saturday to call for the organization to no longer use “Democrats” in its name. While it’s unclear how that would be enforced, the vote means a rejection of DFER is now part of the Colorado Democratic Party platform.

The one-sided platform fight revealed a growing divide among party activists and establishment politicians on education policy that could have implications for the governor’s race. Cary Kennedy, a former state treasurer who has the backing of the teachers unions, got 62 percent of the vote at the assembly, easily securing a place on the ballot alongside U.S. Rep. Jared Polis, who got 33 percent of the vote.

The advisory committee of the Colorado chapter of Democrats for Education Reform reads like a “who’s who” of prominent party members and includes former speaker of the state House Mark Ferrandino, who now works for Denver Public Schools, and former state Sen. Mike Johnston, a Democratic gubernatorial candidate and the author of several key education reform bills in Colorado.

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Johnston was not at the state assembly Saturday because he used signed petitions to secure his place on the primary ballot. Candidates in Colorado can get on the ballot either by collecting signatures or by going through the caucus and assembly process. A spokeswoman said Johnston was busy campaigning and did not have a comment on the platform vote.

The platform amendment reads: “We oppose making Colorado’s public schools private or run by private corporations or becoming segregated again through lobbying and campaigning efforts of the organization called Democrats for Education Reform and demand that they immediately stop using the party’s name Democrat in their name.”

DFER Colorado State Director Jennifer Walmer was clearly emotional as she defended her organizational and personal commitment to the Democratic Party. She was booed throughout her remarks and stopped speaking at one point to ask to be allowed to continue.

“My father used to have precinct caucuses in my home,” she said. “I’ve canvassed for Democrats my entire life. I have only ever supported Democrats. My board, which is a board of elected Democrats, we are simply focused on the idea that every child deserves access to a high-quality education. We are adamantly opposed to the Trump and DeVos privatization.”

Vanessa Quintana, a political activist who was the formal sponsor of the minority report, was a student at Denver’s Manual High School when it was closed in 2006, a decision that Democratic U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet, then Denver’s superintendent, defended at an education panel Friday.

She said that before she finally graduated from high school, she had been through two school closures and a major school restructuring and dropped out of school twice. Three of her siblings never graduated, and she blames the instability of repeated school changes.

“When DFER claims they empower and uplift the voices of communities, DFER really means they silence the voices of displaced students like myself by uprooting community through school closure,” she told the delegates. “When Manual shut down my freshman year, it told me education reformers didn’t find me worthy of a school.”

Just two people spoke up for Democrats for Education Reform. A charter school teacher, who was also booed, said she found the conversation “confusing” and that the educators she works with care deeply about equity. Charter schools in Colorado are authorized by either local districts or the state and receive public money, though they’re run by their own boards.

Another speaker declined to defend education reform itself but said that this shouldn’t be a litmus test issue for Democrats. Identifying himself as a gay man, he compared shunning education reformers to the Republican Party shunning gay members of their party.

After the vote, Walmer said she was concerned about the state of the party and its ability to unite against common opponents, but also that she doesn’t think the vote on the floor of the assembly represents regular party members. More than 3,400 delegates gathered in the First Bank Center in Broomfield Saturday for the state assembly, but only a portion of those were left for the platform debate, which occurred after delegates voted on statewide offices like governor, treasurer, and attorney general.

“I don’t think I have ever had a darker day as a Democrat because that is not my party,” she said. “They booed a gay man. They booed a teacher because they don’t teach in the right kind of school. … I work with people who have dedicated their lives to inclusion and equity and pushing back on the hateful rhetoric of (President Donald) Trump and (Education Secretary Betsy) DeVos, and I just saw that same hateful rhetoric in my own party. It was a horrible display of unity.”

In an interview, Quintana said she sees education reform policies as promoting inequality, and she wants to change a status quo in which reformers are well represented in the party establishment. She feels especially strongly about ending school closure and sees school choice as a way to avoid improving every school.

