Analysis

Why Colorado conservative education reformers lost Tuesday

PHOTO: AAron Ontiveroz, The Denver Post
Soon-to-be-former Jeffco school board president Kent Witt

After a string of electoral successes, conservative school reform candidates in Colorado were dealt harsh blows this week in elections swung by issues that were both intensely local and part of broader battles over power, money and change in American education.

In Jefferson County, a hotel ballroom exploded with chants and tears as three conservatives elected as a slate in 2013 were recalled in a rout.

In Douglas County, six years of dominance by a boundary-pushing board finally showed cracks as three opponents broke through, forming a solid minority promising a more open and diverse board.

In the Loveland-based Thompson district, animus over a teacher contract dispute propelled union-backed candidates into power.

Elsewhere, a conservative attempt to take over a moderate board in Colorado Springs was repelled and one of two conservative reform candidates won seats in Aurora, sending a mixed message.

All the elections had their own quirks, players and storylines. But common themes bound them together, too, highlighted by reinvigorated teachers unions willing to invest money and energy combined with motivated and networked parents fed up with agendas they saw as dangerous overreaches.

“You can’t deny it was a setback for conservative reform at the school board level in Colorado,” said Ben DeGrow, a senior policy analyst with the libertarian Independence Institute, which fought the Jeffco recall and provided policy guidance in other districts. “The unions had their day. There’s no doubt about it.”

Where conservative reformers lost | Get the details about what happened in four districts — Jeffco, Dougco, Thompson and Colorado Springs 11 — at the center of Tuesday’s shift in school board politics here.

Kerrie Dallman, president of the Colorado Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union, said the results reflect voter confidence in teachers and frustration with the status quo. Critics of the old boards in the Douglas, Jefferson and Thompson districts complained about divisiveness and a lack of openness.

“The public wants a high degree of trust and collaboration in their school districts,” Dallman said, “and I believe the outcome is a direct reflection that the public didn’t believe those two things existed.”

Dallman downplayed speculation that union involvement in some districts this year was sparked by fears that conservative boards would do away with local bargaining units. The Douglas board ousted its local non-CEA union, and the Thompson board has refused to approve a contract with its CEA affiliate.

“Our main priority was our students,” Dallman said. “For us this was never about Republicans versus Democrats, conservatives versus liberals, unions against reformers.”

Spending and messaging

Angst among teachers goes well beyond contract negotiations and bargaining units, however. In Colorado and elsewhere, teachers are feeling pressure from a drumbeat of reforms that include new standardized tests and tying their evaluations and pay to student performance.

“The (Colorado) vote may be a reflection of the deepening anger that teachers feel across the nation about high stakes testing regimes that treat educators more like factory workers than professionals,” said Richard Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at The Century Foundation, a liberal think tank in Washington.

Ken Witt, the Jeffco board president who was ousted in the recall, attributed the conservative losses to the coordinated efforts of union forces worried about losing control. Witt said he believes voters are likely to support education reform efforts he and his colleagues back, but messaging was a problem.

Recall supporter Cecelia Lange waved signs at 52nd and Wadsworth Tuesday morning.
PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Recall supporter Cecelia Lange waved signs at 52nd and Wadsworth Tuesday morning.

“If you lose an election, then you didn’t reach enough people,” he said. “Reform lost a lot of elections (Tuesday) night. That means we’re not communicating well.”

Not surprisingly, that was not a sentiment held by architects of the Jefferson County recall. Lynea Hansen, a political consultant to recall organizers, framed Tuesday’s results as losses not for conservatives but for what she describes as corporate reform.

“Many conservatives voted for change last night, as well as unaffiliateds and Democrats,” Hansen said. “What I think we really saw were communities seeing the importance of school board elections, many for the first time, and taking an interest in making sure our public schools stay just that — public.”

As in all high-stakes local school board races these days, money poured in from all corners.

Campaign committees affiliated with CEA, plus local union committees, were heavily involved in funding candidates in the Jeffco, Thompson, Denver and Colorado Springs 11 districts. Dallman of the CEA said those spending decisions were driven by requests and recommendations from local union units.

At the same time, a loose network of conservative nonprofits including Americans for Prosperity and the Independence Institute raised and redistributed money through various political committees to rebuff the Jeffco recall and back candidates along the Front Range who support policies such as merit pay for teachers and charter school expansion.

The education reform community is not monolithic. But generally, conservative reformers support policies that give parents more choice between schools including district-run, charter and private schools; establish merit pay for teachers and weaken teachers unions.

‘That’s the whole point of being in a union’

In Aurora, the school board race featured new narratives and players in district education politics.

