Future of Schools

Near unanimous support has bills to shield teachers, schools from ISTEP sanctions flying

PHOTO: Scott Elliott

How badly does Indiana want to give its teachers and schools a break for for falling state test scores last year?

This bad: Just two of 145 state legislators voted no on two bills to give schools a reprieve from sanctions that usually accompany the kind of drop in scores the Indiana Department of Education reported last week.

A hasty overhaul of academic standards in 2014 led to a quick overhaul of the state ISTEP tests in English and math for students in grades 3-8 in 2015. It didn’t go well. The statewide rate of students passing both tests dropped by 22 percentage points to 53.5 percent, and all but four of 1,500 public schools saw their scores go down.

That prompted Gov. Mike Pence and fellow Republican leaders in the House and Senate to rush two bills to ease the pain schools would usually expect. Schools with  persistently failing grades can face state takeover and teachers of students who don’t show test score gains from the prior year can be blocked from pay raises.

But not this year, thanks to House Bill 1003 and Senate Bill 200, two bills with the same goal of providing that relief that sailed through their latest tests in the two chambers today. Lawmakers hope to have final bills ready for Pence to sign into law by mid-month.

“It’s a win-win for educators,” said House Education Committee Chairman Bob Behning, R-Indianapolis.

Behning’s bill says that 2015 ISTEP scores could not be used in a teacher’s evaluation for that year unless it would improve a teacher’s rating. The bill also makes sure teachers cannot be blocked from bonuses or salary increases because of the scores or forthcoming A-F school letter grades. It passed the House today 95-1, with Rep. John Bartlett, D-Indianapolis, voting no.

Although Rep. Terry Goodin, D-Austin, voted in favor of the bill, he cautioned lawmakers to really consider the action they were taking and whether it was in the best interest of kids.

“We’ve talked about hold harmless for our schools, we’ve talked about hold harmless for our teachers, but really by passing this bill we are really having a hold harmless of legislators and our governor,” Goodin said. “But I think our focus has been misdirected, I really do. The focus has been wrong … the focus needs to be a hold harmless of our students.”

Gov. Mike Pence was staunchly opposed to an accountability “pause” for teachers or schools but reversed course in an announcement last fall, where he encouraged legislators to spare teachers from lower ISTEP scores.

Then in another statement last week, Pence came out in support of a similar pause for school A-F grades. State Superintendent Glenda Ritz has long supported such a pause, and the passage of these bills marks a rare political victory for her administration.

In Senate Bill 200, which passed the full Senate today 48-1, schools could not receive a letter grade for 2015 that is lower than what they received in 2014. Sen. Scott Schneider, R-Indianapolis, voted no.

The A-F grade pause would only count for 2015. This year, schools will be on a new accountability system that more actively factors in student improvement on tests from year to year.

Sen. Earline Rogers, D-Gary, said the bill lines up with what educators have said they wanted all along — time to acclimate to tougher standards ands tests.

“I know we spend a lot of our time dealing with tests an cooer s and grades, but I think in addition to what this bill does in terms of righting some wrongs is that we now are in a position where I think we have listened to those persons on the front lines,” Rogers said. “We’ve listened to our teachers, we’ve listened to our superintendents and to our parents.”

Legislative leaders said this week they hope to have both bills to Pence to be signed into law by the end of the month.

big gaps

Jeffco school board incumbents raise big money, challengers falling behind

The deadline for dropping off ballots is 7 p.m.

School board incumbents in Jefferson County have raised more money collectively than they had at this point two years ago, when the district was in the midst of a heated recall campaign.

The election this year has garnered far less attention, and only two of the three incumbents who replaced the recalled members face opponents in the November election.

Susan Harmon reported raising more than $45,000 and Brad Rupert reported almost $49,000 in contributions through Oct. 12. Ron Mitchell, the sole incumbent without an opponent, raised almost $33,000 during that period.

How much did candidates raise, spend?

  • Susan Harmon, $45,602.33; $30,906.48
  • Brad Rupert, $48,982.34; $30,484.98
  • Ron Mitchell, $32,910.33; $30,479.43
  • Matt Van Gieson, $2,302.39; $478.63
  • Erica Shields, $3,278.00; $954.62

In 2015, the October campaign finance reports showed they had each raised about $33,000.

The two conservative opponents, Matt Van Gieson and Erica Shields, have raised far less. Van Gieson reported $2,302 while Shields reported $3,278.

