Analysis

Why Colorado conservative education reformers lost Tuesday

PHOTO: AAron Ontiveroz, The Denver Post
Soon-to-be-former Jeffco school board president Kent Witt

After a string of electoral successes, conservative school reform candidates in Colorado were dealt harsh blows this week in elections swung by issues that were both intensely local and part of broader battles over power, money and change in American education.

In Jefferson County, a hotel ballroom exploded with chants and tears as three conservatives elected as a slate in 2013 were recalled in a rout.

In Douglas County, six years of dominance by a boundary-pushing board finally showed cracks as three opponents broke through, forming a solid minority promising a more open and diverse board.

In the Loveland-based Thompson district, animus over a teacher contract dispute propelled union-backed candidates into power.

Elsewhere, a conservative attempt to take over a moderate board in Colorado Springs was repelled and one of two conservative reform candidates won seats in Aurora, sending a mixed message.

All the elections had their own quirks, players and storylines. But common themes bound them together, too, highlighted by reinvigorated teachers unions willing to invest money and energy combined with motivated and networked parents fed up with agendas they saw as dangerous overreaches.

“You can’t deny it was a setback for conservative reform at the school board level in Colorado,” said Ben DeGrow, a senior policy analyst with the libertarian Independence Institute, which fought the Jeffco recall and provided policy guidance in other districts. “The unions had their day. There’s no doubt about it.”

Where conservative reformers lost | Get the details about what happened in four districts — Jeffco, Dougco, Thompson and Colorado Springs 11 — at the center of Tuesday’s shift in school board politics here.

Kerrie Dallman, president of the Colorado Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union, said the results reflect voter confidence in teachers and frustration with the status quo. Critics of the old boards in the Douglas, Jefferson and Thompson districts complained about divisiveness and a lack of openness.

“The public wants a high degree of trust and collaboration in their school districts,” Dallman said, “and I believe the outcome is a direct reflection that the public didn’t believe those two things existed.”

Dallman downplayed speculation that union involvement in some districts this year was sparked by fears that conservative boards would do away with local bargaining units. The Douglas board ousted its local non-CEA union, and the Thompson board has refused to approve a contract with its CEA affiliate.

“Our main priority was our students,” Dallman said. “For us this was never about Republicans versus Democrats, conservatives versus liberals, unions against reformers.”

Spending and messaging

Angst among teachers goes well beyond contract negotiations and bargaining units, however. In Colorado and elsewhere, teachers are feeling pressure from a drumbeat of reforms that include new standardized tests and tying their evaluations and pay to student performance.

“The (Colorado) vote may be a reflection of the deepening anger that teachers feel across the nation about high stakes testing regimes that treat educators more like factory workers than professionals,” said Richard Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at The Century Foundation, a liberal think tank in Washington.

Ken Witt, the Jeffco board president who was ousted in the recall, attributed the conservative losses to the coordinated efforts of union forces worried about losing control. Witt said he believes voters are likely to support education reform efforts he and his colleagues back, but messaging was a problem.

Recall supporter Cecelia Lange waved signs at 52nd and Wadsworth Tuesday morning.
PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Recall supporter Cecelia Lange waved signs at 52nd and Wadsworth Tuesday morning.

“If you lose an election, then you didn’t reach enough people,” he said. “Reform lost a lot of elections (Tuesday) night. That means we’re not communicating well.”

Not surprisingly, that was not a sentiment held by architects of the Jefferson County recall. Lynea Hansen, a political consultant to recall organizers, framed Tuesday’s results as losses not for conservatives but for what she describes as corporate reform.

“Many conservatives voted for change last night, as well as unaffiliateds and Democrats,” Hansen said. “What I think we really saw were communities seeing the importance of school board elections, many for the first time, and taking an interest in making sure our public schools stay just that — public.”

As in all high-stakes local school board races these days, money poured in from all corners.

Campaign committees affiliated with CEA, plus local union committees, were heavily involved in funding candidates in the Jeffco, Thompson, Denver and Colorado Springs 11 districts. Dallman of the CEA said those spending decisions were driven by requests and recommendations from local union units.

