Future of Schools

Vouchers, merit pay spice Dougco forum

HIGHLANDS RANCH – Anger on both sides of Douglas County’s controversial school voucher program, its equally controversial performance-pay plan for teachers and the perceived politicizing of the school board drove debate at a candidates forum Monday night, as six of the eight people seeking a seat on the county school board came together to field questions submitted by voters.

Douglas County school board candidates share a laugh during Monday's forum. From left, challenger Kevin Reilly and incumbent Craig Richardson, who oppose each other in District A, and Gail Frances, running in District C.

Douglas County voters will be asked this fall not only to fill three of seven seats on the school board, but also to approve a $20 million mill levy increase for operating dollars and a $200 million bond issue, questions 3A and 3B on the Douglas County ballot.

On Monday, one candidate indicated he won’t be voting in favor of the increases and two more were lukewarm in their endorsement of them, citing lingering mistrust of the school board and its policies.

“I have never before voted against a mill levy or bond issue,” said Kevin Reilly, a Highlands Ranch neuropsychologist who is one of four candidates seeking election to the board from District A, in northwest Douglas County. He said he won’t be voting for 3A and 3B because he fears the increases would fund vouchers and pay-for-performance, and nothing else.

Gail Frances, running for school board in District C in opposition to the voucher plan, said she wants to support 3A and 3B, but feels trepidation. “What I’m hearing from parents and neighbors and teachers is that they’re very concerned about the fiscal responsibility of this board, and concerned about what will happen with this money. Will it be used to fight on behalf of this voucher program?”

District legal bills are mounting

Craig Richardson, the incumbent from District A – appointed to the seat a little over a year ago to fill a vacancy – steadfastly denied that monies generated by 3A and 3B would be used to pay court costs.

The district has already incurred more than $360,000 in legal bills fighting to support its voucher plan, which would have used public money to help send up to 500 Douglas county students to private schools this fall. Last month, Denver District Court Judge Michael Martinez ruled the plan unconstitutional and issued a permanent injunction against it. School officials say they will appeal, but the issue has divided the community, with many insisting public schools have no business subsidizing private- and religious-school tuition fees, and others insisting anything the district can do to expand parental choice is worthwhile.

“Not one dime from 3A or 3B will be used for the Choice Scholars program,” Richardson insisted. “It will be used for capital projects, and it will be used to keep class sizes from getting out of control, and to start paying great teachers.”

More than $380,000 has been donated to a district legal fund to defend the voucher program, including $330,000 from the Daniels Fund and $50,000 from oil and gas developer Alex Cranberg. In addition, the Daniels Fund is offering a $200,000 match – meaning district officials have to come up with a similar figure to secure that funding.

Performance pay also based on ‘market value’ of teachers

Richardson is a keen supporter of the district’s revamped performance-pay plan for teachers, calling it “transformational.” The plan would pay teachers based on their performance ratings and on their “market value,” with teachers in hard-to-fill subjects garnering greater salaries than their peers. “If you’re a calculus teacher, and you’re doing a great job, I think you should earn six figures,” Richardson said. “Teachers who prefer a culture of entitlement will find other opportunities.”

But Susan McMahon, a Parker woman seeking to oust incumbent Justin Williams in District F, said she fears competition taken to the extreme in schools. “When it gets so extreme that our professionals are fearful of sharing their best practices from one school to another, then we’re going down the wrong track,” she said.

The debate Monday was cordial and polite, with most of the questions submitted in advance and read by Eldorado Elementary school principal John Melkonian, who made sure each candidate had equal time to answer each question and with no real sparring among the candidates or with audience members. But Richardson, as the only incumbent at the forum, was clearly on the hot seat in regard to vouchers. The board voted 7-0 to pursue the controversial program, and has consistently voted to pursue its legal defense.

“My view is that at the center of competition is parental choice,” Richardson said Monday in response to a question about competition in Douglas County schools. “Parents are the most accurate decision-makers about what works for any child. The more we empower parents to make informed choices, the likelier we are to see better educational outcomes.”

Candidates bash politicizing of school board

Beyond the issue of vouchers, several candidates criticized the existing board for placing party politics ahead of educational considerations. Two years ago, the Republican Party transformed what had traditionally been a non-partisan school board race when it endorsed – and successfully elected – a slate of four candidates, dramatically altering the shape of the school board. All the candidates endorsed by the teachers union went down to defeat.

