Who Is In Charge

Union contributions mount up

Headquarters of Colorado Education Association in Denver

Political committees affiliated with Colorado teachers’ unions have spent more than $900,000 so far in the 2010 election season.

The bulk of that total is accounted for by the Colorado Education Association’s $600,000 contribution to the campaign against amendments 60, 61 and Proposition 101 (see related story).

But union-affiliated committees also have contributed significantly to Democratic candidates and to a group of 527 committees in a year when Democrats are battling to retain control of the legislature.

The Public Education Committee, CEA’s small donor committee, has donated $10,600 to Democratic gubernatorial candidate John Hickelooper and $10,000 each to Secretary of State Bernie Buescher and state Treasurer Cary Kennedy, both Democrats.

The committee also has given nearly $110,000 to 48 Democratic legislative candidates, plus $5,000 to a party committee that supports House candidates and $3,500 to a similar committee that supports Democratic Senate candidates.

The small donor group AFT Colorado Federation Of Teachers, School, Health And Public Employees Committee has given $10,000 to Hickenlooper, $1,000 to Buescher and $2,000 to Kennedy. The committee has contributed to 43 Democratic legislative candidates plus given $5,000 to the Democratic Senate Campaign Fund and $4,000 to the House Majority Fund.

Among education-related races this year, the biggest money so far is being spent in the at-large contest for the University of Colorado Board of Regents and in Pueblo County’s House District 47, where a Democratic union leader is battling a Republican construction executive for an open seat.

Melissa Hart
CU Regent candidate Melissa Hart

In the regent race, Democrat Melissa Hart has raised $70,285. She’s a professor at the CU law school. Republican Steve Bosley, the incumbent and a retired Boulder banker, has raised $38,438.

Hart’s contributors, most of whom have kicked in from $100 to $400, are a who’s who of legal and civic leaders and include former Denver Mayor Wellington Webb, Buescher and Kennedy, State Board of Education members Elaine Gantz Berman and Jane Goff, regents Joe Neguse and Michael Carrigan, former regents Sen. Gail Schwartz and Susan Kirk, U.S. Rep. Jared Polis, former higher ed chief David Skaggs and lawyer Jim Lyons, who co-chairs the ongoing higher ed strategic planning committee. There are lots of lawyers and several CU faculty members on the contributor list. Hart also has received $1,000 from the CEA small donor committee.

Steve Bosley
CU Regent Steve Bosley

Notable Bosley contributors include businessman Barry Hirschfeld, National Western Stock Show head Pat Grant, politically connected lawyer Steven Farber and former GOP U.S. Sen. Bill Armstrong.

In the District 47 race, teacher Carole Partin, president of the Pueblo Education Association, is seeking to hold the seat for the Democrats. She’s received $4,250 from the Public Education Committee, $500 from the CFT small donor committee and $3,250 from the Jefferson County Education Association small donor committee. Overall she’s raised $58,219.

Among Republican Keith Swerdferger’s larger contributors are small donor committees in the real estate, construction and insurance industries. He’s raised $82,041.

The CEA’s Public Education Committee has given its largest contributions – the top so far is $4,250 – to Democrats with tough battles on their hands. Sen. Mike Johnston, D-Denver and author of Senate Bill 10-191, hasn’t received any CEA money in what is considered a safely Democratic northeast Denver district. The CEA fought SB 10-191 vigorously in the last legislative session.

But two senators who did vote for the bill, John Morse of Colorado Springs and Pat Steadman of Denver, did receive contributions. No House Democrats who voted for the bill, including Rep. Christine Scanlan, D-Dillon, have received funds from the CEA committee.

The Public Education Committee also gave $40,000 to 21st Century Colorado, $50,000 to the Colorado Freedom Fund and $100,000 to Accountability for Colorado. The three are 527 committees associated with the coordinated effort of wealthy donors and labor unions that has worked to elect Democrats in recent Colorado elections. (See this 2008 Denver Post story for background on that effort.) The committee also gave $4,015 to Western Values, a 527 connected to the political consulting firm of Welchert and Britz.