The campaigns for three seats in the academically struggling district featured two incumbents, two conservatives and involvement from reform groups on the right and left. When ballots were counted, the results were mixed — one of the conservative reformers prevailed and the two incumbents held on.

To ward off a perceived threat from two conservative candidates, the Aurora Education Association coordinated more directly with candidates it endorsed and spent more money on the 2015 election than it had in recent memory, said Amy Nichols, the union’s president.

“We’ve never had, in recent memory, a race this big for us,” she said. “We saw what happened in Douglas County, in Jeffco, in Thompson. And we just didn’t want those distractions here.”

The Aurora teachers union gave $1,500 to each of the three candidates it backed and later made a donation to an independent expenditure committee. Nichols said she didn’t immediately know how much was given to that committee, which won’t file its next finance report with the state until January.

Aurora school board candidates, from left, Monica Colbert, Billie Day, and Mike Donald took questions from parents at a candidate forum Thursday.
PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Aurora school board candidates, from left, Monica Colbert, Billie Day, and Mike Donald took questions from parents at a candidate forum Thursday.

Nichols challenged those who spotlighted unions’ stepped up spending and involvement.

“That’s the whole point of being a union,” she said. “Bottom line. I find it ironic. It’s like the pot calling the kettle black. You want to organize with your money … But you don’t want others to have the same opportunity?”

Former Republican state senator Josh Penry — a political consultant for Ready Colorado, a nonprofit that backed the two conservative board candidates — saw positives in the Aurora race compared to other more heated affairs in Jeffco or Dougco. He framed the debate over whether “sensible change” was needed.

Penry also pointed to heightened teachers union involvement as a key factor in Tuesday’s results.

“The unions to their political credit spent heavily and aggressively, more so than they have in the last several cycles,” Penry said. “That definitely tipped the scales in a number of places.’

The storyline was different in Denver, where Democratic-flavored education reform efforts were bolstered by Tuesday’s results. Although board president Happy Haynes faced an unexpectedly stern test, she held on and the balance of power on the board shifted from 6-1 to 7-0 favoring the district’s decade-old reforms.

A statement from Jen Walmer, head of Democrats for Education Reform in Colorado, illustrates how the term “reform” can mean vastly different things. After lauding the DPS result, Walmer went on to applaud “the defeat of ideologically driven school boards that voters rejected in favor of practical improvements.”

“As reformers dedicated to measurable high performance, accountability, transparency and choice for families in the best interest of their students, we must always protect and carry the mantle of true reform,” said Walmer, a former DPS chief of staff. “It is clear that some are using reform language to cloak their true desire to dismantle public education. A dialogue that is anti-teacher and not in the best interest of kids falls flat when held against true leaders working on behalf of students and equity.”

What kind of statement?

Opinions vary over how much to read into Tuesday’s results, and which conclusions to draw.

School board races tend to be low-information, low-turnout elections, so it’s generally unwise to use them as a barometer of public opinion on education policy, said Kevin Welner, director of the National Education Policy Center at the University of Colorado Boulder. But this week’s much-watched school board races are more likely to reflect broader sentiment, he said.

Of the success of the Jeffco recall, Welner said: “I don’t see that as signaling an overall shift in the state, but a moderating influence in a place that kind of jolted to the right very recently.”

Also uncertain is whether the results will slow the march of reform in suburban areas.

More affluent, higher performing suburban districts are in once sense ideal for experimenting because students there have more safety nets, so the risk is smaller and potential payoff larger, said Frederick Hess, director of education policy studies for the conservative American Enterprise Institute.

“But if you are dealing with suburban communities where families are deeply involved and schools are seen as pretty good, trying to do ambitious reforms can be a high-wire act,” Hess said. “It can be easy for critics to raise concerns.”

In the Thompson school district, this week’s election shifted control from a reform-driven majority to one supported by the teachers union by a super-majority of five seats to two.

Denise Montagu, an incumbent endorsed by the local union who previously was in the board minority, said conservative school reform candidates lost in Thompson and elsewhere because voters believed they were sold a bill of goods.

“I think the community wanted to give reform a try,” Montagu said. “‘Reform, doesn’t that sound beautiful?’ But when they learned that reform meant attorneys, disenfranchising our teachers and clearly not putting the students first … that’s not what they signed up for.”

​Chalkbeat Colorado reporter Melanie Asmar contributed information to this report.

election 2019

College student, former candidate jumps into Denver school board race – early

PHOTO: Andy Cross/The Denver Post
Tay Anderson speaks to students at Denver's South High School in May 2017.

