Dividing Lines

Colorado is rethinking all of its major education policies. And everyone is jockeying for influence.

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
State Board of Education chairman Steve Durham, center, and vice chair Angelika Schroeder meet with Aurora Public Schools Superintendent Rico Munn in May 2015.

As Colorado prepares to adopt a new plan that will set the course for the state’s schools for the foreseeable future, competing priorities have emerged spotlighting familiar divides.

The state’s direction — and points of tension — will become clearer Thursday when Colorado Department of Education officials brief the State Board of Education on decisions it likely faces in developing a blueprint required under the nation’s new federal law.

But Republican board chairman Steve Durham already has made his intentions known.

In a May message to then-Education Commissioner Rich Crandall, the lobbyist and former lawmaker prioritized reversing Colorado’s adoption of Common Core State Standards, getting the state out of the PARCC multi-state testing partnership, “maximizing” local control and more.

Chalkbeat obtained Durham’s list, previously not made public, in an open records request.

The head of the state’s largest teachers union disputed that those topics reflect the public’s wishes. A bipartisan panel of state lawmakers, meanwhile, is pursuing its own path that one key member hopes will preserve much of what the state has been doing instead of blowing it up.

Thursday’s study session comes after department officials spent several months on a statewide “listening tour” meant to gather public input on how Colorado should change course under the new main federal K-12 education law, the Every Student Succeeds Act.

Department staff will share a list of decisions it believes the board needs to make — based on where it has flexibility — and describe conflicts between current state law and the new federal law.

The plan must address how the state will hold schools accountable for student performance, improve teacher quality and educate English language learners, among many other things.

The federal law, signed by President Obama last year, is supposed to grant states more flexibility from policies around academic standards and testing that some believe were too restrictive under its predecessor, No Child Left Behind.

Since ESSA was signed into law, educators, special interest groups and lawmakers have been trying to understand how much freedom the state will be get, all while jockeying for influence.

Durham’s list

Commissioner Crandall, who resigned from his post in May after only four months on the job, said Durham handed him his priority list after the board failed at a secret February meeting to provide the commissioner guidance on the direction the state should go.

Steve Durham’s ESSA Wishlist
Read board chairman Steve Durham’s four-bullet proposal here.

“He told me, ‘The Republicans met and these or our priorities,’” Crandall said in an interview.

Durham and other Republican members deny they met separately to draw up the document. But Durham did take credit for drafting the list himself.

“Absolutely, I wrote it,” Durham said.

Most of Durham’s request come as no surprise — including his call to drop the Common Core standards and pull Colorado out of PARCC by 2018. The Colorado Springs Republican long has criticized both, and has championed more local control since he was appointed to the board in 2014.

Durham in the list also calls for urging more districts to adopt the Core Knowledge curriculum, a rigid curriculum with specific grade-level expectations meant to instill “background knowledge” in subjects like math, language arts and geography. The curriculum is popular with charter schools in Colorado suburbs and some rural communities. Durham is a vocal supporter of charter schools.

That Durham privately pushed his agenda to reshape state education policy on Crandall is disturbing, said Kerrie Dallman, president of the Colorado Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union.

”I can tell you from attending the listening tours, those things did not come up,” she said. “Certainly there was talk around flexibility on having an alternative to PARCC, but there was no discussion on dropping Common Core or adopting Core Knowledge.”

Dallman added, “Our expectation would be that Colorado abides by the requirement to meaningfully consult all stakeholders including teachers, parents, students and community in developing its ESSA plan.”

For the plan to be approved by the federal government, the state education department must prove it sought community input, and the State Board and the governor all must sign off on the document.

That could prove challenging. The State Board and Senate are Republican-controlled, while Democrats hold the House and governor’s office.

Other influences

Dallman’s union, as well as the Colorado Association of School Executives and the Colorado Association of School Boards, have taken their own steps in hopes their members will have a say in the plan’s development.

Kerrie Dallman
Kerrie Dallman

In June, the three organizations hosted a joint meeting in Aurora where teams from school districts across the state gathered to learn about ESSA and weigh in on the state’s direction.

