Future of Schools

O’Brien, Kiley and Poston argue conflict of interest, Amendment 66

Updated: We’ve now added the complete video of the debate.

Denver city-wide school board candidates Michael Kiley, Barbara O’Brien and Joan Poston wrangled over issues ranging from teacher evaluations, last year’s bond and mill levy to candidates’ conflict of interest on Thursday night.

“We’re the envy of the country,” said O’Brien at the end of the heated debate. “Other communities wish they had the love for their education system we have.”

The debate was the second in a series sponsored by A+ Denver, EdNews and KDVR Fox31. KDVR’s Eli Stokols moderated the debate using versions of questions provided by A+ Denver and by members of the public who submitted questions online. He also posed a few questions of his own.

Kiley took the opportunity to emphasize his commitment to community engagement, saying change can’t come from outside.

“Any change to a school has to come from the community,” he said. Kiley also attacked O’Brien’s 2003 support of vouchers.

O’Brien emphasized that she does not currently support vouchers and that the 2003 program was a pilot.

“I oppose vouchers and I can’t conceive that as a board, we’ll have to deal with that,” said O’Brien.

Besides, she said, “Denver has become a district of choice.”

Poston, who was a late entry in the race, highlighted her frustration with previous school boards and her desire to change the culture.

“I went to the board expecting a response and didn’t get it,” Poston said, referring to a petition she made in 2006 for installing cooling systems.

Here are some of the most discussed topics of the debate:

Conflict of interest

O’Brien’s previous involvement with the school district through her non-profit organization Get Smart Schools, which works with schools with high levels of low-income students, prompted some of the most heated back and forth in the debate.

Kiley said it represented a conflict of interest and would prevent her from dealing with all schools equally.

“So now if she’s voting for a given school, she’s got an interest in the school [she works with] but the community has an interest in the neighborhood school,” said Kiley. “The board needs to answer to the community.”

O’Brien said she had spoken with the school district lawyer and that it did not represent a conflict of interest except in “1 percent of decisions.”

Kiley suggested it was not a disinterested assessment, saying that “the DPS lawyer will work for you if you’re on the board.” He emphasized that he would be an independent voice on the board.

“The distinction is that I don’t run in a certain political circle,” said Kiley. “I’m not part of a political machine.”

O’Brien said she was happy to talk about her non-profit and that she was proud of her work. The school board needs “people who have real world experience,” O’Brien argued.

She praised Kiley’s work at his children’s schools but said she had a broader range of experience.

Amendment 66

Not all candidates supported the proposed tax increase which would alter the state’s school finance policies as well as raise $950 million in tax dollars for education.

Poston opposed the amendment, saying it would take control of the budget out of the hands of the community and the district and place it in the hands of the state.

“That’s another level away from the neighborhood,” she said.

“But, Joan, most of our money already comes from the state,” O’Brien countered. O’Brien said she supports the tax measure, citing the additional funds it would bring to Denver students.

Kiley supported the amendment, saying “I think it makes some good structural changes.” But, he said, for it to be effective, the community would have to be able to trust the school board’s judgement in the administration of the funds.

Bond and mill levy

Last year’s bond and mill levy remained a divisive issue in this debate, as candidates argued over district accountability and community engagement.

Kiley, who supported the mill levy but not the bond, said that he was in favor of the mill levy in part because of the funding for early childhood education. But he was concerned about a lack of accountability for the bond money.

“My concerns [on the bond] were that there were very vague areas of spending,” Kiley said. He said his fears were realized when the district purchased a new administration building, using funds from the bond.

O’Brien countered that the new administration building, which is at 1860 Lincoln St., was paid for by selling off other district properties. She also said that the bond paid for classroom space for the early childhood education Kiley supported.

“I think it’s really important not to create confusion where there’s transparency,” O’Brien said. “You don’t try to withhold $466 million in physical improvements from our kids.”

Teacher evaluations

All three candidates supported SB-191 but for different reasons. The bill created a new system of teacher evaluation and replaced forced placement, where teachers could be placed in schools by their district, without the agreement of either the teacher or the school’s principal. SB-191 instituted the practice of mutual consent, by which both the principal and the teacher would have to agree on the the placement.

Poston, who said she is a staunch supporter of increased accountability, said there would be no need for forced placement if teachers performed at a high enough level.

“If you get good evaluations, you won’t have forced placement,” Poston said.