A Denver college student who as a teenager last year unsuccessfully ran for a seat on the district’s school board announced Wednesday that he plans to try again in 2019.

Tay Anderson, 20, said he will run next November for the board seat currently occupied by Happy Haynes. Haynes, a longtime Denver politician who is executive director of the city’s parks and recreation department, does not represent a particular region of the school district. Rather, she is one of two at-large members on the board. Haynes was first elected to the school board in 2011 and is barred by term limits from running again.

Haynes supports the direction of Denver Public Schools and some of its more aggressive improvement strategies, such as closing low-performing schools. Anderson does not.

He is the first candidate to declare he’s running for the Denver school board in 2019. Haynes’ seat is one of three seats that will be open in 2019. There is no school board election this year.

In 2017, Anderson ran in a heated three-way race for a different board seat representing northeast Denver. Former teacher Jennifer Bacon won that seat with 42 percent of the vote.

Anderson, a vocal critic of the district, campaigned on platform of change. He called for the district to improve what he described as weak community engagement efforts and to stop approving new charter schools, which are publicly funded but independently run.

Bacon also questioned some of the district’s policies. The Denver teachers union endorsed her over Anderson, who raised the least amount of money of the three candidates. Bacon was one of two new board members elected in 2017 who represent a more critical perspective. The 2019 election is likely to involve many of the same debates over education reform.

Anderson is a graduate of Denver’s Manual High School. He is now a student at Metropolitan State University, where he is studying education. He said he also works at Hinkley High School in neighboring Aurora, helping with the school’s restorative justice program, a method of student discipline that focuses on repairing harm rather than doling out punishment.

Anderson posted his campaign announcement on Facebook. It says, in part:

After a lot of thought, prayer, and seeking guidance from mentors, I decided this is the path I need to pursue to fulfill my commitment to the students, teachers, and community of Denver. I learned many valuable lessons during my campaign in 2017 and I know that I need to prepare and ensure that I have the adequate time to be in every part of Denver to connect with as many voters as possible, which is why I am getting to work now!

My dedication to Denver Public Schools has always been deeply personal and this campaign is reflective of that. As I gear up for another campaign, I am once again driven and motivated by my grandmother, who was an educator for over 35 years. Her tenacity to never give up is what drives my passion for the students in Denver Public Schools. I am determined to follow in her footsteps. I have organized students around school safety and more importantly impacted students’ lives in Denver Public Schools and Aurora Public Schools. These students have a voice and I am prepared to fight for their agency in their education.

more back-and-forth

Eighteen legislators show support for TNReady pause as 11 superintendents say press on

PHOTO: TN.gov
Tennessee lawmakers listen to Gov. Bill Haslam deliver his 2016 State of the State address at the State Capitol in Nashville.

School leaders and now state lawmakers continue to pick sides in a growing debate over whether or not Tennessee should pause state testing for students.

Eighteen state legislators sent the superintendents of Nashville and Memphis a letter on Tuesday supporting a request for an indefinite pause of the state’s embattled test, TNReady.

“As members of the Tennessee General Assembly responsible for helping set policies and appropriate taxpayer funds for public education, we have been dismayed at the failed implementation of and wasted resources associated with a testing system that is universally considered — by any set of objective measures – to be a colossal failure,” said the letter, signed by legislators from Davidson and Shelby counties, where Nashville and Memphis are located.

Rep. John Ray Clemmons, a Democrat from Nashville, spearheaded the letter. Representatives Johnnie Turner, G.A. Hardaway, Barbara Cooper, Antonio Parkinson and Sen. Sara Kyle were among the signers representing Memphis.

Clemmons told Chalkbeat that he believes Tennessee should have a state test, but that it shouldn’t be TNReady.

“We are showing support for leaders who are representing students and teachers who are incredibly frustrated with a failing system,” Clemmons said. “We have to come up with a system that is reliable and fair.”

The lawmakers’ statement comes a day after Education Commissioner Candice McQueen responded to the Nashville and Memphis school leaders in a strongly worded letter, where she said that a pause on state testing would be “both illegal and inconsistent with our values as a state.”

The growing divide over a pause in TNReady testing further elevates it as an issue in the governor’s race, which will be decided on Nov. 6. Democratic nominee Karl Dean, who is the former mayor of Nashville, and Republican nominee Bill Lee, a businessman from Williamson County, have both said their respective administrations would review the state’s troubled testing program.

“We are hopeful that the next governor will appoint a new Commissioner of Education and immediately embark on a collaborative effort with local school districts to scrap the failed TNready system,” the 18 state lawmakers said in their statement.

