Who Is In Charge

R2T tip: Focus on leadership, struggling schools

States that present the strongest proposals on improving teachers and leaders and on struggling schools will have the best chance to win federal Race to the Top grants, Tim Daly of the New Teacher Project told Colorado educators Friday.

The federal stimulus law, of which R2T is a part, sets four areas of emphasis for use of federal funds. Known as the four assurances, they are: Standards and assessments, data systems to support instructions, great teachers and leaders, and turning around struggling schools.

The project has done extensive analysis of R2T criteria and of how individual states might stack up.

Daly spoke Friday in Denver to the Great Teachers and Leaders Committee, one of four volunteer panels that are helping develop Colorado’s application for R2T.

“I think the states that will win will win on” the strength of their leadership and struggling schools proposals, Daly said. He said state proposals on standards and assessments and data systems are likely to be more similar.

For instance, on standards and assessments, Daly said, “I think Colorado is in great shape … but it’s unlikely to be a differentiator.” Again, on data, he said, “I think you all are doing great work, but … it won’t be determinative.”

Colorado education officials are scheduled to adopt new content standards at the end of this year and new statewide assessments at the end of 2010. Both are part of the Colorado Achievement Plan for Kids reform program adopted in 2008.

State officials have long been optimistic about their R2T chances, partly because of the CAP4K reforms. But, they have acknowledged that the state may be less competitive in the area of great teachers and leaders.

Daly noted that state law allows only two ratings in teacher evaluations – satisfactory and unsatisfactory. He noted that the proposed R2T requirements call for states to have – or be working toward – finer differentiations of teacher and principal effectiveness in advancing student achievement.

“I wouldn’t submit an application that has only [two] teacher ratings in it,” Daly said.

On the issue of turning struggling schools around, Daly said he feels the Department of Education may look more favorably on plans that call for reconstituting, turning over to outside management or closing failing schools, rather than plans that propose “transforming” schools with existing staff largely intact. DOE’s “feeling is that [transformation] hasn’t been working.”

Daly praised the four-committee process Colorado has been using to develop the R2T application, noting that one of the requirements is wide support for the proposal by a state’s leaders and education community. “This sort of meeting isn’t happening in a lot of states,” he said, calling the Colorado process “a huge advantage.”

All four committees met this week. Committee proposals are expected to be refined at meetings next month (see schedule).

Committee proposals will be refined into the state’s application by consultants including the School of Public Affairs at CU-Denver, Augenblick, Palaich and Associates and the Third Mile Group. Lt. Gov. Barbara O’Brien is coordinating the state’s R2T bid (more info here), and the Department of Education is overseeing other education stimulus programs and grants.

The DOE issued preliminary guidance for the R2T program in late July, which was open to public comment until Aug. 28. Daly said the agency has received more than 1,500 comments. In Colorado’s response, Gov. Bill Ritter and O’Brien raised questions about the lack of information about how preschool and higher education might fit into state reform efforts, about the extent to which R2T will require states to adopt common content standards, about the extent to which the state can oversee school district spending of R2T funds and about the transparency of the R2T bid evaluation process.

The National Governors’ Association also raised several concerns about DOE’s R2T guidance (see letter). Several of those concerns involve constitutional and legal questions about the relationship between states and the federal government and between states and local education agencies such as school districts. The letter was sent over Ritter’s signature as chair of the NGA’s education committee.

DOE is expected to release its revised guidance this fall, perhaps as early as Oct. 1. Daly said Friday it’s hard to speculate about what, if anything, might change in the document.

New Teacher Project R2T analysis

Do your homework in the EdNews archives

Follow the money

In Denver school board races, incumbents outpacing challengers in campaign contributions

PHOTO: Melanie Asmar
Denver school board vice president Barbara O'Brien speaks at a press conference at Holm Elementary.
Donations to Denver school board candidates as of Oct. 12
    Barbara O’Brien, At-Large: $101,291
    Angela Cobián, District 2: $94,152
    Mike Johnson, District 3: $81,855
    Rachele Espiritu, District 4: $73,847
    Jennifer Bacon, District 4: $59,302
    Robert Speth, At-Large: $38,615
    “Sochi” Gaytán, District 2: $24,134
    Carrie A. Olson, District 3: $18,105
    Tay Anderson, District 4: $16,331
    Julie Bañuelos, At-Large: $7,737

Three Denver school board incumbents brought in more money than challengers seeking to unseat them and change the district’s direction, according to new campaign finance reports.

Board vice president Barbara O’Brien has raised the most money so far. A former Colorado lieutenant governor who was first elected to the board in 2013 and represents the city at-large, O’Brien had pulled in $101,291 as of Oct. 12.

The second-highest fundraiser was newcomer Angela Cobián, who raised $94,152. She is running to represent southwest District 2, where there is no incumbent in the race. The board member who currently holds that seat, Rosemary Rodriguez, has endorsed Cobián.

Incumbent Mike Johnson, who is running for re-election in central-east District 3, brought in far more money than his opponent, Carrie A. Olson. In a three-way race for northeast Denver’s District 4, incumbent Rachele Espiritu led in fundraising, but not by as much.

