First Person

Voices: Some Monday morning quarterbacking on Amendment 66

A+ Denver CEO Van Schoales reflects on lessons that supporters of school finance reform should learn from the failure of the school tax measure Amendment 66. And join EdNews for a panel discussion on the future of school finance in the wake of Amendment 66 Tuesday evening at 6 p.m. RSVP here. 

moneymagnifiedReform-minded school board candidates swept the largest districts in the state for the first time ever. At the same time, voters rejected Amendment 66 by a 2 to 1 margin. One might think that the same voters who wanted to reform school districts would also want to reform the school finance behemoth — assuming they understood that 66 might make school finance more equitable, targeted and transparent.

Why didn’t the $10 million spent on the campaign lead to better results? What lessons should be learned? Here is a little Monday morning quarterbacking, a reflection on what might have gone wrong, what we might learn and what we can do differently next time.

  1. Partnerships of convenience make for weak alliances: The school finance partnership was well-meaning and led to some great conversations among education leaders. However, its makeup was lopsided in favor of the status quo: leadership from school boards, administrators and teacher unions. The partnership was convened because it was necessary to have everyone at the table so that a bill might get passed. Yet, while the partnership developed broad principles, it was never able to agree philosophically on what needed to change or provide the specifics about what would change. It is like the Israelis and Palestinians agreeing on a general peace agreement but with nothing about the settlements. A “grand bargain” was struck wherein everyone would get more money but would be required to swallow some reforms, but it was a compromise, not a partnership. Therefore, a true coalition between reformers and status quo representatives never gelled. As a result, the establishment camps continued to undermine the parts of the bill they never agreed to throughout the legislative process. This raises some important questions about who should be at the table and what agreements should be made before a bill idea arrives at the capital.
  2. Coloradans are not fans of statewide taxes: Coloradans generally don’t like taxes unless someone else is paying. We are only willing to pay if we know exactly what our money is going to do and how it benefits us directly. Even Denver voters, who recently voted 69% to support last year’s mill levy increase for the Denver Public Schools, only voted 53% in favor of 66. Some have argued that if only the campaign had enough funding, a tax increase could be passed; clearly this was not the case. Proposition 103, which cost about $600,000, lost by 65%, compared to the 66 campaign loss of 64% with almost 20 times the funding for the effort. Was greater clarity needed about how new taxes directly benefit the taxpayer? Or, as many have said, was this too big a bite for too many voters?
  3. Colorado is purple and maybe cynical gray a la George Packer: Senator Mike Johnston and his partners did a remarkable job ushering SB 213 through the state house and senate. Ultimately, however, the bill had to be carried by Democrats. In retrospect, not having a single Republican made the bill too tough to sell to purple state voters. Amendment 66 might have had a better chance of passing (think Owens cheering while Hickenlooper jumped out of planes for Referendum C) if the first draft had been crafted by Senator Johnston and a Republican. This might have sent the education establishment and some of their Democrat friends spinning, but in the end, aligning too closely with the (Dem-backed) establishment alienated a lot of reformers and Republican voters. Significant reforms in Colorado (from standards and teacher effectiveness to school accountability) have almost always stemmed from bipartisan efforts.
  4. Organize Colorado business: The business community provided a great deal of support when SB 213 was moving through the legislature by pushing against the education establishment when it came to getting and keeping school reform in SB 213. Many of these business folks were happy to stand with Governor Hickenlooper when he signed 213 into law, yet many of these same groups went silent or changed direction when it came to paying for the reforms and supporting 66. These same groups seem more than happy to line up for more taxes (probably a regressive sales tax) to build roads, but quickly scatter when asked for education reform funding. Kudos to Colorado Succeeds for seeing the whole process through to the ballot. We all need to do a better job working with the business community so that they might support a more effective public education system that directly benefits them and the rest of us. Or maybe we need to understand more has to be done with less.
  5. Messaging matters: The 66 campaign was built on the supposition that if the far left mailed their ballots, 66 would pass. They bet that the message of smaller classrooms, more art classes, gym and funding to meet student needs would motivate voters (particularly given some of the recent cuts). At the same time, messages about reform were mentioned as an afterthought, if hardly at all. While A+ Denver did not have access to the polling or focus group data, the “more money equals better outcomes” message was worrisome because so few we talked to were motivated by this message. Most people agree that we need to improve our schools but questioned the price tag and exactly how the money would be spent. Clearly there is enormous skepticism about the effectiveness of government, particularly when at the state or federal level. What remains confusing is how campaign insiders believed that they were within several points of winning up until a week before the election. This is puzzling, given the well-funded, sophisticated campaign. They engaged in regular polling and focus groups throughout the summer and fall and ended up with a message that could have been written by the teachers’ union. Was this what voters wanted to hear? More needs to be understood: what worked for the campaign and what did not?

I supported 66. It would have been a great step forward and I knocked on doors trying to convince voters of the same. Finance reform is necessary, along with full-day kindergarten and high quality early childhood education, if we are serious about having a world-class public education system. No higher performing system, whether Massachusetts, Shanghai, the Netherlands, Denmark or Sweden, lacks these components. Maybe we need to regroup and take much smaller bites of the apple to build a public education system that lives up to our desires and the needs of our state.

However, we all (winners and losers in the 66 fight) must ultimately take stock of what happened and what is possible in Colorado on the reform and funding fronts before we return to the education battlefield to do what each of us believes is necessary to improve public education.

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.