At the same time, a loose network of conservative nonprofits including Americans for Prosperity and the Independence Institute raised and redistributed money through various political committees to rebuff the Jeffco recall and back candidates along the Front Range who support policies such as merit pay for teachers and charter school expansion.

The education reform community is not monolithic. But generally, conservative reformers support policies that give parents more choice between schools including district-run, charter and private schools; establish merit pay for teachers and weaken teachers unions.

‘That’s the whole point of being in a union’

In Aurora, the school board race featured new narratives and players in district education politics.

The campaigns for three seats in the academically struggling district featured two incumbents, two conservatives and involvement from reform groups on the right and left. When ballots were counted, the results were mixed — one of the conservative reformers prevailed and the two incumbents held on.

To ward off a perceived threat from two conservative candidates, the Aurora Education Association coordinated more directly with candidates it endorsed and spent more money on the 2015 election than it had in recent memory, said Amy Nichols, the union’s president.

“We’ve never had, in recent memory, a race this big for us,” she said. “We saw what happened in Douglas County, in Jeffco, in Thompson. And we just didn’t want those distractions here.”

The Aurora teachers union gave $1,500 to each of the three candidates it backed and later made a donation to an independent expenditure committee. Nichols said she didn’t immediately know how much was given to that committee, which won’t file its next finance report with the state until January.

Aurora school board candidates, from left, Monica Colbert, Billie Day, and Mike Donald took questions from parents at a candidate forum Thursday.
PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Aurora school board candidates, from left, Monica Colbert, Billie Day, and Mike Donald took questions from parents at a candidate forum Thursday.

Nichols challenged those who spotlighted unions’ stepped up spending and involvement.

“That’s the whole point of being a union,” she said. “Bottom line. I find it ironic. It’s like the pot calling the kettle black. You want to organize with your money … But you don’t want others to have the same opportunity?”

Former Republican state senator Josh Penry — a political consultant for Ready Colorado, a nonprofit that backed the two conservative board candidates — saw positives in the Aurora race compared to other more heated affairs in Jeffco or Dougco. He framed the debate over whether “sensible change” was needed.

Penry also pointed to heightened teachers union involvement as a key factor in Tuesday’s results.

“The unions to their political credit spent heavily and aggressively, more so than they have in the last several cycles,” Penry said. “That definitely tipped the scales in a number of places.’

The storyline was different in Denver, where Democratic-flavored education reform efforts were bolstered by Tuesday’s results. Although board president Happy Haynes faced an unexpectedly stern test, she held on and the balance of power on the board shifted from 6-1 to 7-0 favoring the district’s decade-old reforms.

A statement from Jen Walmer, head of Democrats for Education Reform in Colorado, illustrates how the term “reform” can mean vastly different things. After lauding the DPS result, Walmer went on to applaud “the defeat of ideologically driven school boards that voters rejected in favor of practical improvements.”

“As reformers dedicated to measurable high performance, accountability, transparency and choice for families in the best interest of their students, we must always protect and carry the mantle of true reform,” said Walmer, a former DPS chief of staff. “It is clear that some are using reform language to cloak their true desire to dismantle public education. A dialogue that is anti-teacher and not in the best interest of kids falls flat when held against true leaders working on behalf of students and equity.”

What kind of statement?

Opinions vary over how much to read into Tuesday’s results, and which conclusions to draw.

School board races tend to be low-information, low-turnout elections, so it’s generally unwise to use them as a barometer of public opinion on education policy, said Kevin Welner, director of the National Education Policy Center at the University of Colorado Boulder. But this week’s much-watched school board races are more likely to reflect broader sentiment, he said.

Of the success of the Jeffco recall, Welner said: “I don’t see that as signaling an overall shift in the state, but a moderating influence in a place that kind of jolted to the right very recently.”

Also uncertain is whether the results will slow the march of reform in suburban areas.

