Education Attack

Fact checking the Colorado governor’s race: The truth behind 5 claims dividing Democratic contenders

The Democratic candidates for governor of Colorado have been sniping at each other over education policy. (Courtesy Colorado Public Television)

With less than a month to go before the primary, the Democratic candidates for governor of Colorado are sparring not over the future of education policy but over the past.

Two main issues are at play in the negative ads, contentious debate exchanges, and accusatory mailers that have made their way into mailboxes across Colorado: the state’s teacher effectiveness law, authored by one of the candidates and slammed by those supporting another, and the meaning of an op-ed yet another candidate penned some 15 years ago.

The Democrats vying for the nomination are former state Sen. Mike Johnston, former state Treasurer Cary Kennedy, Colorado Lt. Governor Donna Lynne, and U.S. Rep. Jared Polis.

Teachers for Kennedy, a union-backed independent political group, launched the first negative TV ad targeting Johnston and Polis and followed it up with mailers critical of Polis. In two televised debates, Johnston and Polis decried the ad and accused Kennedy of once supporting the very policies for which her supporters are going after them. There are now two ads in circulation targeting Kennedy, one from Polis’s campaign and another from the independent expenditure committee supporting him; both ads accuse Kennedy of violating the candidates’ pledge to avoid negative campaigning. Only Lynne — whose track record includes helping to found Colorado Succeeds, a business-oriented education reform group — has yet to be targeted in ads and mailers.

As Chalkbeat looked into the claims at issue in a race where policy differences between Democratic candidates are relatively small, we repeatedly found ourselves asking people to recall the tenor and tone of conversations dating back six, 10, even 15 years.

Back then, the state’s education policy landscape looked a whole lot different. Certain reform policies once considered within the mainstream on the Democratic side are now widely associated with the Republican Party, and particularly with U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos. That’s one reason the campaigns are reaching into the past.

Colorado’s primary is June 26. Here are the claims and counterclaims you’re likely to hear between now and then.

At Issue: The Teacher Effectiveness Law

CLAIM: A television ad from Teachers for Kennedy describes Johnston as pushing a “conservative anti-teacher bill.” In a debate, Kennedy said that bill “introduced high stakes testing” in Colorado.

FACT CHECK: Johnston wrote Colorado’s teacher effectiveness law, which ties teacher evaluations to student performance on standardized tests, and strips tenure protections from teachers who repeatedly earn low ratings. This bill was passed by a Democratic-controlled legislature and signed by a Democratic governor. Many states adopted similar legislation in response to urging from Democratic President Barack Obama.

Standardized tests that are used to judge the performance of schools existed in Colorado well before the teacher effectiveness law. Without changing that law, Colorado has already reduced the amount of time students spend taking standardized tests.

CLAIM: Johnston said in a Colorado Public Television debate that Kennedy authored a 2012 report praising that very legislation, Senate Bill 10-191.

FACT CHECK: Kennedy was the co-chair of the Colorado School Finance Partnership, a 2012 initiative of the Colorado Children’s Campaign. One premise of the partnership’s recommendations was that increased funding should be tied to measurable improvements in the education offered to Colorado children.

The final report described the teacher effectiveness law as part of “a system that provides the necessary accountability and data tools to drive student achievement and provide meaningful targets for improvement.” One recommendation called for full funding of the teacher evaluation system, set forth in the law, along with money for training to help teachers improve performance.

Kennedy said that not every member of the group agreed with the report in its entirety. However, the report itself describes a “full-consensus model” in which all parties had to agree to every recommendation.

Other committee members recalled exhaustive conversations about the proposals in the report, but said at times there was agreement on abstract principles, but not on every last detail.

One member, Tim Taylor, then with Colorado Succeeds, a business-oriented bipartisan education reform group, recalled that the teacher effectiveness law was treated as a settled matter. “There was this feeling that we were all together and moving in the right direction,” he said. “I don’t remember anyone having a major problem with anything.”

The representative from the Colorado Education Association, which opposed the law, also signed off on the final report.

Kennedy’s campaign did not provide evidence that she publicly opposed the teacher effectiveness law when it was being debated at the legislature, nor has Johnston offered more concrete evidence that she actively supported it. Kennedy was state treasurer at the time, and a campaign spokeswoman said she didn’t often weigh in on issues outside of that role.

WHY ARE WE TALKING ABOUT THIS? The teacher effectiveness law is one of the few clear areas of policy difference between Kennedy and Johnston. Many teachers dislike this law and feel it doesn’t reflect the full scope of what they do in the classroom. Kennedy, who has the endorsement of the teachers unions, has pledged to revisit the law if elected governor. Linking the law to a culture of testing, as Kennedy does, expands the message beyond teachers and intra-party disputes. Colorado was a national center of the so-called “opt-out” movement, in which parents excused their children from taking state assessments; that movement included people from across the political spectrum.

At Issue: Support for Vouchers

CLAIM: Polis supports voucher programs that would allow public money to be used to pay private school tuition. This claim has been made in television ads, mailers (here and here), and Kennedy campaign press releases.