On Monday, Susan Meek, a candidate in District A, pledged not to accept funds from any union or political party, and urged her fellow candidates to do the same. “I want to begin the process of removing politics from the school board,” she said. Meek knows better than many how partisan politics has infused education in Douglas County. Until March, she was communications director for the school district.

Kevin Reilly said that he, too, will accept no donations from any partisan group or union. “I’m not endorsed by any party. I’m running out of concern for re-establishing some balance in terms of the board’s decision-making,” he said.

Follow the money

Groups with a stake in Colorado’s school board elections raise $1.5 million to influence them

The nation's second largest teachers union is spending $300,000 to support a slate of candidates running for the Douglas County school board. Those candidates posed for pictures at their campaign kick-off event are from left, Krista Holtzmann, Anthony Graziano, Chris Schor, and Kevin Leung. (Photo by Nic Garcia/Chalkbeat)

Union committees and various political groups have raised nearly $1.5 million so far to influence the outcome of school board elections across the state, according to new campaign finance reports.

The Colorado Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union, and organizations such as Democrats for Education Reform, a political nonprofit, are spending big in an effort to help elect school board members that represent their positions.

It’s become a common storyline in school board elections in Colorado and across the country: On one side, teachers unions hoping to elect members that will improve working conditions and teacher pay, among other things. On the other, education reformers who generally back candidates who support expanding school choice for families, more autonomy for schools and accountability systems that measure school quality, usually based on test scores.

The complete fundraising and spending picture, however, is often murky and incomplete.

State law lays out different rules and disclosure requirements for different types of political committees. The most prevalent this election year appears to be independent expenditure committee, which can raise and spend an unlimited amount of money but are forbidden from coordinating with candidates. (Campaign finance reports for the candidates’ campaigns are due at midnight Tuesday).

Other groups such as Americans For Prosperity work outside the reporting requirements altogether by spending money on “social welfare issues,” rather than candidates. The conservative political nonprofit, which champions charter schools and other school reforms, pledged to spend more than six-figures for “a sweeping outreach effort to parents” to promote school choice policies in Douglas County. The fight over charter schools and vouchers, which use tax dollars to send students to private schools, has been a key debate in school board races there.

Both the union and reform groups operate independent committees. Those committees must report donations and expenditures to the secretary of state. But the donations captured in campaign finance reports are often huge lump sums from parent organizations, which aren’t required to disclose their donations under federal law. (Dues collected out of teachers’ paychecks are often the source for political contributions from unions.)

Several groups are spending money in Denver, where four of the seven school board seats are up for election. The ten candidates vying for those four seats include incumbents who agree with the district’s direction and challengers who do not. The Denver teachers union has endorsed candidates pushing for change.

The Every Student Succeeds group, which has raised almost $300,000 in union donations, is spending the most on one Denver candidate, Xóchitl “Sochi” Gaytán, who is running for a seat in southwest Denver, and on a slate of four Aurora school board candidates endorsed by Aurora’s teachers union.

The group’s largest donations came from the Colorado Fund for Children and Public Education, a fund from the Colorado Education Association. Aurora’s teachers union contributed $35,000 to the committee. The DCTA Fund, a fund created by Denver’s teachers union, also contributed $85,000 to the committee.

Some of the group’s union money is also going to a slate of school board candidates in Mesa County and another in Brighton.

The Students for Education Reform Action Committee has spent equal amounts on two Denver candidates. One, Angela Cobián, is running in Denver’s District 2 against Gaytán and has been endorsed by incumbent Rosemary Rodriguez, who isn’t running again. The other is Rachele Espiritu, an incumbent running in northeast Denver’s District 4. The funds, which were collected during a previous campaign cycle and carried over into this one, have gone toward phone banking, T-shirts and campaign literature.

The group has endorsed Cobián, Espiritu and incumbent Barbara O’Brien, who holds an at-large seat. It did not endorse a candidate in the central-east Denver District 3 race, explaining that it prioritizes “working with communities that reflect the backgrounds and experiences of our members, which are typically low-income and students of color.”

