From the Statehouse

Colorado Commits tops $3 million in fundraising

Colorado Commits to Kids, the main campaign committee supporting Amendment 66, listed total contributions of $3.2 million in a report filed with the state Monday.

Stacks of cashThat total included $1.6 million raised since the previous report on Sept. 3. The committee reported spending $402,546 in the last two weeks.

The campaign’s news release quoted both Gov. John Hickenlooper and U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan in touting the new contributions.

“When we were approved for the ballot two weeks ago we promised to spend the next two months building our coalition and making the case to voters on why we should get behind Amendment 66,” Hickenlooper said in the statement. “The overwhelming financial support we’ve received in the last 14 days is a testament to donors’ belief that the reforms Amendment 66 will fund are targeted specifically to efforts to improve our classrooms and to making Colorado the number-one state in the nation for P-12 education.”

“If the voters pass Amendment 66, Colorado will become the educational model for every other state to follow,” Duncan said.

Amendment 66 would raise state income tax rates to generate an estimated $950 million in the first year to fund P-12 education. The revenue would be used to implement Senate Bill 13-213, which creates a new formula for allocating education funding, including increased spending on preschool and full-day kindergarten and more money for at-risk students and English language learners. (Get more details in the EdNews archive of stories about Amendment 66.)

Most of the funds raised in the last two weeks came from four contributors:

  • Ben Walton, a Denver architect and board member of the Walton Family Foundation, gave $500,000.
  • The Gary Community Investment Co. of Denver gave $500,000 on top of the $200,000 it contributed previously.
  • Education Reform Now gave $250,000. While the group is a national organization, it has a Colorado chapter and is closely affiliated with the local chapter of Democrats for Education Reform. Jen Walmer, DFER state director, had the final say on the contribution, according to spokeswoman Alicia Economos.
  • Fort Collins philanthropist Pat Stryker gave $250,000. A longtime funder of Democratic candidates and liberal causes, she previously gave $400,000.

Other contributors of note in the most recent period include:

  • DaVita Corp., the dialysis company, $100,000
  • James Kelley of Vestar Capital Partners, $10,000
  • Ken Gart of the Gart Companies, $5,000
  • David Youngren, president the Piton Foundation, $5,000

The Colorado Education Association has given $450,000 to the campaign during previous reporting periods.

Search the records

Major spending items in the latest period included $24,000 to the Denver political consulting firm OnSight Public Affairs. FieldWorks, a Washington-based campaign group, was paid $283,798, bringing its total payments to about $1 million. The company ran the petition-circulating campaign for Colorado Commits and now reportedly is organizing door-to-door canvassers for the campaign.

Colorado Commits also reported paying more than $56,000 to 20 people for “employee services.”

Among names of note on the payroll are Andrew Freedman, former chief of staff for Lt. Gov. Joe Garcia, paid $6,012; top Hickenlooper aide Jamie Van Leeuwen, paid $4,879 for part-time campaign work while continuing to work part-time for the governor, and Colorado Association of School Executives lobbyist Elisabeth Rosen, paid $2,670.

Two aides to Sen. Mike Johnston, D-Denver, also are working for the campaign. Damion LeeNatali was paid $4,636, and Will Gohl received $4,431. Johnston was the author of SB 13-213 and is constantly on the road campaigning for Amendment 66.

One of the registered opposition groups, Coloradans for Real Education Reform, reported total receipts of $10,000 and spending of $360. The sole donor was the Independence Institute, the conservative think tank and advocacy group.

The contribution and spending report for another opposition group, Coloradans Against Unions Using Kids as Pawns, hadn’t been filed as of early Monday evening. As of Sept. 3 that group had reported receipts of $7,200. Such reports are filed electronically, and committees have until midnight on deadline days to submit their documents.

Those two groups and Colorado Commits are organized as “issue” committees, meaning they have to file reports every two weeks leading up to the Nov. 5 election.

There’s been speculation in the political world that other types of committees, such as 527s, independent expenditure committees and others, may become involved in the Amendment 66 campaign. Independent expenditure and 527 committees have only one reporting deadline before the election, on Oct. 15, the same day that the first mail ballots are expected to go out to voters.

This article was updated on Sept. 19 to provide additional information about the Education Reform Now contribution.

legal opinion

Tennessee’s attorney general sides with charter schools in battle over student information

Herbert H. Slatery III was appointed Tennessee attorney general in 2014 by Gov. Bill Haslam, for whom he previously served as general counsel.

Tennessee’s attorney general says requests for student contact information from state-run charter school operators don’t violate a federal student privacy law, but rather are “entirely consistent with it.”

The opinion from Herbert Slatery III, issued late on Wednesday in response to a request by Education Commissioner Candice McQueen, was a win for charter schools in their battle with the state’s two largest districts.

Education Commissioner Candice McQueen

McQueen quickly responded by ordering school leaders in Memphis and Nashville to comply. In letters dispatched to Shelby County Schools Superintendent Dorsey Hopson and Director Shawn Joseph of Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools, McQueen gave the districts a deadline, adding that they will face consequences if they refuse.

“If you do not provide this information by Sept. 25, 2017, to the (Achievement School District) and any other charter school or charter authorizer who has an outstanding request, we will be forced to consider actions to enforce the law,” she wrote.

Neither superintendent responded immediately to requests for comment, but school board leaders in both districts said Thursday that their attorneys were reviewing the matter.

Chris Caldwell, chairman for Shelby County’s board, said he’s also concerned “whether the timeframe stated gives us enough time to make sure families are aware of what is happening.”

Wednesday’s flurry of events heats up the battle that started in July when charter operators Green Dot and LEAD requested student contact information under the state’s new charter law, which gives districts 30 days to comply with such requests. School boards in both Memphis and Nashville refused, arguing they had the right under the federal student privacy law to restrict who gets the information and for what reasons.

The attorney general said sharing such information would not violate federal law.

The requested information falls under “student directory information,” and can be published by school districts without a parent’s permission. For Shelby County Schools, this type of information includes names, addresses, emails and phone numbers.

To learn what information is at stake and how it’s used, read our in-depth explainer.

The opinion also backs up the new state law, which directs districts to share information that charter operators say they need to recruit students and market their programs in Tennessee’s expanding school-choice environment.

However, the opinion allowed for districts to have a “reasonable period of time” to notify parents of their right to opt out of sharing such information. It was not clear from the opinion if the two school districts have exhausted that time.

A spokeswoman for Shelby County Schools said Tuesday the district had not yet distributed forms that would allow parents to opt out of having their students’ information shared, although the district’s parent-student handbook already includes instructions for doing so.

Below, you can read the attorney general’s opinion and McQueen’s letters to both superintendents:

Clarification, Sept. 14, 2017: This story has been updated to clarify the school boards’ arguments for not sharing the information.

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.