Capitol Report: Colorado Democrats put out the unwelcome mat for education reform at their state assembly

Good evening, and welcome to the post-state assembly edition of Capitol Report.

It’s been an emotional week in education news and one that brought together many of the crosscurrents and tensions in the work to make sure every child gets a good education. As you might have heard by now, the delegates at the Democratic state assembly voted to reject Democrats for Education Reform by calling on them to stop using “Democrats” in their name. This move is largely symbolic, but the vote revealed a growing divide between party activists and establishment politicians on education policy.

One of the speakers against Democrats for Education Reform was Vanessa Quintana, a political activist whose high school career was shaped by the closure of Manual High School. She sees education reform policies that lead to school closure as ripping apart communities. Just one day before, U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet, then the superintendent of Denver Public Schools, defended the decision to close Manual at an event hosted by the Denver-based Gates Family Foundation. (The foundation is a financial supporter of Chalkbeat; you can see our list of funders here.) The school wasn’t educating kids, he said, and things needed to change.

A few days before that, the House Education Committee heard emotional testimony from parents who don’t think their local schools are serving their kids. Committee members were discussing a bill to make updates to the state’s school accountability system – it passed unanimously out of committee and is set for third reading in the House on Monday – and the parents were there to support provisions that require more communication about low performance and the routes that schools might pursue as they try turn things around for students. They talked about the long distances they drive to keep their children in good schools and the fear they have that their children won’t be able to reach their potential.

Some committee members asked why the state hasn’t been harder on the leaders of struggling schools and districts and when it might be time to just close low-performing schools. Alyssa Pearson, who heads up school accountability work at the Colorado Department of Education, reminded committee members that school closure is a drastic step and that in some communities, the next nearest school might be an hour away.

I didn’t come out of this week with any better answers, but it reinforced just how high the stakes are.

Meanwhile, there’s not a lot of evidence in the short-term that elected Democrats in Colorado are going to try to put school choice back in the box, but conservatives did seize on the assembly vote to ask that question.

And some community advocates asked how this intra-party fight helps students.

Coming up this week, the House Education Committee takes up the school finance bill, and the House Finance Committee takes up changes to the public employee retirement system. Hundreds of teachers are expected to descend on the Capitol Monday for a day of action in support of more school funding and protecting retirement benefits. And later in the week, House Education will revisit a bill that would change the formula Colorado uses to distribute money to school districts.

Read on.

– Erica Meltzer, bureau chief

Top Stories

Colorado Democrats overwhelmingly reject Democrats for Education Reform at state assembly

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. Chalkbeat

Bennet and Boasberg: Denver schools needed big changes, and the work isn’t nearly done

The two men responsible for guiding Denver schools through dramatic changes over the last 13 years shared the same stage Friday and said their decisions to close two neighborhood high schools were necessary steps to give kids better opportunities. Chalkbeat

A day of action by Colorado teachers will bring hundreds to the Capitol and already one district has canceled classes

In the midst of a wave of teacher activism across the country, educators in Colorado are joining the fray by putting more pressure on lawmakers, calling attention to school funding shortfalls — and in one case forcing a school district to cancel classes by walking off the job.

“The fact that these very conservative states have really been able to take this message to their state legislatures has been very empowering to our members,” said Kerrie Dallman, head of the Colorado Education Association. Chalkbeat

$35 million for school safety will go toward training, but not hiring, of school resource officers

The Joint Budget Committee on Wednesday voted unanimously to include $35 million for school safety programs in Colorado’s 2018-19 budget. In doing so, they laid out guidelines for how the money can be used that alleviate one of the major concerns of opponents. Chalkbeat

10 questions about school resource officers in Colorado, answered

As we wrote about the school safety debate in the legislature, we realized we had some questions. Like, what exactly is a school resource officer? Are they any different from regular police officers? To whom are they accountable? And why are they controversial?

