Who Is In Charge

READ Act rules taking shape

Members of the State Board of Education last week took their first detailed look at the proposed new system intended to improve the literacy levels of the state’s youngest students.

Child readingThe draft regulations reviewed by the board Jan. 10 outline an implementation plan for the 2012 READ Act, a law that sets an expectation for all students to be reading at grade level by third grade.

A key element of the regulations is the definition of “significant reading deficiency.” Schools will be required to provide special, individualized services for students with that designation. And students who are still deficient in the third grade could be held back.

The current draft of the rules proposes a three-part process to determine significant reading deficiency, but a coalition of education reform and business groups is urging a simpler method.

Ed groups question process for identifying struggling readers

The three proposed criteria include: a child scoring twice in the lowest quartile on state-approved assessments, identification of a significant deficiency in one or more components of reading as determined by a diagnostic assessment; and a “body of evidence” showing a child is not making sufficient reading progress.

A coalition of education-reform groups is questioning the three-part process. The groups are Colorado Succeeds, Stand for Children Colorado, the Colorado Children’s Campaign, the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce and Colorado Concern. All were in the forefront of lobbying to pass the READ Act, House Bill 12-1238, last year.

“This three-step approach creates a threshold that is unnecessarily high, unclear, and leads to a precarious loss of time. The intent of the Colorado READ Act was for struggling readers to be identified early so that they will receive immediate reading interventions and support,” representatives of the groups wrote to CDE last week.

“We urge the State Board to adopt a less stringent and more straightforward threshold for determining if a student has a significant reading deficiency,” the groups wrote, suggesting that scoring in the bottom quartile of any approved assessment should be sufficient grounds for identifying a child with a significant reading deficiency.

Department of Education staff appeared open to making tweaks.

“The department is considering that suggestion. … We will address that during the next board meeting,” Dian Prestwich, CDE assistant director of literacy told the board.

Significant reading deficiency is a specific individual determination and would not include all children who are merely reading below grade level.

The Department of Education is proposing use of the current DIBELS, PALS and DRA2 assessments for this school year and next. It’s expected other tests will be added to the approved list in the future.

The proposed regulations also define reading competency skill levels in detail for kindergarteners and for students in grades 1-3. (See pages 4-10 of the draft rules) and lay out specific amounts of instruction for struggling readers, time frames for administering tests at the beginning of school years and detailed descriptions of what constitutes appropriate instruction and on what data districts will have to report to the state.

There was no testimony at the Jan. 10 session. The board will hold another hearing during its Feb. 13-14 meeting and is set to vote on the final rules during the March 20-21 meeting.

READ Act details

At the end of this school year districts will report to the Department of Education the number of K-3 students with significant reading deficiencies.

The law is expected to cover up to 24,000 students. An estimated quarter of Colorado third-graders don’t read at grade level.

Starting in 2013-14 districts will annually assess K-3 students’ reading abilities with the CDE-approved tests. The department is required to create a list of approved instructional programs and professional development resources that districts can use.

Individual READ plans have to be created for students with significant deficiencies. The law also creates a process for parent, teacher and administrator consultation to determine each year if students should advance to the next grade level. Parents have the final say for K-2 students. Superintendents (or designated administrators) will review the cases of third-graders recommended for advancement and can decide to retain a student. Special services must be provided for third-graders who are held back.

The law contains protections and exemptions for students with disabilities, limited English proficiency or who have already been held back.

The program will divert interest revenue from the state school lands permanent fund to provide about $16 million in per-pupil funding (about $700 per student) to districts working with students who have significant reading deficiencies. The law also includes some $5 million in funding to be used for CDE administration costs ($1 million) and for professional development grants to districts. So total funding first-year will be about $21 million.

Districts receiving the per-pupil funding will be required to use specific interventions, such as enrollment in full-day kindergarten, summer school or tutoring.

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.