First Person

Pre-results post-mortem

Alexander Ooms is a member of the board of the Charter School Institute, the West Denver Preparatory Charter School and the Colorado chapter of Stand for Children

Alan has asked bloggers for their thoughts on the election as part of a post-mortem.  I find this rearview mirror perspective usually boringly obvious, as it’s far easier to ascribe cause once one knows the effect.  So I’m sending in my quick thoughts in advance of the election results (although probably published afterwards). If I am wrong it will be painfully obvious and if right you’ll have to trust me that this was in early.

First is Prop 103.  I thought the best summary was provided by Eric Sondermann.  I just don’t see how this passes, and I doubt it is at all close.  This initiative never had enough high-powered backers or an effective coalition, and faced a strong economic headwind. All true criticisms, but I also think a proposal as unspecific about how the money will be used would have trouble even in a different economic climate.

Most taxpayers, with justification, see education as a black hole where money enters and little changes.  This proposition exacerbated that claim, and has all the mechanics of a a feel-good proposition that many people could support in its doom without having to engage in the far harder work of crafting something specific which could have drawn broader support.  “We tried” will be the mantra — but a try that was designed to never be a serious threat. More is the pity.

Most interesting will be the district-specific vote tallies as a precursor to future bonds.  Denver voters approved a $454M bond back in 2008 by a 2:1 margin, while nearby Jeffco voters voted down a similar proposal.  The appetite of voters for Prop 103 will be an imprecise but early indication of bond issue potential in 2012, so watch for the district-by-district tally — particularly since suspense on the initiative itself is unlikely.

Denver school board.  This is the only board race I’ve followed closely, but I confess I find the attention it has garnered compared to next door’s Douglas Country surprising — the latter’s shameless cliff-dive into voucher territory is far more controversial.

What happens?  I think that both the at-large and District 1 elections won’t be very close.  For the at-large seat, no coalition came together to challenge the name recognition and track record of Happy Haynes. Four years ago Theresa Pena won a three-way race with 34,103 votes and 47%; I think it is possible Haynes breaks 60%, and if not, she’ll be closer than a Tebow throw.

District 1 initially looked like it would be a reasonable contest, with Anne Rowe challenged by relative newcomer Emily Sirota. However despite Sirota’s youthful energy and ability to network through her own legislative experience and her husband’s substantial political connections, she never articulated a vision, and even her husband’s columns began to sound more like an apology than a call to action.  I think both Haynes and Rowe win easily (although Haynes by more than Rowe). In 2007, Hoyt won with 11,912 votes (65%).  This one will be closer, but I’d guess 8-10 percentage points.

The last seat, in District 5, has turned out to be more interesting, and I think it will come down to a few hundred votes.  I have a personal preference here, and I’d like to believe this turns out the way I would design, but truthfully I think it could go either way. Four years ago, Jimenez prevailed in a four-way race by 368 votes (with 3,782 total, or 36%; others had 32%, 22%, 10%).  The winner here will probably need 6,500 – 6,800 votes, so even given the power of incumbency, this should be a squeaker.

I do think that what is being somewhat overshadowed in all three races is that the general public has shifted considerably in the past few years, and the question is no longer whether or not to proceed with reforms, but instead how broadly and at what pace. That the single incumbent running for reelection with considerable union support was placed on the defensive even while publicly (if selectively) supporting both charters and innovation schools is a remarkable shift.  Reform and the accompanying policies are going to be part of the agenda for the foreseeable future.

Two other general comments: The pendulum of local elections tends to equilibrium, and my experience is that the people who align with the “winners” find that things are never as rosy as they think they will be, and the people who align with the “shoulda-been-winners” find that things are rarely as bad as they feared. Particularly in divided boards (and this will either be 4-3 or 5-2), mandates become elusive and chance has a way of finding strange bedfellows on some issues.  Denver’s school board is most likely to continue to muddle along, and I think with much the same animosity as before.