To answer some of these questions, we talked to Stacey Collis, president of the Colorado Association of School Resource Officers, and Corrine Rivera-Fowler, director of policy and civic engagement for Padres & Jóvenes Unidos. Here’s what we learned. Chalkbeat

This bill could help Colorado foster youth keep their school – and graduate – even when home changes

When she was a little girl, Gloria Mendez would dream of walking across a stage in a cap and gown to receive her high school diploma. But when she went into foster care at the age of 15, already a mother herself, that dream got further and further out of reach.

Mendez is hardly alone: Youth in foster care in Colorado graduate from high school at a rate that’s abysmal — and falling, unlike the graduation rates of students from other vulnerable groups. A bill that passed a key committee this week aims to help students in foster care graduate on time by allowing more of them to stay in their home school and by providing flexibility around graduation requirements, regardless of where they’re enrolled. Chalkbeat

Bill that would change Colorado’s school accountability system clears first legislative hurdle

The House Education Committee unanimously approved a bill that would raise the bar for low-performing Colorado schools and districts to avoid state intervention, allow state officials to step in with help earlier, and give greater voice to parents. The legislation also would clearly spell out what happens when schools and districts already under state-approved improvement plans don’t improve enough — something lacking in Colorado’s current school accountability system, in place since 2009. Chalkbeat

Tales from inside Colorado’s teacher shortage: housing for horses and recruiters without interviews

The job fair was going well for Stephanie Polutchko and the phrase on her white name tag explained why: “high school science.”

By lunchtime, one recruiter from a tiny school district on the sparsely populated Eastern Plains had dangled a tantalizing offer before Polutchko. She could run the entire secondary science department, have classes as small as eight students, and coach the high school rodeo team. Plus, they’d give her a place to board her horse. Chalkbeat

Boasberg explains his decision to bring back Antwan Wilson: ‘He has so much to contribute’

The expertise and integrity Antwan Wilson displayed over a decade working in Denver schools led the district to bring him on as a consultant after he was forced to resign as chancellor of Washington, D.C., schools, Denver school superintendent Tom Boasberg said. Asked about concerns about the hire, Boasberg said: “I hear the concern, I understand the concern, it’s an important and it’s a valid concern … and I’ll just leave it at that.”  Chalkbeat

Large achievement gaps in Denver highlighted by new national test data

Compared to other large, urban school districts, Denver has among the biggest achievement gaps in the country between white and Hispanic students in reading and math. This data comes from the national test known as “the nation’s report card.” This is the first year we’ve had Denver-specific data broken out. Chalkbeat

Colorado students hold steady on national exams, but achievement gaps persist

Most of the state’s achievement gaps between more privileged and less privileged students were slightly bigger than national averages, with some considered significantly larger. They included gaps in math scores between white and Hispanic students, and between students who are English language learners and students who are not. Chalkbeat

What to expect next

Follow education-related bills from start to finish with our 2018 Bill Tracker here.


House, third reading, 10 a.m.

  • HB18-1355 – Public Education Accountability System

House, second reading

  • HB18-1002 – Rural School District Teaching Fellowship Programs
  • HB18-1189 – Expanding Effective Teacher Residency Programs
  • HB18-1209 – No 529 Account Income Tax Deduction For K-12 Kindergarten Through Twelfth Expenses
  • SB18-177 – Private and Private Occupational School Bonds

House Education, HCR 0112, 1:30 p.m.

  • HB18-1379 – Public School Finance
  • HB18-1391 – Sexual Misconduct in Higher Education

House Finance, Room 271, 1:30 p.m.

  • SB18-200 – Modifications To PERA Public Employees’ Retirement Association To Eliminate Unfunded Liability

Senate, second reading, 10 a.m.

  • SB18-012 – Military Enlistment School Performance Indicator
  • SB18-083 – Education Income Tax Credits For Nonpublic School
  • SB18-225 – Definition Of Early College High Schools
  • SB18-085 – Financial Incentives For Education In Rural Areas


Senate Appropriations, SCR 357, 8:35 a.m.