“Families wouldn’t need a choice if every neighborhood had a quality school,” she said. “There should be no need to choice into a new neighborhood.”

She believes the reform agenda is not compatible with the education platform of the party, which reads, in part, “our state public education laws and policies should provide every student with an equal opportunity to reach their potential.”

This is not the first time Trump and DeVos have been deployed in intra-party fights over education policy in Colorado. In the most recent Denver Public Schools board race, their faces appeared on a campaign mailer attacking Angela Cobián, the daughter of Mexican immigrants who supports the general direction of the district’s reform policies. Cobián prevailed over her union-backed opponent.

Back in November, a group of party members that included state Sens. Mike Merrifield of Colorado Springs and Daniel Kagan of Cherry Hills Village and state Rep. Joe Salazar, a Thornton Democrat running for attorney general, as well as activists generally associated with the union side of education debates, sent a letter to party chairwoman Morgan Carroll asking that she send a cease and desist letter to Democrats for Education Reform.

The organization responded with its own letter that lays out its legal case for using the name. They’re not using the official party name, and its members are, in fact, Democrats. Walmer said the education policies that DFER supports are the same ones supported by former President Barack Obama.

No action has been taken on this matter so far, and a spokesman for the party wasn’t able to say Saturday what the impact of the platform vote would be. Walmer said she wasn’t worried about being any legal implications “because there are none.”

The change to the party platform passed out of the Denver County assembly last month, but was not initially included in the state platform. Instead it was presented as a minority report at the assembly. DFER sent a letter to delegates asking them not to support it, but did not prevail.

Van Schoales, a DFER board member and CEO of A Plus Colorado, an education reform advocacy group, called it a “symbolic attack,” but he believes support for policies like school choice and charter schools remains strong among Democratic elected officials.

“I don’t think there is as much of a division as people make it out to be,” he said.

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Mended Fences

Despite earlier attack ads, Colorado teachers union endorses Jared Polis for governor

Congressman Jared Polis meets with teachers, parents and students at the Academy of Urban Learning in Denver after announcing his gubernatorial campaign. (Photo by Nic Garcia/Chalkbeat)

Colorado’s largest teachers union has endorsed Jared Polis, the Democratic candidate for governor.

The endorsement is not a surprise given that teachers unions have traditionally been associated with the Democratic Party. However, the 35,000-member Colorado Education Association had previously endorsed one of Polis’ rivals during the primary, former state Treasurer Cary Kennedy, and contributed money toward negative ads that portrayed Polis as a supporter of vouchers based on a 2003 op-ed, in spite of votes in Congress against voucher programs.

With the primary in the past, CEA President Amie Baca-Oehlert focused on Polis’ support for more school funding, a priority shared by the union.

“Our members share Jared’s concern that too many communities don’t have the resources they need for every child to succeed,” Baca-Oehlert said in the press release announcing the endorsement. “We have created ‘haves and have-nots’ among our children, and nowhere is that more apparent than with our youngest students who don’t receive the same level of quality early childhood education. Jared impressed us with his strong commitment to give all kids a great start and better prepare them for a successful lifetime of learning.”

Polis has made expanding access to preschool and funding full-day kindergarten a key part of his education platform, along with raising pay for teachers.

Polis is running against Republican Walker Stapleton. As state treasurer, Stapleton advocated for changes to the public employee retirement system, including freezes on benefits and cost-of-living raises, that were opposed by the teachers union, something Baca-Oehlert made note of in the endorsement of Polis.

Read more about the two candidates’ education positions here.

 

On the ballot

Colorado voters will decide on $1.6 billion tax increase for education

Denver Post file photo

A $1.6 billion initiative to benefit Colorado schools, paid for by higher taxes on corporations and wealthier individuals, will appear on the ballot this November.

The Colorado Secretary of State’s Office said on Thursday that supporters of the measure had more than met the signature requirements.