Elections tend to focus on the new people coming in, when the changes have as much to do with the people going out. The two DPS board members stepping down due to term limits are Bruce Hoyt and Theresa Peña.  Hoyt has a financial acumen and experience that is critically important in this time of fiscal uncertainty.  His particular set of skills rests with no other member or candidate, and his presence will be sorely missed.  Peña has been, in my opinion, remarkably effective in keeping the majority coalition intact and establishing a number of important policies (agree with them or not, but the votes passed), and with a board this sharply divided, that was no small feat.

So I think the new Denver board — regardless of its final composition — is likely to be less strong on reform issues than the current board due to the absence of both Hoyt and Peña, even if the reform majority is larger.  The pendulum swings.

May you live in interesting times, the Chinese cursed.  As far as education policy in Denver goes, the interesting times will continue.  I think I can speak for a lot of people who will be glad when the election itself is over, and that the efforts can once more be focused better outcomes for kids, and not prying votes from adults.


First Person

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Grace Tatter covers a press conference at the Tennessee State Capitol in 2015.

For three years, I covered the Statehouse for Chalkbeat Tennessee, reporting on how policies from Nashville trickled down into more than 1,800 public schools across the state.

Now I’m starting back to school myself, pursuing graduate studies aimed at helping me to become a better education journalist. I’m taking with me six things I learned on the job about public education in Tennessee.

1. Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.

I heard from hundreds of parents, educators, and students who were passionate about what’s happening — good and bad — inside of schools. I covered crowded school board meetings and regularly scrambled for an open seat at legislative hearings where parents had filled the room after driving since dawn to beat the opening gavel. Not incidentally, those parents usually came from communities with the “worst” schools and the lowest test scores. While many disagreements exist about the best way to run schools, there is no shortage of people, particularly parents and educators, who care.

2. Tennessee has one of the most fascinating education stories in America.

I’ve had a front-row seat to massive changes in K-12 education under reforms ushered in by Race to the Top — an overhaul being tracked closely well beyond the state’s borders. But the national interest and import doesn’t end with changes stemming from the $500 million federal award. Tennessee is home to some of the nation’s premier education researchers, making its classrooms laboratories for new ideas about pre-K, school turnaround, and literacy instruction, just to name a few. And at the legislature, more lobbyists are devoted to education than to most any other cause. A lot of eyes are on Tennessee schools.

3. The education community is not as divided as it looks.

During the course of just a few years, I watched state lawmakers change their positions on accountability and school vouchers. I witnessed “anti-charter” activists praise charter leaders for their work. I chronicled task force meetings where state leaders who were committed to standardized testing found middle ground with classroom educators concerned that it’s gone too far. In short, a lot of people listened to each other and changed their minds. Watching such consensus-building reminded me that, while there are no simple debates about education, there is a widespread commitment to making it better.

4. Money matters.

Even when stories don’t seem to be about money, they usually are. How much money is being spent on testing, teacher salaries, school discipline reform? How much should be available for wraparound services? Why do some schools have more money than others? Is there enough to go around? Tennessee leaders have steadily upped public education spending, but the state still invests less than most other states, and the disparities among districts are gaping. That’s why more than a handful of school districts are battling with the state in court. Conversations about money are inextricable from conversations about improving schools.

5. Race is a significant education issue, but few leaders are willing to have that conversation.

More than 60 years after Brown v. Board of Education, Tennessee’s schools are largely racially segregated. Yet most policymakers tread lightly, if ever, into conversations about achieving real racial integration. And in many cases — such as a 2011 law enabling mostly white suburban Shelby County towns to secede from the mostly black Memphis district — they’ve actually gone backwards. Then there’s the achievement data. The annual release of test scores unleashes a flurry of conversation around the racial achievement gap. But the other 11 months of the year, I heard little about whether state and local policies are closing those gaps — or contributing to them — or the historical reasons why the gaps exist in the first place. To be sure, state leadership is trying to address some of Tennessee’s shortcomings. For example, the State Department of Education has launched modestly funded initiatives to recruit more teachers of color. But often, race and racism are the elephants in the room.