One interesting committee donation was of $3,000 to Mike Merrifield of Colorado Springs, who’s running for El Paso County commissioner. Merrifield, a retired music teacher, has been a state representative, chair of the House Education Committee and a staunch CEA ally. He’s leaving the statehouse because of term limits.

(See the committee’s Sept. 7 report and its July 7 contributions.)

Rep, Christine Scanlan
Rep. Christine Scanlan, D-Dillon

The AFT’s small donor committee gave contributions to 30 Democratic candidates who also received CEA money. But it also gave money to several other Democratic candidates, including Scanlan and SB 10-191 supporters Mark Ferrandino, Jeanne Labuda and Beth McCann of Denver, and Joe Rice of Littleton. The AFT supported the bill during legislative debates.

Given that the AFT’s smaller membership provides less of a fundraising base than the CEA has, most of the contributions were smaller, generally $250 or $500 per candidate.

The committee gave $1,000 to newly appointed Sen. Lucia Guzman, D-Denver and a former Denver school board member. She beat term-limited Rep. Joel Judd in last month’s Democratic primary. Judd had received $2,125 from the CEA-related committee.

The AFT committee also gave $5,000 each to 21st Century Colorado and Accountability for Colorado.

(See AFT legislative and other contributions.)

The only other union-related committee making significant contributions so far is the Jefferson County Education Association Small Donor Committee, which has spent $45,208.

In addition to Partin, the committee has given contributions to nine other Democratic candidates in the metro area. Those receiving the largest contribution – $4,250 each – include Rep. Sara Gagliardi of Arvada in District 27, retired teacher Laura Huerta in House District 30, Gilpin County Commissioner Jeanne Nicholson in Senate District 16 (which stretches into the central mountains), lawyer Chris Radeff in House District 22 and Rep. Max Tyler of Lakewood in District 23.

All contribution and spending numbers were taken from reports on file with the secretary of state’s office. The most recent set of reports was filed Sept. 7. (Search candidate and committee reports here.)

a closer look

Fact-check: Weighing 7 claims from Betsy DeVos’s latest speech, from Common Core to PISA scores

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy

In a speech Tuesday at the American Enterprise Institute, U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos made the case for giving up on the type of school improvement efforts favored by Presidents Obama and George W. Bush. In its place, she argued, the federal government should encourage tech-infused innovation and school choice.

Looking to weigh her claims? Here’s a closer look at a few.

1. DeVos: “The most recent Program for International Student Assessment, or PISA, report, with which you are all familiar, has the U.S. ranked 23rd in reading, 25th in science and 40th in math. And, you know this too: it’s not for a lack of funding. The fact is the United States spends more per pupil than most other developed countries, many of which perform better than us in the same surveys.”

This stats are accurate, but may not be fair. The U.S. does spend more per pupil, in raw dollars, than most other countries. But international comparisons of these sorts are complicated, and American spending is similar to countries with similarly sized economies.

As we’ve written previously, it’s also misleading to say that more money wouldn’t help American schools. A number of studies have found precisely the opposite, including a recent one showing how cuts to schools during the Great Recession lowered student test scores and graduation rates.

2. DeVos appeared to refer to Common Core as “federal standards,” saying, “Federally mandated assessments. Federal money. Federal standards. All originated in Washington, and none solved the problem.”

That’s off the mark. As advocates for the Common Core never tire of pointing out, the creation of the standards was driven by state leaders through the National Governors Association and Council of Chief State School Officers, with the support of several private organizations, most prominently the Gates Foundation. (Gates is a funder of Chalkbeat.) As DeVos notes earlier in the speech, the Obama administration did incentivize states to adopt the standards, though, and Secretary Arne Duncan was a vocal champion.

3. DeVos: “At the U.S. Department of Education, Common Core is dead.”

This is true, in a sense — the Every Student Succeeds Act, which passed before DeVos became secretary, prohibits the federal government from pushing states to adopt specific standards. But DeVos doesn’t control what academic standards states adopt, and most states are still using use some version of the Common Core.

4. DeVos: “Throughout both initiatives, the result was a further damaged classroom dynamic between teacher and student, as the focus shifted from comprehension to test-passing. This sadly has taken root, with the American Federation of Teachers recently finding that 60 percent of its teachers reported having moderate to no influence over the content and skills taught in their own classrooms. Let that sink in. Most teachers feel they have little – if any — say in their own classrooms.”