O’Brien, Cobián, Johnson and Espiritu had several big-money donors in common. They include former Denver Center for the Performing Arts chairman Daniel Ritchie, Oakwood Homes CEO Pat Hamill and Denver-based oil and gas company founder Samuel Gary. All three have given in past elections to candidates who support the direction of Denver Public Schools, which is nationally known for embracing school choice and collaborating with charter schools.

Meanwhile, teachers unions were among the biggest contributors to candidates pushing for the state’s largest school district to change course and refocus on its traditional, district-run schools. The Denver Classroom Teachers Association Fund gave the most money — $10,000 — to candidate Jennifer Bacon, a former teacher who is challenging Espiritu in District 4.

It gave smaller amounts to Xóchitl “Sochi” Gaytán, who is running against Cobián in District 2; Olson, who is challenging Johnson in District 3; and Robert Speth, who is running in a three-person race with O’Brien. Speth narrowly lost a race for a board seat in 2015. A supplemental campaign filing shows Speth loaned himself $17,000 on Oct. 13.

The two candidates who raised the least amounts of money also disagree with the district’s direction but were not endorsed by the teachers union and didn’t receive any union money. Tay Anderson, who is running against Espiritu and Bacon in District 4, counts among his biggest donors former Denver mayor Wellington Webb, who endorsed him and gave $1,110.

In the at-large race, candidate Julie Bañuelos’s biggest cash infusion was a $2,116 loan to herself. As of Oct. 11, Bañuelos had spent more money than she’d raised.

With four seats up for grabs on the seven-member board, the Nov. 7 election has the potential to shift the board’s balance of power. Currently, all seven members back the district’s direction and the vision of long-serving Superintendent Tom Boasberg. Mail ballots went out this week.

The new campaign finance reports, which were due at midnight Tuesday and cover the previous year, show that several of this year’s candidates have already raised more money than the candidate who was leading the pack at this time in the 2015 election.

O’Brien’s biggest contributor was University of Colorado president Bruce Benson, who gave $10,000. Other notable donors include Robin Hickenlooper, wife of Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper; Lieutenant Governor Donna Lynne; and billionaire Phil Anschutz.

Several Denver charter school leaders, including Rocky Mountain Prep CEO James Cryan and KIPP Colorado CEO Kimberlee Sia, donated to O’Brien, Johnson, Espiritu and Cobián.

Political groups are also playing a big role in the election. The groups include several backed by local and state teachers unions, as well as others funded by pro-reform organizations.

Following the money

Douglas County slate that favors continuing school voucher court case is ahead in early fundraising, records show

Former State Board of Education member Debora Scheffel at a campaign event in 2016. Scheffel is now running for the Douglas County school board. (Photo by Nic Garcia/Chalkbeat)

A group of candidates that largely supports the direction of the Douglas County School District, especially its embrace of school choice policies, has raised nearly $100,000 in campaign contributions, new financial records show.

The group, which calls itself “Elevate Douglas County,” topped its competition, the “Community Matters” slate, by more than $30,000 in monetary contributions to committees for individual candidates.

A lot is at stake in the south suburban Denver school board contest. A majority of seats on the seven-member school board are up for grabs, putting the philosophical direction of the state’s third largest school district on the line.

For eight years, the school board has pushed a conservative education reform agenda that included developing a voucher program that would allow parents to use tax dollars to send their children to private school and establishing a market-based pay system for teachers.

While the Elevate slate has promised to reconsider and tweak many of the board’s most controversial decisions, such as teacher pay, the Community Matters slate has promised to roll back many of the previous board’s decisions.

The contrast between the two groups is most stark on the issue of the school district’s voucher program. Created in 2011, the voucher program has been tied up in courts ever since. The Elevate slate supports continuing the court case and, if there is community support, reinstating the program. The Community Matters slate staunchly opposes vouchers and would end the court case.

According to records, the Elevate slate raised a total of $98,977 during the first campaign reporting period that ended Oct. 12. Grant Nelson raised the most, $34,373. The three other candidates — Ryan Abresch, Randy Mills and Debora Scheffel — each raised about $21,000.

All four candidates received $6,250 from John Saeman, a Denver businessman and the former chairman of the Daniels Fund. The foundation has financially supported the school district’s legal battle over the voucher program.

Other major contributors to the Elevate team are Ed McVaney, the founder of JD Edwards, and businesswoman Chrystalla Larson.

The Community Matters slate raised a total of $66,692 during the same period. Candidate Krista Holtzmann led the pack, raising more than $21,000. Her teammates — Anthony Graziano, Chris Schor and Kevin Leung — raised between $13,000 and $15,000 each.

Among the major donors to the Community Matters slate are Clare Leonard and Herschel Ramsey. Both Parker residents gave $1,000 each to all four candidates.

The campaign finance reports that were due Tuesday tell only part of the story. Earlier this week, special interest groups working to influence the election were required to report their spending.

The American Federation of Teachers, the nation’s second largest teachers union, has pumped $300,000 into the race in an effort to support the Community Matters slate.

Meanwhile, Americans For Prosperity, a conservative political nonprofit, is running a “social welfare” issue campaign promoting school choice. Because the nonprofit is not directly supporting candidates, it is not required to disclose how much it is spending. However, the organization said in a statement the campaign would cost six-figures.

Correction: This article has been updated to better reflect the Elevate slate’s position on reinstating the school district’s proposed voucher program.