More affluent, higher performing suburban districts are in once sense ideal for experimenting because students there have more safety nets, so the risk is smaller and potential payoff larger, said Frederick Hess, director of education policy studies for the conservative American Enterprise Institute.

“But if you are dealing with suburban communities where families are deeply involved and schools are seen as pretty good, trying to do ambitious reforms can be a high-wire act,” Hess said. “It can be easy for critics to raise concerns.”

In the Thompson school district, this week’s election shifted control from a reform-driven majority to one supported by the teachers union by a super-majority of five seats to two.

Denise Montagu, an incumbent endorsed by the local union who previously was in the board minority, said conservative school reform candidates lost in Thompson and elsewhere because voters believed they were sold a bill of goods.

“I think the community wanted to give reform a try,” Montagu said. “‘Reform, doesn’t that sound beautiful?’ But when they learned that reform meant attorneys, disenfranchising our teachers and clearly not putting the students first … that’s not what they signed up for.”

​Chalkbeat Colorado reporter Melanie Asmar contributed information to this report.

Who's In Charge

Who’s in charge of rethinking Manual High School’s ‘offensive’ mascot?

PHOTO: Scott Elliott/Chalkbeat
Manual High School is one of three Indianapolis schools managed by Charter Schools USA.

As other schools in Indiana and across the nation have renounced controversial team names and mascots in recent years, Emmerich Manual High School in Indianapolis has held onto the Redskins.

One of the reasons why the school hasn’t given it up, officials said during a state board of education meeting this week, is because it’s unclear whose responsibility it would be to change the disparaging name.

Is it the obligation of the district, Indianapolis Public Schools, which owns the building and granted the nickname more than 100 years ago?

Is it the duty of the charter operator, Charter Schools USA, which currently runs the school?

Or is it the responsibility of the state, which took Manual out of the district’s hands in 2011, assuming control after years of failing grades?

“I don’t care who’s responsible for it,” said Indiana State Board of Education member Gordon Hendry, as he acknowledged the uncertainty. “I think it’s high time that that mascot be retired.”

The mascot debate resurfaced Wednesday as state officials considered the future of Manual and Howe high schools, which are approaching the end of their state takeover. Charter School USA’s contracts to run the schools, in addition to Emma Donnan Middle School, are slated to expire in 2020, so the schools could return to IPS, become charter schools, or close.

Manual is only one of two Indiana schools still holding onto the Redskins name, a slur against Native Americans. In recent years, Goshen High School and North Side High School in Fort Wayne have changed their mascots in painful processes in which some people pushed back against getting rid of a name that they felt was integral to the identity of their communities.

Knox Community High School in northern Indiana also still bears the Redskins name and logo.

“The term Redskins can be absolutely offensive,” said Jon Hage, president and CEO of Charter Schools USA. “We’ve had no power or authority to do anything about that.”

He suggested that the state board needs to start the process, and that the community should have input on the decision.

An Indianapolis Public Schools official told Chalkbeat the district didn’t have clear answers yet on its role in addressing the issue.

Even if the state board initiates conversations, however, member Steve Yager emphasized that he does not want the state to make the decision on the mascot.

“We don’t have to weigh in on that,” Yager said. “I feel like that’s a local decision.”

reaction

Tennesseans reflect on Candice McQueen’s legacy leading the state’s schools

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Education Commissioner Candice McQueen speaks with Arlington High School students during a school visit Tuesday that kicked off a statewide tour focused on student voices.

As Candice McQueen prepares to leave her role as Tennessee education commissioner in January, education leaders, advocates, and parents are weighing in on her impact on the state’s schools.

McQueen 44, will become the CEO of National Institute for Excellence in Teaching in mid-January after about four years under the outgoing Gov. Bill Haslam administration.

Her tenure has been highlighted by overhauling the state’s requirements for student learning, increasing transparency about how Tennessee students are doing, and launching a major initiative to improve reading skills in a state that struggles with literacy. But much of the good work has been overshadowed by repeated technical failures in Tennessee’s switch to a computerized standardized test — even forcing McQueen to cancel testing for most students in her second year at the helm. The assessment program continued to struggle this spring, marred by days of technical glitches.