6. Still, there’s lots to celebrate.

If there were unlimited hours in the day, I could have written thousands of stories about what’s going right in public education. Every day, I received story ideas about collaborations with NASA in Oak Ridge, high school trips to Europe from Memphis, gourmet school lunches in Tullahoma, and learning partnerships with the Nashville Zoo. Even in schools with the steepest challenges, they were stories that inspire happiness and hope. They certainly inspired me.

Grace Tatter graduated from public schools in Winston-Salem, N.C., and received her bachelor’s degree in history from the University of North Carolina. She’s now pursuing a master’s degree in specialized studies at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

First Person

I’m a Houston geography teacher. This is my plan for our first day back — as soon as it arrives

PHOTO: Creative Commons / Texas Military Department
Texas National Guard soldiers arrive in Houston, Texas to aid citizens in heavily flooded areas from the storms of Hurricane Harvey.

Hurricane Harvey has upended so many things here in Houston, where I am starting my third year as a teacher. One of them is the lesson I am planning for the first day of school — as soon as it arrives.

This upheaval is nothing compared to what people across the city have faced, including my students, who have been sending me photos of evacuation boats going past their houses.

But it is fundamental to the task of being a teacher at a time of crisis. As an A.P. Human Geography teacher, my job is to help students make connections between the geography concepts we are learning in class and their real lives: Does Houston look like the models of urban development we study? Does their family history include a migration?

Before the storm, my thinking went like this: I am white and was born in England and most of my students are Hispanic, many with parents who were born in other countries. I was excited for us to share and compare our different stories. My students last year were shocked and fascinated when they discovered that my white, middle-aged father who is a university professor was applying for a green card, just as many of their family members were.

Now, Hurricane Harvey has underlined for me the importance of those real-world connections. As I looked at the photos from my students, I was struck by how geography concepts can affect us in very real — even life-threatening — ways.

I had planned to teach a lesson at the end of the year about how urbanization affects the environment. The lesson looks at how urbanization can exacerbate flooding: for example, how paving over grassy areas can increase the speed with which rain reaches the bayous, causing the water levels to rise faster. I would then have students evaluate different policies cities can adopt to mitigate that risk, such as encouraging the building on brownfield rather than greenfield sites and passing laws to protect farmland — options that have significant benefits but also significant costs.

I have decided to move this lesson up in the curriculum and teach it when we have school again. School is scheduled to start again on Tuesday, though at this stage everything is provisional, as each hour we find out about more families that have had their homes destroyed by the rising waters. It is still unclear how all our staff, let alone students, will get to school.

I am worried that the lesson could re-traumatize students who have experienced so much trauma in the past few days. I know I will need to make an active effort to make students feel comfortable stepping into the hall if they are feeling overwhelmed. However, my experiences with the recent presidential election make me think that this lesson is exactly what some students might need.

After the election, many students were genuinely confused about what had happened. One question in particular was on their minds: How you can you win the popular vote but not the election? We talked through the Electoral College together, and having clarity about what had happened and why it happened seemed to give them a firmer foundation to build on as they processed their emotions. I am hopeful that teaching about flooding will help ground them in a similar way.

This lesson about flooding was once simply another lesson in the curriculum, but now it has taken on a new urgency. In moments of disaster, it is easy to feel powerless; I certainly could not help the people I saw posting on Facebook that they were been on hold with 911 for hours while standing on their roofs.

Yet teachers have a unique power — the power to shape the minds of future generations to solve the problems that we face. Houston’s location means that it will always be susceptible to flooding. But by teaching about the flood I hope I can play a small role in helping our city avoid repeating some of the tragic scenes I witnessed this week.

Alex McNaughton teaches history and geography at YES Prep Southeast in Houston.

Looking to help? YES Prep is collecting donations to support its students and their families. Houston ISD and KIPP Houston are also soliciting donations for their students.