The statistic DeVos pulled from this poll is accurate, though her framing may be more negative than the results suggest. It asked teachers to rate how much control they had over “setting content, topics, and skills to be taught.” The most common answer was “a great deal” (at about 40 percent of teachers), and another 30 percent or so chose moderate control. Twenty percent said minor, and only 10 percent said they had no control.

5. DeVos: “To a casual observer, a classroom today looks scarcely different than what one looked like when I entered the public policy debate thirty years ago. Worse, most classrooms today look remarkably similar to those of 1938 when AEI was founded.”

This statement is misleading but has a grain of truth. We examined a similar claim when the TV program produced by the XQ prize argued that schools haven’t changed in 100 years. In short, DeVos is right that many basic trappings of school — a building, a teacher at the front of the class, a focus on math, reading, science, and social studies — have remained consistent. But this glosses over some substantial changes since 1938: the end of legally mandated race-based segregation, the rise of standards for special education students, and the expanded use of testing, among others.

6. DeVos: “While we’ve changed some aspects of education, the results we all work for and desire haven’t been achieved. The bottom line is simple: federal education reform efforts have not worked as hoped.”

This is a big assertion, and it’s always tricky to judge whether something in education “worked.” As DeVos pointed out, a federal study showed the federal school turnaround program didn’t help students. She also highlighted relatively flat international test scores, and others have pointed to flat national scores in recent years.

That said, there were substantial gains in math in fourth and eighth grade, particularly in the early 2000s.

But raw trend data like this can’t isolate the effects of specific policies, particularly when other unrelated changes — like the Great Recession — can also make a big difference. Studies on No Child Left Behind have shown positive results in math, but little or no effect in reading. An analysis of Race to the Top was inconclusive.

One bright spot: a program that paid performance bonuses through the federal Teacher Incentive Fund led to small test score bumps, according to a recent study by DeVos’s Department of Education.

7. In response to a question about school performance in Detroit, DeVos said she shouldn’t be credited — or blamed — for the results in the city. “You’re giving me a whole lot of credit to suggest that whatever happened in Detroit was as a result of what I did,” she said. “We have been long-term supporters of continued reform and choice in Michigan.”

This one is up for debate, though it’s clear DeVos has long been a major player in Detroit’s education scene. She has supported charter schools, which educate about half the public school students in that city, and been a major donor to Republican politicians and causes in the state. She started an influential advocacy group in the state called Great Lakes Education Project.

She was also a key opponent of a commission that would more tightly oversee Detroit charter schools, which ultimately failed amid GOP opposition. It’s clear she has had an impact in the city, but that doesn’t mean she’s gotten everything she’s wanted: in 2000, Michigan voters rejected a DeVos-funded effort to fund vouchers for private schools. She also hasn’t gotten her wish that Detroit have a traditional school district eliminated entirely.

DeVos on offense

DeVos criticizes Bush-Obama policies, saying it’s time to overhaul conventional schooling

PHOTO: U.S. Department of Education
U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos speaking to the Council of Great City Schools.

One era of federal involvement in education is over, U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos said Tuesday, in some of her most expansive public remarks since taking over the department last year.

DeVos used a speech at the American Enterprise Institute to hit on familiar themes: America’s schools haven’t changed in many years, failing to embrace technology while still spending more and more money. But she also offered a pointed skewering of the approach of her recent successors.

“Federally mandated assessments. Federal money. Federal standards. All originated in Washington, and none solved the problem,” said DeVos. “Too many of America’s students are still unprepared.”

She also gave a harsh assessment of one of the most controversial policies of the period. “Common Core is a disaster,” DeVos said, echoing her boss, President Trump. “And at the U.S. Department of Education, Common Core is dead.”

In place of those efforts, DeVos offered a different framework for improving education: overturning a host of conventional approaches to schooling.