“We saw that as our kick-off to our involvement in developing the plan,” Dallman said, but added she’s skeptical the state’s education landscape could change that much. “There are opportunities for some shifts, but the truth of the matter is, unless we create some flexibility in local state mandates, we’re not going to see a lot of the changes folks want — especially rural districts.”

State lawmakers are also taking up ESSA on their own. A committee of three Republicans and three Democrats will begin meeting later this summer to study the new federal laws and identify areas where local laws need to be adjusted.

State Rep. Brittany Pettersen, a Lakewood Democrat, sponsored the bill that created the committee. She said she hopes the committee will be cautious and not rush to completely reimagine Colorado’s modern education policies, most of which passed between 2008 and 2012 with broad bipartisan support.

“I don’t want to redo everything we’ve done,” she said.

The ‘compromise’

How much influence the State Board should have on the plan has been an ongoing conversation since former-Commissioner Crandall first announced the department’s listening tours that reached a fevered pitch in June.

The ‘Compromise’ memo |
Read Durham memo to the State Board outlining the committee selection process here.

While meeting in Pueblo last month, State Board members debated their role in the development of the plan and what role advocacy organizations should play.

Board member Deb Scheffel, a Republican from Parker, was most vocal about the board having an early say in the plan. Durham was critical of what he called “special interest groups.”

“If I were going to put on my cynical hat — and I do often — I can predict what the position of every one of these groups is going to be,” Durham said at the meeting. “They are not our ultimate constituents. Our constituents are the children.”

But vice chair Angelika Schroeder, a Democrat from Boulder, cautioned: “We exclude them at our own peril.”

That discussion led to a “compromise,” Durham wrote in a June 13 email obtained by Chalkbeat, that includes the board appointing a variety of members to a committee that will be responsible for writing the plan. Organizations such as CEA and CASB will also be asked to name representatives.

The committee will work with state department staff through the fall to develop the first draft of the plan, which must be submitted to the federal government by October.

“It’s a way to diversify input,” Durham said in an interview, “so it’s not all driven by districts and interest groups.”

Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly reported that the Colorado General Assembly must approve the state’s education plan. It does not. 

the one to watch

Inside the three-candidate battle for northeast Denver’s school board seat

File photo of student at Marrama Elementary School in northeast Denver. (The Denver Post)

Of the Denver school board races on the November ballot, none packs more intrigue than the fight for District 4.

The three-person slate of candidates features an appointed incumbent who’s never run for office and supports the district’s current path, an outspoken recent high school graduate who sharply disagrees, and a former charter school educator with a more nuanced view and — in what on its surface may seem surprising — the endorsement of the teachers union.

The seat represents a large swath of northeast Denver with a wide range of income levels, including areas that are gentrifying quickly and others that have been home to some of the district’s most aggressive school improvement strategies.

The Nov. 7 election is high stakes. Four of the seven seats on the Denver school board are up for grabs. If candidates who disagree with Denver Public Schools’ direction win all four races, they’ll have the political power to change key policies in the state’s largest school district and one nationally recognized for its embrace of school choice and autonomy.

Tay Anderson is one of those candidates. The 19-year-old graduated from Denver’s Manual High School last year and is now a student at Metropolitan State University. On the campaign trail, he has doggedly criticized the district for what he describes as weak community engagement efforts and a move to “privatize” public education by approving more charter schools, which are publicly funded but independently run (in Denver, by nonprofit operators).

He also has led the charge in attempting to tie the current school board and the incumbent candidates to U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, whose stance on school choice — and especially private school vouchers, which DPS does not support — have made her a controversial figure.

    This is the first of a series of articles profiling this year’s Denver school board races. You can read about where candidates in all the DPS races stand on issues here, in Chalkbeat’s candidate questionnaire. Check out our coverage of the campaign’s first campaign finance reports here.

When DeVos came to Denver in July to give a speech to a group of conservative lawmakers from across the United States, Anderson organized a protest against her. In front of a crowd of hundreds, he called out the current Denver school board members.

“We can tell them, ‘Screw you. You’re fired in November!’” he said.

Anderson has a compelling personal story. The teenager struggled in high school before becoming a leader at Denver’s Manual High. He was student body president, chairman of the Colorado High School Democrats and a member of the Student Board of Education.