Better Schools for a Stronger Colorado, a committee affiliated with the pro-reform Stand for Children organization, has spent a sizable portion of the more than $100,000 it’s raised thus far on online advertisements and mailers for O’Brien. It has also spent money on mailers for incumbent Mike Johnson, who represents District 3.

Stand for Children has endorsed O’Brien, Johnson and Cobián. The group chose not to endorse in the three-person District 4 race, explaining that both incumbent Espiritu and challenger Jennifer Bacon had surpassed its “threshold for endorsement.”

Another big spender is Raising Colorado, a group reporting $300,000 in donations from New York’s Education Reform Now — the national affiliate of Democrats for Education Reform. That group is spending money on mailers and digital media for four candidates in Denver: Espiritu, Cobián, Johnson and O’Brien, as well as two candidates for Aurora’s school board: Gail Pough and Miguel In Suk Lovato.

In Douglas County, the American Federation of Teachers, the nation’s second largest teachers unions has pumped $300,000 into a committee backing a slate of candidates that opposes the current direction of the state’s third largest school district.

The committee, Douglas Schools for Douglas Kids, has spent most of its war chest on producing TV, digital and mail advertising by firms in Washington D.C., and San Francisco.

The Douglas County arm of AFT lost its collective bargaining agreement with the district in 2012.

A group of parents that also supports the union-backed slate have formed a committee, as well. So far it has raised $42,750, records show. Unlike the union donation, most donations to this committee were small donations, averaging about $50 per person.

The parent committee has spent about $28,000 on T-shirts, bumper stickers, postage and yard signs, records show.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to include more information about Americans for Prosperity’s Douglas County plans. 

what is a good school?

New York policymakers are taking a closer look at how they evaluate charter schools

PHOTO: Stephanie Snyder
Erica Murphy, school director of Brownsville Ascend Lower Charter School in New York, oversees students in a fourth-grade English class.

New York is rethinking how it judges whether charter schools are successful and deserve to remain open — a discussion that comes as some top education policymakers have asked tough questions about the privately managed schools.

The state education department currently decides which of the more than 70 charter schools it oversees can stay open based largely on their test scores and graduation rates, though other factors like family involvement and financial management are also reviewed. A set of changes now being considered could add additional performance measures, such as the share of students who are chronically absent and student survey results.

Policymakers also discussed whether to change how they calculate charter-school student enrollment and retention.

The move — which got its first public discussion Monday during a Board of Regents meeting and is expected to become a formal proposal in December — would bring charter schools in line with a shift underway in how the state judges district-run schools. Under the new federal education law, the board has moved away from using test scores as the main metric for evaluating schools and will begin to track absences and eventually suspensions.

Since the state’s current system for evaluating charter schools was last revised in 2015, the board has added several new members and elected a new leader, Betty Rosa. Several members at a previous board meeting questioned the enrollment practices at a charter school in Brooklyn.

At Monday’s meeting, some suggested the schools attain high test scores partly by serving fewer high-needs students — and that the system for evaluating charters should take this into account.  

For instance, Regent Kathleen Cashin implied at Monday’s meeting that some charter schools achieve high test scores by pushing out students. Their motivation, she said, “is not pedagogic, I’ll tell you that.” She suggested that, in addition to tracking how well charter schools retain students, the state should survey parents who leave those schools to find out why.

Meanwhile, Chancellor Rosa suggested Monday that it’s unfair to compare charter schools that serve few high-needs students to traditional schools.

Charter schools receive autonomy from many rules, but in return they agree to meet certain performance targets — or risk closure if they do not. The state judges charters based on a variety of metrics, everything from their enrollment figures to how they respond to parent concerns. However, test scores and graduation rates are “the most important factor when determining to renew or revoke a school’s charter,” according to state documents.

Even if the state adds new measures that move beyond test scores, those will still hold the most weight, according to state officials.

The state is also considering whether to change how it measures charter schools’ enrollment and retention targets. Currently, schools must set targets for students with disabilities, English learners, and those eligible for free and reduced-priced lunch. If they fail to meet those targets, they must show they are making yearly progress towards meeting that goal.

During the state’s presentation, officials also floated the idea of a “fiscal dashboard,” which would display charter schools’ financial information. They also said they may compare charter high school graduation rates and Regents exam scores with those of the districts where they’re located, instead of using only the state average or their targets as a comparison point.