“Why do we group students by age?” she asked. “Why do schools close for the summer? Why must the school day start with the rise of the sun? Why are schools assigned by your address? Why do students have to go to a school building in the first place? Why is choice only available to those who can buy their way out? Or buy their way in? Why can’t a student learn at his or her own pace? Why isn’t technology more widely embraced in schools?”

Some of these questions dovetail with DeVos’s embrace of private school choice programs and tech-infused approaches to schools, including fully virtual options. The emphasis on technology is aligned with a number of wealthy philanthropies that have embraced computer-based “personalized learning.”

They also mark a departure from the paradigm of previous administrations. No Child Left Behind, the law signed by President George W. Bush, and the Obama-era Race to the Top program both focused on improving academic standards, instituting tests, holding schools and teachers accountable for results, and expanding charter schools, though generally not private school voucher initiatives.

DeVos’s vision is more aligned with a strain of conservative thought that has grown increasingly skeptical of test scores. “I talk about accountability more in terms of transparency and information that parents can access to find out how the schools are doing for their child,” DeVos said in a follow-up session with Rick Hess of AEI, the conservative think tank whose board DeVos previously sat on.

This rift is not entirely surprising. Former secretary Arne Duncan has sharply criticized DeVos and Trump, and left-of-center charter advocates have attempted to separate themselves from an unpopular and polarizing president and secretary of education.

In a rare agreement with the American Federation of Teachers, DeVos argued that federal involvement had put too much focus on test scores, citing a poll commissioned by the union. “The result was a further damaged classroom dynamic between teacher and student, as the focus shifted from comprehension to test-passing,” she said.

The AFT responded icily on Twitter: “More American educators feel disrespected by DeVos than anyone else in the entire world. You can’t blame Bush & Obama for that.”  

Debates about evidence continue

Earlier at the event, “Bush-Obama school reform: Lessons learned,” researchers and policymakers conducted a post-mortem of the last couple of decades of federal school reform.

The results weren’t always pretty. Virtually all participants agreed that well-meaning efforts had proven difficult to implement and sustain: No Child Left Behind had become widely reviled for increasing testing; teacher evaluations pushed by the Obama administration continued to rate most teachers as effective and faced stiff opposition from teachers’ unions; Common Core became the target of conservative ire and the associated tests were scrapped in most states; and a comprehensive study of the federal school turnaround program found that it made little impact on test scores or graduation rates.

Evaluating large policies, like Race to the Top or Common Core, is inherently challenging.  Nationwide test scores have been fairly stagnant in recent years, though that may be due to the effects of the Great Recession.

At one session, participants suggested that not enough had been done to incorporate teachers’ perspective into federal policy. (Notably, no current teachers or union representatives participated in panels at the AEI event.)

Still, research suggests that No Child Left Behind substantially improved math achievement. Studies in some districts have found benefits of their revamped teacher evaluation systems, too.

Joanne Weiss, chief of staff at the Department of Education under Duncan, cautioned against judging policies too quickly. “At some point you gotta say, the results should be in today,” she said. “[But] we have a history in education of calling it too early and moving on to something else, and then 10 years later the research comes in.”

Nevertheless, DeVos seized on the mixed results of past efforts to make the case for her favored changes: more school choice and more innovation at the school level, not driven by the federal government.

She didn’t mention the research on those approaches, which is decidedly mixed and even negative in some cases.

A number of recent studies on school voucher programs have found showed they hurt student test scores, though they bounce back for some students who stay in private schools for several years. In DeVos’s account of disappointing federal programs, she did not mention a recent study of Washington D.C.’s voucher program, which showed drops in math achievement. (A few studies have found positive impacts on high school graduation rates and college attendance.)

Fully virtual charter schools, which DeVos has long backed, have posted even worse results. And some math programs that blend technology with more traditional classroom culture have posted positive results, but as a whole, the evidence base for those approaches remains thin.

DeVos’s skepticism of federal involvement also highlights the central paradox of her job: As the leader of the very agency she is critiquing, how will she advance her agenda without expanding the federal footprint?

So far, DeVos has rolled back a number of Obama-era regulations and supported a new federal tax break for private school tuition, while acknowledging its impact would be modest.

We also fact-checked seven claims — from Common Core to PISA test scores — DeVos made during her speech. Read more here.