Anderson was also homeless for a time and has said his own challenges give him valuable insight into the lives of other Denver students living in difficult situations. About two-thirds of the district’s 92,000 students qualify for subsidized lunches, a proxy for poverty.

“I have had nobody in my corner when I was a homeless student and when I was in and out of foster care,” Anderson said at a recent televised candidate debate. “And now it is my turn to turn to our students and say, ‘I am going to be your champion.’”

His candidacy has attracted more local and national press attention than is usual for a school board race. But while Anderson has said his young age would bring a fresh perspective to the board, his opponents have questioned whether he has the experience to serve.

“It’s one thing to swing a hammer at a frustration, but it’s another to know where to swing it,” said candidate Jennifer Bacon, one of Anderson’s two opponents.

Anderson is running against Bacon, 35, and incumbent Rachele Espiritu, 48. Espiritu was appointed to fill a vacancy on the board in May 2016. The appointment process was long and marked by controversy. The first appointee, MiDian Holmes, stepped aside after details about a misdemeanor child abuse conviction and her mischaracterization of it came to light.

Both Espiritu and Bacon were among the finalists for the position. But Bacon withdrew, explaining at the time it was “in consideration of my need for growth and readiness for this position, as well as my interests in supporting the board.”

Asked recently to elaborate, Bacon said she withdrew because she sensed she wasn’t going to be appointed. She said she, too, had an arrest in her background: for stealing a necklace from Macy’s when she was in college. Bacon said the charge was dropped and she was not convicted. (No charges showed up in a background check done by Chalkbeat.)

Bacon, who attended college in Louisiana, said the arrest was a turning point at a time when she was struggling to find her purpose. She went on to join the Teach for America corps, teaching for a year in New Orleans and a year in Miami.

After teaching, she went to law school and then moved in 2010 to Denver, where she worked first as a dean for the city’s largest charter school network, DSST, and then in alumni affairs for Teach for America. She is now a regional director with Leadership for Educational Equity, a nonprofit organization that trains educators to advocate for policy changes.

Bacon said she wondered whether her positions on key issues also made her an unlikely appointee. For instance, she has said she’s not opposed to charter schools but believes Denver has reached its threshold and should focus on shoring up its traditional schools.

“People ask me if I’m pro-charter,” Bacon said in an interview. “I’m pro-community.”

Since Espiritu was appointed, she has largely voted in line with the rest of the school board. But she chafes at the idea that the board is monolithic or a rubber stamp for the administration. Much back-and-forth occurs before a decision, she said in an interview, and each board member brings a unique background and set of life experiences to the table.

Espiritu often says on the campaign trail that she’s the only immigrant to serve on the board in the last century. She was born in the Philippines and came to the United States as a toddler. She holds a PhD in clinical psychology from the University of Colorado Boulder and helped found a small business called Change Matrix that assists organizations with planning, putting into place and monitoring change. She and her family moved to Denver in 2012.

Espiritu has two sons. Her oldest goes to DSST: Stapleton High, a charter school. Her youngest goes to William (Bill) Roberts School, a K-8 district-run school. She has said that in choosing schools for her children, she focused on quality and not on type.

As a member of the board, Espiritu has paid particular attention to efforts to improve student mental health. She recently encouraged DPS to become a “trauma-informed school district.”

“I want us to be a district that addresses student and educator trauma in a proactive or preventative way that’s culturally sensitive and systematic in fashion,” she said at a September board meeting. “…We need to shift our thinking from asking what is wrong with a child to what happened with a child.”

Parts of northeast Denver have struggled academically. The region is home to the district’s biggest-ever school turnaround effort, as well as two of three schools the board voted unanimously last year to close due to poor performance.

The candidates’ disparate views on school closure offer a window into what differentiates them. Espiritu voted for the closures, though she noted at a subsequent board meeting that doing so was “a painful process … and such a difficult decision.”

Anderson has said he opposes closing any more traditional, district-run schools. Bacon, meanwhile, has said that while she doesn’t believe in “trapping kids in failing schools,” ideas about how to turn things around should originate with affected families.