O’Brien supported mutual consent, saying that principals could not be held accountable for school performance if they can’t be in control of hiring.

“If you’re going to hold someone accountable, they have to have control over who they hire,” said O’Brien.

Kiley was ambivalent about the merits of mutual consent but supported the bill overall. The problem, he said, was in the district’s leadership.

“Forced placement isn’t in the interest of kids, but mutual consent creates its own problems,” Kiley said. Ultimately, “we need a different kind of administration.”

Follow the money

Groups with a stake in Colorado’s school board elections raise $1.5 million to influence them

The nation's second largest teachers union is spending $300,000 to support a slate of candidates running for the Douglas County school board. Those candidates posed for pictures at their campaign kick-off event are from left, Krista Holtzmann, Anthony Graziano, Chris Schor, and Kevin Leung. (Photo by Nic Garcia/Chalkbeat)

Union committees and various political groups have raised more than $1.5 million so far to influence the outcome of school board elections across the state, according to new campaign finance reports.

The Colorado Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union, and organizations such as Democrats for Education Reform, a political nonprofit, are spending big in an effort to help elect school board members that represent their positions.

It’s become a common storyline in school board elections in Colorado and across the country: On one side, teachers unions hoping to elect members that will improve working conditions and teacher pay, among other things. On the other, education reformers who generally back candidates who support expanding school choice for families, more autonomy for schools and accountability systems that measure school quality, usually based on test scores.

The complete fundraising and spending picture, however, is often murky and incomplete.

State law lays out different rules and disclosure requirements for different types of political committees. The most prevalent this election year appears to be independent expenditure committee, which can raise and spend an unlimited amount of money but are forbidden from coordinating with candidates. (Campaign finance reports for the candidates’ campaigns are due at midnight Tuesday).

Other groups such as Americans For Prosperity work outside the reporting requirements altogether by spending money on “social welfare issues,” rather than candidates. The conservative political nonprofit, which champions charter schools and other school reforms, pledged to spend more than six-figures for “a sweeping outreach effort to parents” to promote school choice policies in Douglas County. The fight over charter schools and vouchers, which use tax dollars to send students to private schools, has been a key debate in school board races there.

Both the union and reform groups operate independent committees. Those committees must report donations and expenditures to the secretary of state. But the donations captured in campaign finance reports are often huge lump sums from parent organizations, which aren’t required to disclose their donations under federal law. (Dues collected out of teachers’ paychecks are often the source for political contributions from unions.)

Several groups are spending money in Denver, where four of the seven school board seats are up for election. The ten candidates vying for those four seats include incumbents who agree with the district’s direction and challengers who do not. The Denver teachers union has endorsed candidates pushing for change.

The Every Student Succeeds group, which has raised almost $300,000 in union donations, is spending the most on one Denver candidate, Xóchitl “Sochi” Gaytán, who is running for a seat in southwest Denver, and on a slate of four Aurora school board candidates endorsed by Aurora’s teachers union.

The group’s largest donations came from the Colorado Fund for Children and Public Education, a fund from the Colorado Education Association. Aurora’s teachers union contributed $35,000 to the committee. The DCTA Fund, a fund created by Denver’s teachers union, also contributed $85,000 to the committee.

Some of the group’s union money is also going to a slate of school board candidates in Mesa County and another in Brighton.

Another union-funded group, called Brighter Futures for Denver, has spent all of its money on consultant services for one Denver candidate: Jennifer Bacon, who’s running in a three-person race in northeast Denver’s District 4. The Denver teachers union, which contributed $114,000 to the committee, has endorsed Bacon. The statewide teachers union also contributed money.

The Students for Education Reform Action Committee has spent equal amounts on two Denver candidates. One, Angela Cobián, is running in Denver’s District 2 against Gaytán and has been endorsed by incumbent Rosemary Rodriguez, who isn’t running again. The other is Rachele Espiritu, the incumbent running in District 4. The funds, which were collected during a previous campaign cycle and carried over into this one, have gone toward phone banking, T-shirts and campaign literature.

The group has endorsed Cobián, Espiritu and incumbent Barbara O’Brien, who holds an at-large seat. It did not endorse a candidate in the central-east Denver District 3 race, explaining that it prioritizes “working with communities that reflect the backgrounds and experiences of our members, which are typically low-income and students of color.”