  • HB18-1186 – Sunset Review Colorado Youth Advisory Council
  • HB18-1335 – County Child Care Assistance Program Block Grants
  • SB18-163 – Extend Repeal Early Childhood Legislative Commission

Senate, second reading, 9 a.m.

  • SB18-228 – Improving School Choice in Traditional Schools

House, third reading, 9 a.m.

  • HB18-1341 – Apprenticeship And Vocational Technical Training

House Judiciary, HCR 0112, 1:30 p.m.

  • HB18-1269 – Parent Notice for Student Safety and Protection


House Education, HCR 0112, upon adjournment

  • HB18-1232 – New School Funding Distribution Formula
  • HB18-1226 – Higher Education Review Degree Program Costs and Outcomes

Senate Education, SCR 352, upon adjournment

  • SB18-229 – Colorado Department of Education Student Teacher Criminal History Record Checks
  • HB18-1277 – BEST Building Excellent Schools Today Financial Assistance Grant Application Requirements
  • HB18-1070 – Additional Public School Capital Construction Funding


Senate Education, SCR 352, 1:30 p.m.

  • Presentation on project-based teaching
  • HB18-1252 – Unlawful Sale Of Academic Assignments

Senate Health and Human Services, SCR 354, 1:30 p.m.

  • HB18-1263 – Medical Marijuana Use for Autism and Acute Pain

What else we’re reading

The governor’s race in Colorado, which once prompted clown car jokes on both sides, is getting a little narrower and a little clearer. Republicans and Democrats both held assemblies Saturday. The GOP contest produced the most surprising results, with Attorney General Cynthia Coffman eliminated and former Parker Mayor Greg Lopez securing a spot on the primary ballot alongside frontrunner Walker Stapleton, the current state treasurer. Two other candidates, former state lawmaker Victor Mitchel and businessman Doug Robinson, are petitioning onto the ballot.

U.S. Rep. Jared Polis, once seen as the presumptive frontrunner on the Democratic side because of his ability to self-finance his campaign, made the ballot, but the clear favorite among the delegates was former state Treasurer Cary Kennedy. Two other candidates, former state lawmaker and school leader Mike Johnston and Lt. Gov. Donna Lynne, are petitioning onto the ballot. Denver Post KUNC CPR

Democratic lawmakers and Gov. John Hickenlooper support a “red flag law,” which would allow authorities to take guns away from people who exhibit warning signs of violence. Now they’re trying to secure GOP support for a measure that’s passed in several other states but that might be a tough sell here. Denver Post

U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner says he’s secured a commitment from the Trump administration to leave Colorado’s marijuana industry alone. Denverite

Charice used to live with her husband and their six children in a five-bedroom house with a big backyard. Her husband’s drug addiction eventually cost him his job and his freedom and cost his family their house. Today, Charice lives with their children in a minivan and spends 90 minutes every morning shuttling them to their schools in their old neighborhood. ABC 7

Amendment 71, known as “Raise the Bar,” makes it harder to get constitutional amendments on the ballot and harder to pass them. A federal judge had blocked part of the law, but now an appeals court has reinstated it. It’s looking like this one might bounce around a bit before we know the final outcome. Associated Press

How close is Denver to becoming a 24-hour city — and is that something we want? Denverite’s culture editor Ashley Dean tries to answer this question by talking to Denver natives who left for New York and then moved back. My favorite part of the reaction to this story on social media was longtime Denver residents lamenting one way in which we’re going backwards: King Soopers used to be open 24 hours and isn’t anymore. Denverite

Kentucky teachers stormed their state capitol to demand that lawmakers override the governor’s veto of an education budget that raised taxes and sent more money to schools. A few hours later, lawmakers did just that. Meanwhile, Oklahoma union leaders decided to “face reality” and give up on their walkout because there just isn’t the legislative momentum to meet their demands right now. Ed Week

Tony Lewis of the Donnell-Kay Foundation, which has invested heavily in education change in Colorado, argues that Denver Public Schools isn’t making enough progress on student learning. He says it’s time for a bold new strategy or new leadership. The 74