The three incumbent school board members have considerable contributions from the teacher’s union. Former Jeffco superintendent Cynthia Stevens donated to Rupert and Mitchell. Former board member Lesley Dahlkemper contributed to all three incumbents. And State Sen. Rachel Zenzinger, an Arvada Democrat, contributed to Rupert and Harmon.

Van Gieson and Shields both have donations from the Jefferson County Republican Men’s Club.

The next reports will be due Nov. 3.

Follow the money

In Denver school board races, incumbents outpacing challengers in campaign contributions

PHOTO: Melanie Asmar
Denver school board vice president Barbara O'Brien speaks at a press conference at Holm Elementary.
Donations to Denver school board candidates as of Oct. 12
    Barbara O’Brien, At-Large: $101,291
    Angela Cobián, District 2: $94,152
    Mike Johnson, District 3: $81,855
    Rachele Espiritu, District 4: $73,847
    Jennifer Bacon, District 4: $59,302
    Robert Speth, At-Large: $38,615
    “Sochi” Gaytán, District 2: $24,134
    Carrie A. Olson, District 3: $18,105
    Tay Anderson, District 4: $16,331
    Julie Bañuelos, At-Large: $7,737

Three Denver school board incumbents brought in more money than challengers seeking to unseat them and change the district’s direction, according to new campaign finance reports.

Board vice president Barbara O’Brien has raised the most money so far. A former Colorado lieutenant governor who was first elected to the board in 2013 and represents the city at-large, O’Brien had pulled in $101,291 as of Oct. 12.

The second-highest fundraiser was newcomer Angela Cobián, who raised $94,152. She is running to represent southwest District 2, where there is no incumbent in the race. The board member who currently holds that seat, Rosemary Rodriguez, has endorsed Cobián.

Incumbent Mike Johnson, who is running for re-election in central-east District 3, brought in far more money than his opponent, Carrie A. Olson. In a three-way race for northeast Denver’s District 4, incumbent Rachele Espiritu led in fundraising, but not by as much.

O’Brien, Cobián, Johnson and Espiritu had several big-money donors in common. They include former Denver Center for the Performing Arts chairman Daniel Ritchie, Oakwood Homes CEO Pat Hamill and Denver-based oil and gas company founder Samuel Gary. All three have given in past elections to candidates who support the direction of Denver Public Schools, which is nationally known for embracing school choice and collaborating with charter schools.

Meanwhile, teachers unions were among the biggest contributors to candidates pushing for the state’s largest school district to change course and refocus on its traditional, district-run schools. The Denver Classroom Teachers Association Fund gave the most money — $10,000 — to candidate Jennifer Bacon, a former teacher who is challenging Espiritu in District 4.

It gave smaller amounts to Xóchitl “Sochi” Gaytán, who is running against Cobián in District 2; Olson, who is challenging Johnson in District 3; and Robert Speth, who is running in a three-person race with O’Brien. Speth narrowly lost a race for a board seat in 2015. A supplemental campaign filing shows Speth loaned himself $17,000 on Oct. 13.

The two candidates who raised the least amounts of money also disagree with the district’s direction but were not endorsed by the teachers union and didn’t receive any union money. Tay Anderson, who is running against Espiritu and Bacon in District 4, counts among his biggest donors former Denver mayor Wellington Webb, who endorsed him and gave $1,110.

In the at-large race, candidate Julie Bañuelos’s biggest cash infusion was a $2,116 loan to herself. As of Oct. 11, Bañuelos had spent more money than she’d raised.

With four seats up for grabs on the seven-member board, the Nov. 7 election has the potential to shift the board’s balance of power. Currently, all seven members back the district’s direction and the vision of long-serving Superintendent Tom Boasberg. Mail ballots went out this week.

The new campaign finance reports, which were due at midnight Tuesday and cover the previous year, show that several of this year’s candidates have already raised more money than the candidate who was leading the pack at this time in the 2015 election.

O’Brien’s biggest contributor was University of Colorado president Bruce Benson, who gave $10,000. Other notable donors include Robin Hickenlooper, wife of Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper; Lieutenant Governor Donna Lynne; and billionaire Phil Anschutz.

Several Denver charter school leaders, including Rocky Mountain Prep CEO James Cryan and KIPP Colorado CEO Kimberlee Sia, donated to O’Brien, Johnson, Espiritu and Cobián.

Political groups are also playing a big role in the election. The groups include several backed by local and state teachers unions, as well as others funded by pro-reform organizations.