Better Schools for a Stronger Colorado, a committee affiliated with the pro-reform Stand for Children organization, has spent a sizable portion of the more than $100,000 it’s raised thus far on online advertisements and mailers for O’Brien. It has also spent money on mailers for incumbent Mike Johnson, who represents District 3.

Stand for Children has endorsed O’Brien, Johnson and Cobián. The group chose not to endorse in the three-person District 4 race, explaining that both incumbent Espiritu and challenger Bacon had surpassed its “threshold for endorsement.”

Another big spender is Raising Colorado, a group reporting $625,000 in donations from New York’s Education Reform Now — the national affiliate of Democrats for Education Reform. That group is spending money on mailers and digital media for four candidates in Denver: Espiritu, Cobián, Johnson and O’Brien, as well as two candidates for Aurora’s school board: Gail Pough and Miguel In Suk Lovato.

In Douglas County, the American Federation of Teachers, the nation’s second largest teachers unions has pumped $300,000 into a committee backing a slate of candidates that opposes the current direction of the state’s third largest school district.

The committee, Douglas Schools for Douglas Kids, has spent most of its war chest on producing TV, digital and mail advertising by firms in Washington D.C., and San Francisco.

The Douglas County arm of AFT lost its collective bargaining agreement with the district in 2012.

A group of parents that also supports the union-backed slate have formed a committee, as well. So far it has raised $42,750, records show. Unlike the union donation, most donations to this committee were small donations, averaging about $50 per person.

The parent committee has spent about $28,000 on T-shirts, bumper stickers, postage and yard signs, records show.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to include more information about Americans for Prosperity’s Douglas County plans. 

what is a good school?

New York policymakers are taking a closer look at how they evaluate charter schools

PHOTO: Stephanie Snyder
Erica Murphy, school director of Brownsville Ascend Lower Charter School in New York, oversees students in a fourth-grade English class.

New York is rethinking how it judges whether charter schools are successful and deserve to remain open — a discussion that comes as some top education policymakers have asked tough questions about the privately managed schools.

The state education department currently decides which of the more than 70 charter schools it oversees can stay open based largely on their test scores and graduation rates, though other factors like family involvement and financial management are also reviewed. A set of changes now being considered could add additional performance measures, such as the share of students who are chronically absent and student survey results.

Policymakers also discussed whether to change how they calculate charter-school student enrollment and retention.

The move — which got its first public discussion Monday during a Board of Regents meeting and is expected to become a formal proposal in December — would bring charter schools in line with a shift underway in how the state judges district-run schools. Under the new federal education law, the board has moved away from using test scores as the main metric for evaluating schools and will begin to track absences and eventually suspensions.

Since the state’s current system for evaluating charter schools was last revised in 2015, the board has added several new members and elected a new leader, Betty Rosa. Several members at a previous board meeting questioned the enrollment practices at a charter school in Brooklyn.

At Monday’s meeting, some suggested the schools attain high test scores partly by serving fewer high-needs students — and that the system for evaluating charters should take this into account.  

For instance, Regent Kathleen Cashin implied at Monday’s meeting that some charter schools achieve high test scores by pushing out students. Their motivation, she said, “is not pedagogic, I’ll tell you that.” She suggested that, in addition to tracking how well charter schools retain students, the state should survey parents who leave those schools to find out why.

Meanwhile, Chancellor Rosa suggested Monday that it’s unfair to compare charter schools that serve few high-needs students to traditional schools.

Charter schools receive autonomy from many rules, but in return they agree to meet certain performance targets — or risk closure if they do not. The state judges charters based on a variety of metrics, everything from their enrollment figures to how they respond to parent concerns. However, test scores and graduation rates are “the most important factor when determining to renew or revoke a school’s charter,” according to state documents.

Even if the state adds new measures that move beyond test scores, those will still hold the most weight, according to state officials.

The state is also considering whether to change how it measures charter schools’ enrollment and retention targets. Currently, schools must set targets for students with disabilities, English learners, and those eligible for free and reduced-priced lunch. If they fail to meet those targets, they must show they are making yearly progress towards meeting that goal.

During the state’s presentation, officials also floated the idea of a “fiscal dashboard,” which would display charter schools’ financial information. They also said they may compare charter high school graduation rates and Regents exam scores with those of the districts where they’re located, instead of using only the state average or their targets as a comparison point.