Shelby County Schools Superintendent Dorsey Hopson and Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools Director Shawn Joseph launched the back-and-forth with an Aug. 3 letter they said was sent to outgoing Gov. Bill Haslam and McQueen declaring “no confidence” in the troubled state test. McQueen’s office said Tuesday that neither her office nor the governor’s office had yet received the letter.

However, a spokeswoman for Nashville public schools told Chalkbeat on Monday that the Aug. 3 letter was sent to Assistant Commissioner Elizabeth Fiveash, who reports to McQueen. While some legislators backed the two superintendents, 11 district leaders from around the state released an email statement on Tuesday supporting state testing. Superintendents from Maryville, Alcoa, Sevier, Johnson, Dyersburg, Loudon, Clinton, Marshall, McKenzie, Trousdale, and Lenoir signed the statement, which they said was also sent to McQueen.

“Test items and question types are directly linked to the standards and are pushing students to deeper critical thinking,” the email said. “The comprehensive accountability model holds schools and districts accountable for improved student performance…. Challenges remain, but together we must be positive as we continue the work.”

The state has struggled to administer TNReady cleanly since its failed online rollout in 2016, prompting McQueen to cancel most testing that year and fire its testing company. Except for scattered scoring problems, the next year went better under new vendor Questar and mostly paper-and-pencil testing materials.

But this spring, the return to computerized exams for older students was fraught with disruptions and spurred the Legislature to order that the results not be used against students or teachers.

For the upcoming school year, the state has hired an additional testing company, and McQueen has slowed the switch to computerized exams. The state Department of Education has recruited 37 teachers and testing coordinators to become TNReady ambassadors, tasked with offering on-the-ground feedback and advice to the state and its vendors to improve the testing experience.

Read both the state lawmakers’ letter and the superintendents’ statement below:

Signers are: John Ray Clemmons, Bo Mitchell, Sherry Jones, Dwayne Thompson, Brenda Gilmore, Darren Jernigan, Antonio Parkinson, Jason Powell, Bill Beck, Mike Stewart, Barbara Ward Cooper, Larry Miller, G.A. Hardaway,  Karen D. Camper, Harold Love,  Johnnie Turner, Sara Kyle, and Joe Towns.

August 14, 2018
 
STATEMENT OF SUPPORT
 
District leaders across Tennessee understand and validate the disappointment and frustration our teachers, students, and parents felt with the glitches and errors faced during the spring’s administration of the TNReady student assessment. It was unacceptable. However, it is important that we, as leaders, step up to say that now is the time to press on and continue the important work of improving the overall education for all Tennessee students.  
 
We are optimistic about where we are heading in education – ultimately more students will graduate prepared for the next steps in their lives. The foundation is solid with (1) rigorous standards, (2) aligned assessments, and (3) an accountability model that focuses on student achievement and growth.  We are now expecting as much or more out of our students as any state in the nation. Test items and question types are directly linked to the standards and are pushing students to deeper critical thinking. The comprehensive accountability model holds schools and districts accountable for improved student performance across all subgroups.  Challenges remain, but together we must be positive as we continue the work.
 
Our students have made strong and steady gains in achievement and growth over the past few years, earning recognition at a national level. Our students now have the opportunity to be more fully prepared and competitive to enter college and the workforce. This is not the time to press the pause button. Even with the improvements in student performance, there is much work to do. Achievement gaps for subgroups are too large and not enough students are graduating “Ready” for the next step.
 
We must hold the course on rigorous standards, aligned assessments, and an accountability system focused on student achievement and growth. We, the directors of Tennessee schools, believe this rigor and accountability will impact all students. We embrace the priorities outlined in Tennessee Succeeds with a focus on foundational literacy and pathways to postsecondary success. Tennessee students have already demonstrated a determination to reach the mastery of rigorous state standards and will rise to the newly established expectations. We have work to do, and we should keep the focus on instruction and closing the gaps to ensure every student in Tennessee is ready for their future. We want to send a message of confidence and determination, a relentless ambition to reach our goals. We must step up and hold the line. We cannot expect anything less than excellence. Our students deserve it. 
 
 
Mike Winstead, Maryville City Schools
Brian Bell, Alcoa City Schools
Jack Parton, Sevier County Schools
Steve Barnett, Johnson City Schools
Neel Durbin, Dyersburg City Schools
Jason Vance, Loudon County Schools
Kelly Johnson, Clinton City Schools
Jacob Sorrells, Marshall County Schools
Lynn Watkins, McKenzie Special School District
Clint Satterfield, Trousdale County Schools
Jeanne Barker, Lenoir City Schools