Supporters of the effort, dubbed Great Schools, Thriving Communities, turned in 179,390 signatures last month, of which 130,022 were deemed valid. They needed just 98,492 valid signatures to get on the ballot. Under more stringent requirements adopted by voters in 2016, those signatures also needed to represent 2 percent of the registered voters in every state Senate district.

Initiative 93 represents the third attempt in seven years to raise money for education. Colorado’s Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights requires that voters approve any tax increase, and voters have twice before rejected statewide school funding measures by wide margins, most recently in 2013. To pass, Initiative 93 would need approval from 55 percent of voters.

The measure could share the ballot with a major tax increase for transportation, as well as a measure that would require the state to spend more on roads without raising taxes.

In addition to raising taxes for schools, Initiative 93 would fully fund all-day kindergarten and increase funding for preschool and for students with particular needs, such as those learning English and those who have disabilities. School districts would have broad discretion, though, about how to spend the new revenue.

Conservative critics of the measure say that’s one problem with it. In their view, it amounts to putting a lot more money into a system that has not significantly improved student achievement, without clear mechanisms to change that.

“The research is clear that simply adding more money to the same system will not lead to increased student achievement,” the conservative education reform advocacy group Ready Colorado said in an email to members. “Funding increases should be tied to policies that will improve educational outcomes.”

The group also criticized the measure for introducing a tiered tax system to replace Colorado’s flat income tax. That’s one key difference between this attempt and Amendment 66 in 2013. The last effort would have raised taxes on everyone, while this tax increase would affect those earning more than $150,000.

In contrast, the Colorado Children’s Campaign quickly issued a statement in support of the measure, calling it a “once-in-a-generation opportunity to create an education financing system that is more adequate, modern, equitable, and sustainable. This is the first step in removing structural barriers to opportunity and ensuring every chance for every child to succeed.”

Colorado ranks 28th among states in per-pupil spending, when all state, local, and federal dollars are combined, according to the most recent ranking from the National Education Association. However, school funding varies considerably around the state, and half of Colorado school districts, most of them in rural areas, operate on a four-day week because they can’t afford to be open five days.

Since the Great Recession, state lawmakers have held back $7.5 billion in money that would have otherwise gone to schools under a formula in the state constitution. The 2018-19 state budget included a 6.95 percent increase for K-12 education, but those who want to see more money for schools say it doesn’t begin to address years of underfunding.

Earlier this summer, Denver-based pollster Floyd Ciruli told Chalkbeat that statewide tax increases remain a tough sell in Colorado, but the prominence of education in the contentious Democratic primary for governor may have “primed” the electorate on this issue.

Some school districts are already talking about how they’ll spend the money. Denver Public Schools, which is currently engaged in negotiations with its teachers union, announced Thursday that it would put $36 million toward teacher pay if the tax increase passes, including raising starting pay and offering larger incentives to teachers who work in more challenging schools. The 2,300-student Sterling district on Colorado’s Eastern Plains also met recently with its teachers to discuss how to spend an estimated $3.7 million that district would get from the tax increase.

This isn’t just wishful thinking: It’s also part of marketing the tax increase to the public.

The tax measure calls for:

  • Raising the corporate income tax rate from 4.63 percent to 6 percent.
  • Raising the personal income tax rate from a flat 4.63 percent to between 5 percent and 8.25 percent for people earning more than $150,000. The highest tax rate would be paid by people earning $500,000 or more.
  • Setting the residential property assessment rate at 7 percent of market value for schools. That’s lower than it is now but higher than it is predicted to be in 2019 because current law has the unintended effect of gradually reducing the residential assessment rate.
  • Setting the non-residential property assessment rate at 24 percent of market value, less than the current 29 percent.

According to an initial fiscal analysis by the state, the average taxpayer earning more than $150,000 would pay an additional $519 a year, while those earning less would be unaffected. The average corporate taxpayer would pay an additional $11,085 a year. The change in property taxes would vary considerably around the state, but based on the average statewide school levy, many property owners would pay $28 more on each $100,000 of market value in 2019 than they otherwise would. Commercial property owners will see a decrease.