more of the same change

What Tisch’s departure will, and won’t, mean for New York education debates

To editorial writers at the New York Daily News, Tisch leaving is “a perilous setback.” To the more optimistic state teachers union, it’s a chance to forge “a new direction in education policy.”

“Clearly everything is beginning to shift,” said Jeannette Deutermann, a co-founder of New York State Allies for Public Education, a parent group leading the state’s growing movement to boycott state tests. “The key question is whether it will shift enough to satisfy parents and education activists.”

Deutermann’s view isn’t the only one. But the imminent departure of Merryl Tisch, who became chancellor in 2009 and moved swiftly to establish new student learning standards and overhaul the ways teachers get certified and evaluated, has raised alarm bells for both supporters and critics of Tisch’s tenure.

Their question is, will her aggressive policy agenda survive the transition? And where does this leave New York’s education debates?

This week, both sides acknowledged that her exit in five months poses some threat to policies Tisch implemented, like teacher evaluations linked to student test scores and New York’s adoption of the Common Core. But current and former education officials said that momentum and the state’s political dynamics would ensure that the most important elements of their policies would endure.

“I see this less as an end of an era and more as a phase two,” said Kristen Huff, New York’s testing czar during much of Tisch’s tenure.

For one thing, they say, it would be hard to change some things back.

“A lot of the stuff is enshrined in statute,” said Julia Rafal-Baer, a former assistant commissioner for the State Education Department.

The most obvious example is the state’s teacher evaluation law, which has been heavily debated since it was first passed in 2010. But five years and several edits later, the law’s main components — particularly that student performance be a significant factor in evaluations — have not been watered down.

That teacher evaluation law helped spark anti-testing backlash that officials in the post-Tisch era will have to deal with. When she leaves in March, students will be about to take state exams, which one in five eligible students opted out of in 2015.

Still, two of state government’s most powerful officials — Gov. Andrew Cuomo and Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan — tend to align with Tisch’s agenda.

It’s also significant that Tisch was able to lead the search for a new state education commissioner this year. Her choice, MaryEllen Elia, is aligned with Tisch on key issues like the importance of the Common Core standards.

Elia is also taking steps to address the concerns about an over-emphasis on testing. She is planning to review the “growth” methodology through which student test scores factor into teacher evaluations, and announced plans to develop a new set of state assessments.

Deutermann said her group won’t be satisfied until state test scores are completely removed as a factor in a teacher’s rating — a change that Elia has not committed to.

Others familiar with the political dynamics on the Regents said that big changes were, in fact, likely, but that they might not take place until well after Tisch departs.

Most of the 17-member Board of Regents are still considered allies of Tisch. That could change in 2017, when three — James Tallon, Andrew Brown and Charles Bendit — will see their terms end. Harry Phillips, a former Regent, said that could tip the balance more in favor of a group of seven dissident Regents who vote in a bloc.

“Then it will be a totally new ball game,” Phillips said.

Still, former education commissioner David Steiner said Tisch’s effects on the tenor of education policy debates will be lasting.

State test scores soared in the second half of the 2000s, reaching nearly 80 percent proficiency in English and 86 percent proficiency in math. But student performance according to other measures, like on national English and math exams and on college-readiness metrics, told a far more dismal tale.

One of Steiner’s first moves as commissioner, with Tisch providing political cover, was to show how inflated those numbers were and recalibrate the tests to reflect higher passing standards. Steiner said Tisch’s insistence that the Regents focus on those achievement numbers changed the conversation in important ways.

“Successors will no doubt take up such issues as testing and teacher evaluations and move them in different directions, but the landscape and basic assumptions have been deeply altered,” Steiner said.

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.

Following the money

Douglas County slate that favors continuing school voucher court case is ahead in early fundraising, records show

Former State Board of Education member Debora Scheffel at a campaign event in 2016. Scheffel is now running for the Douglas County school board. (Photo by Nic Garcia/Chalkbeat)

A group of candidates that largely supports the direction of the Douglas County School District, especially its embrace of school choice policies, has raised nearly $100,000 in campaign contributions, new financial records show.

The group, which calls itself “Elevate Douglas County,” topped its competition, the “Community Matters” slate, by more than $30,000 in monetary contributions to committees for individual candidates.

A lot is at stake in the south suburban Denver school board contest. A majority of seats on the seven-member school board are up for grabs, putting the philosophical direction of the state’s third largest school district on the line.

For eight years, the school board has pushed a conservative education reform agenda that included developing a voucher program that would allow parents to use tax dollars to send their children to private school and establishing a market-based pay system for teachers.

While the Elevate slate has promised to reconsider and tweak many of the board’s most controversial decisions, such as teacher pay, the Community Matters slate has promised to roll back many of the previous board’s decisions.

The contrast between the two groups is most stark on the issue of the school district’s voucher program. Created in 2011, the voucher program has been tied up in courts ever since. The Elevate slate supports continuing the court case and, if there is community support, reinstating the program. The Community Matters slate staunchly opposes vouchers and would end the court case.

According to records, the Elevate slate raised a total of $98,977 during the first campaign reporting period that ended Oct. 12. Grant Nelson raised the most, $34,373. The three other candidates — Ryan Abresch, Randy Mills and Debora Scheffel — each raised about $21,000.

All four candidates received $6,250 from John Saeman, a Denver businessman and the former chairman of the Daniels Fund. The foundation has financially supported the school district’s legal battle over the voucher program.

Other major contributors to the Elevate team are Ed McVaney, the founder of JD Edwards, and businesswoman Chrystalla Larson.

The Community Matters slate raised a total of $66,692 during the same period. Candidate Krista Holtzmann led the pack, raising more than $21,000. Her teammates — Anthony Graziano, Chris Schor and Kevin Leung — raised between $13,000 and $15,000 each.

Among the major donors to the Community Matters slate are Clare Leonard and Herschel Ramsey. Both Parker residents gave $1,000 each to all four candidates.

The campaign finance reports that were due Tuesday tell only part of the story. Earlier this week, special interest groups working to influence the election were required to report their spending.

The American Federation of Teachers, the nation’s second largest teachers union, has pumped $300,000 into the race in an effort to support the Community Matters slate.

Meanwhile, Americans For Prosperity, a conservative political nonprofit, is running a “social welfare” issue campaign promoting school choice. Because the nonprofit is not directly supporting candidates, it is not required to disclose how much it is spending. However, the organization said in a statement the campaign would cost six-figures.

Correction: This article has been updated to better reflect the Elevate slate’s position on reinstating the school district’s proposed voucher program.