Two local groups that traditionally endorse candidates and contribute large sums of money struggled this year with who to support in District 4. The Denver Classroom Teachers Association endorsed Bacon, but a progressive caucus of the union chose to separately support Anderson. The pro-reform group Stand for Children did not endorse any candidate, explaining that both Bacon and Espiritu surpassed its “threshold for endorsement.”

Of the three candidates, Espiritu had raised the most money — $73,847 — as of Oct. 11, when the first campaign finance filing period ended. Bacon had raised $59,302, including $10,000 from the teachers union, while Anderson had raised $16,331.

Espiritu and Bacon have also benefitted from the support of independent expenditure committees. A union-funded group called Brighter Futures for Denver spent $139,000 on Bacon. Two other groups, Students for Education Reform and Raising Colorado, which is associated with Democrats for Education Reform, spent a total of $73,229 on Espiritu.

Sorting the Students

As Nashville heads to court over sharing student information with the state, here’s why Memphis probably won’t

PHOTO: Grace Tatter
Nashville's Davidson County Chancery Court building where the state filed against Metro Nashville Public Schools over sharing contact information with charter schools.

Tennessee’s two largest school districts are often in lockstep on key issues. But in a recent tiff with the state about sharing student information with charter schools, the two districts are poised to part ways.

Leaders of Nashville’s school district have repeatedly defied an order from Tennessee’s education commissioner to share student addresses, phone numbers, and other information with the state’s controversial turnaround district, as required by a new state law. The state filed a lawsuit this week in response.

Meanwhile, leaders of the Memphis district have spoken out about the rule — but are preparing to comply. The district has given parents until Sunday, Oct. 22 to opt out of sharing their contact information with charter schools.

Instead of outright rejecting McQueen’s deadline last month like Nashville did, Superintendent Dorsey Hopson sought a compromise and the district has indicated contact information after the opt out window could be shared.

“… we respectfully request you extend your deadline until October 23, 2017 to allow our families the opportunity to make an informed decision regarding their rights and to give our board an opportunity to vote on the release of the data,” Hopson said in a letter to McQueen.

The state education department says it is holding off filing a similar suit against that district, for now. The Memphis district “is still deciding whether to comply, whereas Metro [Nashville] has made its decision already,” state spokeswoman Sara Gast said. “Given that, it is appropriate to file here and then review Shelby’s decision to decide if litigation is necessary.”

Shelby County Schools declined to share how many parents have chosen to opt out so far, but said it plans to share information with its board about the effort next week.

The fight has ignited long-simmering tensions around enrollment and the state’s influence in local schools, and comes on the heels of Metro Nashville Public Schools board voting to join Shelby County Schools in its landmark funding lawsuit against the state.

Memphis leaders have also said that the issue at hand is student privacy, though a robocall to Memphis parents indicated that the main goal of the opt-out process was not to lose students to charter schools.

Memphis’ compromise stance will be good news to groups like parent advocacy organization Memphis Lift, which says it has gathered about 1,200 parent signatures urging Shelby County Schools to release the contact information.

What Memphis parents should know about how schools share student information

The legal questions at stake are the first challenge to a slight, but significant, amendment to federal rules

The Nashville school board cited two reasons for defying the state’s order in late August: One is U.S. Department of Education rule that allows districts to have discretion on who gets student directory information. The second was that when state lawmakers crafted the law that requires school districts to share student information, they did not intend for that information to be used for recruitment.

According to Frank LoMonte, a First Amendment lawyer and director of The Brechner Center at the University of Florida, said the lawsuit could have national implications.

“What we’re about to see is the first test of whether the U.S. Department of Education amended rules in 2011 are enforceable or not,” he said. What it comes down to, he said, is if a federal rule can give local districts the permission to violate state law.

The Nashville board’s second justification reflects concerns from State Rep. John Forgety, who chairs a key House education committee. He says the state is misinterpreting the law he helped create.

The state said in a statement that Commissioner Candice McQueen is seeking to confirm her interpretation of the new state law, “ensuring that families can be informed of all public education opportunities available to them.”

Below is a copy of the state’s court filing: