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.

How I Lead

This Memphis principal says supporting teachers and parents helped pull her school out of the bottom 10 percent

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Principal Yolanda Dandridge has led Georgian Hills Achievement Elementary for the last two years, and was previously the academic dean.

Here, in a series we call “How I Lead,” we feature principals and assistant principals who have been recognized for their work. You can see other pieces in the series here.

Principal Yolanda Dandridge walks almost 14,000 steps a day — double the national average.

It takes a lot of walking to manage two schools. Dandridge has led Georgian Hills Achievement Elementary for the last two years and was previously the academic dean. She temporarily took over Frayser Achievement Elementary when the schools had to share space this year because of maintenance issues at Georgian Hill’s original building.

“I am constantly on the move,” Dandridge said. “How else can you keep up with elementary students?”

Both schools are part of the Achievement School District, which is charged with turning around the state’s lowest-performing schools but has struggled to accomplish the task.

This year, Georgian Hills not only left the bottom 5 percent but moved out of the bottom 10 percent. In 2016, before Dandridge took charge, Georgian Hills was in the worst 2 percent of schools.

Dandridge was honored by the achievement district for her work.

“She is a real standout among our principals of someone who understands what it takes to turn things around,” said interim achievement district leader Kathleen Airhart.

Dandridge talked to Chalkbeat about how she gets to know her students, her efforts to motivate teachers, and why school buildings are important.

This interview has been condensed and lightly edited.

What was your first education job and what sparked your interest in the field?

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Dandridge walks almost 14,000 steps a day — double the national average.

I tell my teachers to always stay focused on the “why” behind their careers. For me, my “why” was the fact that my little brother got all the way through elementary school without learning to read. He wasn’t able to read until the fifth grade. He came from a family of educators, and he still slipped through the cracks. If that could happen to him, it could happen to so many kids.

I started teaching in Rolling Fork, Mississippi, and I taught in that state for more than a decade. I came to Memphis as a teacher, I was asked later to consider taking on the principal role at Georgian Hills. I said, “You want me to do what?” Now, I’m grateful for all those years in the classroom and as an academic dean to prepare me for this role.

How do you get to know students even though you don’t have your own classroom?

Any chance to get into the classroom, I will. If a substitute teacher doesn’t come, which does happen sometimes, I will teach the students in that classroom for a day. I love getting to know students by helping out in the classroom.

I am also constantly walking the hallways of both schools. That’s how I start the morning — I greet students and their parents by name when they walk into the school. I walk students to their classrooms. I’m constantly monitoring the hallways.

When a new student registers for classes, the first thing the office staff knows to do is call me down so I can meet them.

How do you handle discipline when students get into trouble?

I really prefer to always consider the experiences that a child may have had prior to entering our building.  When you approach discipline with a keen awareness of the types of situations a child might have or experience, it really makes you a better educator.  And you understand that the best thing for us to do is to ensure that students know and understand that we have their best interests in mind. When children connect with you and other teachers in this way, discipline is less challenging.

What is an effort you’ve spearheaded at your school that you’re particularly proud of?

I’m very proud of what we’ve done at Georgian Hills and now at Frayser to really focus on our teachers.

Every Wednesday after school, we’ll have a period of professional development. I try to be attentive to what my teachers tell me they want to learn more about. There is a lot of coordination on lesson plans in particular. Teachers work together on their lesson planning, and I also will personally give feedback on a teahers’ lesson plans. My biggest, driving question is “What do my teachers need most?” They don’t need to be spending hours everyday lesson planning when they can collaborate. We can help there.

Tell us about a time that a teacher evaluation didn’t go as expected — for better or for worse?

Evaluating teachers has always provided me with the opportunity to hear and see the creativity and passion that our teachers bring to the classroom.  My thought on evaluations is to take the anxiety out of it and ensure that teachers are comfortable and understand that the overall process is about improving their skills and enhancing the tools in their toolbox.

Tell us about a memorable time — good or bad — when contact with a student’s family changed your perspective.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
This year, Georgian Hills not only left the bottom 5 percent but moved out of the bottom 10 percent of schools in Tennessee.

When I was early in my teaching career in Mississippi, I had a student with a single mom. Her mom was an amazing support system for me and my classroom. She was always wanting to volunteer at the school. But she struggled to provide basic needs for her daughter — she was struggling to get a job. But she was trying so hard. There’s a stigma of parents, especially in low-income communities, not participating or caring about their child’s education. This mom was giving her all, and it changed my view of parental support. The school needed to find ways to also support her.

And so as a principal, I’m always thinking about how I can support my parents and invite them into the school. So that they feel welcome and wanted, and also so they are encouraged in their own role in their child’s education. We hold math and science nights, where parents learn how to do math games or science experiments at home with their kids. We provide them with materials and knowledge so that they can provide enrichment in their own home.

What issue in the education policy realm is having a big impact on your school right now? How are you addressing it?

We, like many schools in Memphis, don’t have the facilities we need for our students. Georgian Hills had to vacate our school building due to an issue with the roof. That created a hard environment for this school year — moving to a new building where we share space, and then me taking on that school as its school leader when the principal left. Honestly, I thought this year could break me as a school leader. But it didn’t, and it didn’t break our school either. We had a culture in place where our teachers felt supported among the chaos of the start of the year. After a year of repairs, we’re planning on moving back to our original building this fall.

But the issue here is that we don’t have the school buildings we need. Schools should be palaces in a community.

What’s the best advice you’ve received?

You have to mobilize people’s efforts to “win.” The first secret to this is to love your people. They are here for a purpose and you have to help them understand the higher purpose that they are here to serve.  You have to have the right people in place, be responsible for developing them, and have the courage to let them go when student’s needs aren’t being met. Finally, transparency rules.

oversight

Aurora school board to consider one-year charter contract for school with conflict of interest

PHOTO: Andrea Chu

Aurora’s school board is set to decide Tuesday whether to renew the charter of a well-rated school that long has served children with special needs — but that also has become caught up in questions over conflicts of interest and opaque finances.

Aurora district administrators, concerned about operations of Vanguard Classical School, are recommending just a one-year charter extension rather than the usual five-year contract.

District staff members told the school board earlier this year that they were unsure about the school’s relationship with Ability Connection Colorado, the nonprofit that started the school and provides services through a $350,000 agreement. Not only does that contract lack specifics, but also the nonprofit’s CEO, Judy Ham, serves as the president of the charter school’s board and has signed agreements between the two organizations on behalf of Vanguard.

“You can see the clear conflict of interest concern that arose for us,” Lamont Browne, the district’s director of autonomous schools, told the school board in February.

The charter school board president disputes the findings of the conflicts of interest, but said the school is going to comply with all of the contract’s conditions anyway.

Vanguard, which first opened in 2007, was created to serve students with special needs in an inclusive model, meaning, as much as possible those students are blended into regular classrooms. Currently, the charter operates two campuses. One, near Lowry, enrolls about 500 K-8 students, and the second, a K-12 campus on the east side of the city, enrolls about 745 students. More than half of the students at each campus qualify for free or reduced price lunches, a measure of poverty.

In reviewing Vanguard, the district found it has a higher percentage of students who perform well on some state tests than the district does. The school also has a good rating from annual state reviews.

But the unclear relationship between the school and its founding nonprofit have raised doubts.

Although the relationship and service agreements the school has with the nonprofit aren’t new, Aurora’s concerns came up during an interview step that was added to the charter renewal process this year. Last time Vanguard went through a review from the district, five years ago, the district’s office of autonomous schools that now oversees charter schools did not exist. Staff describe previous reviews as compliance checklists.

Ham told district reviewers in that new step during the review process, that she never recused herself from board votes involving her employer.

But Ham now says that she misspoke, and meant that she has never recused herself officially because she just doesn’t vote on matters involving Ability Connection Colorado.

“It felt like (it was) a loaded question” Ham said. “But I don’t recuse myself because I don’t ever vote. It’s almost like a foregone conclusion.”

Browne also told the board he was concerned with the lack of detail about the $350,000 service agreement.

“Considering the amount that that contract was for, we were very concerned about the lack of detail regarding those services,” Browne said. He also pointed to school staff’s “lack of clarity with regard to what they were paying for and what they were receiving.”

Ham said the charter school has rewritten and added more detail to the agreements about what Ability Connection Colorado does for the school, which she said includes payroll services, human resources, building management, and risk assessments for students. The school’s west campus also shares a building with the nonprofit.

“We are on-call 24-7,” Ham said. “We wanted to provide everything so that the school could focus on being able to do the most important thing which is educating the children, knowing that inclusive education is hard to do.”

But what the functions of the nonprofit are aren’t clear, according to Aurora administrators.

“The school should not be wondering what services they are or are not receiving from the company,” said Mackenzie Stauffer, Aurora’s charter school coordinator.

Administrators recommend a renewed contract include stipulations such as governance training for the school’s board, meant to address conflicts of interest.

Ben Lindquist, president of the Colorado League of Charter Schools, said that there are laws that could apply to give charter school authorizers like Aurora authority over conflict-of-interest issues.

“It should be within the purview of an authorizer to inquire into conflicts of interest if it perceives they are there,” Lindquist said. “But there’s not just one way to remedy that.”

Among the contract’s conditions, the district will also ask that Vanguard’s board be more transparent about recording board votes on significant decisions. Initially, district staff also said they considered asking Vanguard to remove the current board and replace all members, but officials said they ran into some problems with what they were allowed to ask the school to do.

“There’s a very interesting place we are in where we are the authorizer — we don’t run the school and we want to maintain that delineation,” Browne said. “However if we feel like there is something that could be a potential challenge for the school, we feel like it’s our duty to do what we can to suggest or recommend those changes.”