FACT CHECK: In Congress, Polis has consistently voted against voucher programs. Polis was on the State Board of Education in 2003, when Colorado’s legislature was debating a voucher proposal that had divided Democrats. Press accounts at the time describe Polis as supporting the measure. In an op-ed, he defended the “modest voucher proposal” and the Democrats who supported it, including then-state Attorney General Ken Salazar. Polis now describes the op-ed as written primarily to stop the “vilification” of Salazar, who has endorsed Kennedy in the governor’s race.

“Salazar is right – this experiment deserves a fair test, an honest chance,” Polis wrote at the time. “If it succeeds, it will benefit the lives of children and families. If it fails, at least we can bring closure to a toxic debate that has divided us for too long.”

That voucher bill passed but was overturned by the Colorado Supreme Court on grounds that it violated local control because it took money away from school districts. A school district-initiated voucher program in Douglas County later became the subject of years-long litigation, before a new, union-backed school board voted to end it.

The mailers use a “four years ago” time reference from a 2007 Denver Post article to make Polis’s op-ed appear much more recent than it is.

CLAIM: Kennedy worked for an organization that lobbied for vouchers. Polis has said this in two televised debates.

FACT CHECK: Kennedy went to work for the Colorado Children’s Campaign in April 2003, shortly after the voucher bill passed the legislature. The Children’s Campaign’s decision to back the voucher bill — provided it was targeted at students from low-income families in poor-performing schools — was controversial within the organization.

Barbara O’Brien, who headed up the organization at the time (and now serves on the Denver Public Schools board), said Kennedy’s focus was on school finance. As the vouchers bill made its way to governor’s desk and subsequently wended its way through the courts, the issue came up during senior team meetings in which Kennedy took part, O’Brien said, and she cannot recall Kennedy ever expressing opposition on the matter.

“She didn’t work on it, but she knew what our priorities were,” O’Brien said.

Kennedy’s campaign reiterated that Kennedy has always opposed vouchers. The campaign also objected to using anecdotal evidence of non-opposition to vouchers in the context of her involvement of the Colorado Children’s Campaign.

WHY ARE WE TALKING ABOUT THIS? Vouchers are unpopular with Democratic voters, particularly primary voters, and especially now, when vouchers are closely linked with an unpopular Republican president and his education secretary. In the beginning of the primary season, Polis was seen as the presumptive front-runner, in large part due to his ability to self-fund his campaign, so Kennedy and her supporters have had reason to focus on him.

Asked directly about whether they would support district-level vouchers during a 9 News debate, Polis and Lynne said that would be a matter of local control over which the governor has limited authority. Polis said he would ensure that no public money went to religious schools. Johnston and Kennedy both said explicitly that they oppose vouchers at any level of government.

The voucher discussion starts around 15:25.

At Issue: Ads from Independent Groups

CLAIM: It would be illegal for Cary Kennedy to call on Teachers for Kennedy, an independent political group, to stop running ads that attack the records of Johnston and Polis. In the 9 News debate, Johnston said Kennedy should tell the group to stop running negative ads and reject the group’s endorsement if they don’t comply. Kennedy responded that doing so would be a violation of campaign finance law and amount to “silencing teachers.”

FACT CHECK: Colorado law prohibits coordination between candidates or political parties and what are known as independent expenditure committees, the state equivalent of PACs. Examples of coordination would be a candidate telling an independent political group what to say or how to spend money, or using the same political consultant without some sort of firewall.

However, expressing an opinion wouldn’t constitute coordination.

“Clearly coordination is illegal,” Lynn Bartels, a spokeswoman for the Colorado Secretary of State’s Office, told Chalkbeat in an email, “but our election officials tell me there is nothing illegal after an ad has appeared about offering an opinion.”

In the debates, Kennedy said she doesn’t like negative campaigning or “sensationalizing” issues, but has refused to renounce the ad, saying it conveys educators’ perspectives to voters.

It’s worth noting that the ads do not make mention of Lynne. This may reflect Teachers for Kennedy’s view that the current lieutenant governor doesn’t pose much of a threat to their preferred candidate. Lynne, who was a healthcare executive before being tapped to be current Gov. John Hickenlooper’s No. 2, doesn’t have a large political base of her own and has struggled to raise money in a race with record spending. For her part, Lynne has called herself “the adult in the room,” and said voters aren’t interested in this “bickering.”

WHY ARE WE TALKING ABOUT THIS? Johnston and Polis say that Kennedy’s willingness to reap the benefits of negative ads while insisting she’s adhering to the Clean Campaign Pledge represents a failure of leadership. Johnston based a fundraising email off the attack, and Polis now has his own ad featuring teachers criticizing Kennedy for going negative; Kennedy’s campaign has characterized Polis’ ad as negative in its own right.

This week, Polis sent a letter to the state Democratic Party, saying that if Kennedy doesn’t adhere to the Clean Campaign Pledge against negative campaigning, he wouldn’t either.

Expect three more weeks of this.

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.