Here are reactions from education leaders and thinkers across the state:

Gini Pupo-Walker, senior director of education policy and programs at Conexión Américas:

“It was her commitment to transparency, equity, and strong accountability that helped create a nationally recognized framework that places students at its center. Commissioner McQueen’s commitment to inclusion and engagement meant that our partners across the state had the opportunity to weigh in, share their experiences, and to ask hard questions and conduct real conversations with policymakers. Tennessee continues to lead the nation in innovation and improvement in K-12 education, and that is due in no small part to Commissioner McQueen’s leadership.”

Shawn Joseph, superintendent of Metro Nashville Public Schools, who in August co-penned a letter declaring “no confidence” in state testing:

“Since joining MNPS just over two years ago, I’ve had the pleasure of working closely with Commissioner McQueen and her team. She has been a strong advocate for Tennessee’s children, and I especially want to thank her for her support of the work that is taking place in Nashville. We send her our very best wishes — and our hearty congratulations for accepting her new role.”

JC Bowman, executive director of Professional Educators of Tennessee:

“Commissioner Candice McQueen is one of the most visible members of the Haslam Administration. She took over the department during a dark period in public education, and she made a significant difference within the department, particularly in the infrastructure. Those changes are not readily noticeable, as they include systems, processes and human capital. There are some exceptional people within the Department of Education working to make public education a success in our state. It is unfortunate that online testing continues to be a point of contention, but the state is moving in a positive direction. The next Commissioner of Education and the 111th Tennessee General Assembly will need to make adjustments in student assessment as we move forward.   We will always be grateful to Commissioner McQueen for her unwavering support of increasing teacher salaries and commitment to student literacy.”

Sharon Griffin, leader of the state-run Achievement School District:

“I have truly appreciated Dr. McQueen’s leadership and vision for the Department of Education.  From a distance and even closer in recent months, I have clearly seen the integrity and passion she brings to the work of improving student outcomes.  We have absolutely connected around our shared belief in how what’s in the best interest of students should guide our work.”

Jamie Woodson, CEO of SCORE:

“Tennessee students have been served very well by the steady and strong leadership of Commissioner McQueen. Her priorities have been the right ones for our children: improving student achievement, with a specific focus on reading skills; advocating for great teaching and supporting teachers to deliver high-quality instruction; and emphasizing that students and schools with the greatest needs must receive targeted focus and support in order to improve.”

Sarah Carpenter, executive director of parent advocacy group Memphis Lift:

“Memphis parents want decision makers to be accessible, and we appreciate that Commissioner McQueen made a point to build relationships and hear concerns from the entire community. Hopefully, the next education commissioner will bring parents to the table for conversations about our kids’ education.”

Mendell Grinter, leader of Memphis student advocacy group Campaign for School Equity:

“In our collaborative work and position in the educational landscape, we have witnessed firsthand how Commissioner McQueen has served as a tireless advocate for students and families in Tennessee. Over the past two years her leadership has inspired school leaders, and teachers alike to recognize the sense of urgency for improving school equity and academic outcomes for more students.”

Andy Spears, author of Tennessee Education Report and vocal critic of state test, TNReady:

“After what can charitably be called a rocky tenure at the helm of the Tennessee Department of Education, Candice McQueen has miraculously landed another high-level job. This time, she’ll take over as CEO of the National Institute for Excellence in Teaching, an organization apparently not at all concerned about the track record of new hires or accountability.”

Beth Brown, president of Tennessee Education Association:

“As candidates for the state’s next commissioner of education are considered, it is my hope that serious consideration is given to an individual’s experience in our own Tennessee public schools… Students and educators are struggling with two major issues that must be tackled by the next commissioner: high-stakes standardized tests and a lack of proper funding for all schools. Our schools need a leader who understands that the current test-and-punish system is not helping our students succeed. Governor Bill Haslam has made significant increases in state funding for public education, but there is still much work to be done to ensure every child has the resources needed for a well-rounded public education.”