Future of Schools

Dems retake state House control

Democrats gathered in downtown Denver celebrated victories, including takeover of the state House. Photo / Joe Mahoney

Updated 1 p.m. Nov. 7 – Jubilant Democrats late Tuesday claimed control of the Colorado House, a chamber they lost two years ago.

Democratic leaders, analyzing the returns late in the evening, said they definitely will take 34 seats and could have as many as 38. The party was expected to retain its control of the Senate, although the race between Democratic Sen. Evie Hudak of Westminster and Republican Lang Sias remained tied Wednesday and may go to a recount.

“We have taken back the majority in the Colorado House of Representatives!” Rep. Mark Ferrandino of Denver, leader of the House caucus, told revelers at the Democratic Party’s election party in the Sheraton downtown.

Lawmakers next year will have to start dealing with the implications of Amendment 64, the proposal to legalize marijuana and direct some of the revenues from taxes on the drug to school construction. The proposal had 53 percent support with about 1.9 million votes tabulated late in the evening.

Denver Mayor Michael Hancock celebrated Democratic victories. Photo / Joe Mahoney

In the House, Democrats needed to add only one seat to their current 32 to retake control of that chamber. Minority Republicans in the Senate had a somewhat tougher challenge and needed to add three seats to their current total of 15 to win the majority.

Eighty-five of the legislature’s 100 seats were on the ballot. Most were safe for one party or the other, so legislative control depended on what happened in 12 to 14 closely contested races.

Education debates are expected to have a different tone in 2013. A third or more of lawmakers will be new to the Capitol and will face a steep learning curve on such complex issues as school finance and teacher licensing, both expected to be on the 2013 agenda.

U.S. Senator Michael Bennet joined the Democrats’ celebration. Photo / Joe Mahoney

What lawmakers won’t face is the prospect of tough budget cuts, given improvements in state revenues.

With Democrats in control of both houses, it’s possible school finance reform might get a closer look than it has in past sessions, and legislation creating lower tuition rates for undocumented students is expected to pass.

Republican issues like school vouchers, parent triggers and changes in the Public Employees’ Retirement Association likely won’t get very far.

State Sen. Mike Johnston, D-Denver, who easily won re-election to his second term, said the most dramatic effect of the Democratic takeover of the House, and retention of the Senate, would likely affect education two ways.

Erin Larkin of Thornton cheered at the Democrats’ party. Photo / Joe Mahoney

First, he predicted a greater chance of passage for the ASSET bill, which has been slowly building support in recent years and which would provide lower tuition rates for undocumented students. Second, he expected an examination of how to “solve” school finance in Colorado.

Top education-related races

House District 29 (Westminster area) – Republican Rep. Robert Ramirez, a member of House Education, lost to Democrat Tracy Kraft-Tharp, a community activist.

House District 40 (Aurora) – Democrat John Buckner, a long-time Cherry Creek administrator and principal, defeated GOP Rep. Cindy Acree.

House District 61 (Summit County and central mountains) – Democratic Rep. Millie Hamner, a former Summit County schools superintendent, bested two challengers, Republican artist Debra Irvine and independent Kathleen Curry.

Senate District 19 (Westminster area) – Hudak remained in a neck-and-neck race with Sias. As of Wednesday afternoon, Hudak had a 332 vote lead, a difference of less than 1 percent with overseas and provisional ballots still to be counted. Hudak is vice chair of the Senate Education Committee, a long-time education activist and former member of the State Board of Education.

Senate District 22 (central Lakewood and Ken Caryl area) – Two House members, Democrat Andy Kerr and Republican Ken Summers, battled for this newly drawn Senate seat, with Kerr coming out on top. Kerr is a curriculum specialist and teacher. Summers has been an active participant in education debates of recent years but not an initiator of major legislation.

Other education-related races

House District 11 (Boulder) – Democratic Rep. Jonathan Singer, who was appointed to the seat, beat Ellyn Hilliard, who has a background as a teacher and administrator at Waldorf schools.

House District 24 (Wheat Ridge area) – Democratic Rep. Sue Schafer defeated Republican E.V. Leyendecker. Schafer is a member of House Education and worked as a teacher and state Department of Education administrator.

House District 35 (western Adams County) – Democratic Rep. Cherylin Peniston, a former teacher and veteran House Education member, won another term over Republican Brian Vande Krol, a businessman.

House District 50 (Greeley area) – Democratic Rep. Dave Young, a former teacher, defeated Republican insurance agent Skip Carlson.

House District 56 (Adams County) – Republican Rep. Kevin Priola, a former House Education member, beat Democrat David Rose, a former teacher and principal.

House District 57 (northwestern Colorado) – Democrat Jo Ann Baxter, a former teacher, Moffat County school board member and a member for the State Council for Educator Effectiveness, lost to Republican Robert Rankin, an engineer and former corporate executive.

House District 60 (Fremont and Chaffee counties) – Republican Jim Wilson, a former teacher and superintendent for districts in Kansas and Colorado, defeated Democrat Pier Cohen, a contractor.

Senate District 28 (Aurora) – Democrat Nancy Todd, a member of House Education and a retired teacher, is moving to the Senate after defeating Republican John Lyons, a retired diesel mechanic who is studying to become a teacher.

Implications of Amendment 64

The constitutional amendment would allow individuals over the age of 21 to possess and use an ounce or less of marijuana and to grow and possess up to six marijuana plants. It also would create of system of licensed marijuana outlets, much like liquor stores, and require the legislature to create a regulatory system and enact an excise tax on marijuana sales.

The amendment affects education because it requires that the first $40 million of excise tax revenues every year be funneled to the state fund that helps support school construction projects.

However, because the state constitution requires voter approval of new taxes, the marijuana excise tax would have to go to the voters at a later election.

Despite the prospect of more money for schools, the education establishment was leery of Amendment 64. Several school boards passed resolutions opposing the amendment while others declined to consider the issue. Both the Colorado Education Association and the Colorado Association of Schools Boards opposed the measure. (See this story for details.)

Many educators have cited concerns legalizing marijuana for adults would make it easier for teens to obtain the drug, increasing youth marijuana use. (See this EdNews package on medical marijuana and schools.)

Mixed messages

Is the Board of Regents hostile to charter schools? Depends upon whom you ask.

PHOTO: Monica Disare
Regent Collins and Regent Johnson engage in a discussion after a Board of Regents meeting.

When the Board of Regents took the unprecedented step of rejecting two new charter schools last week, it sent shudders through the charter school sector.

Even before the meeting last Monday, the Regents had been making charters “nervous,” said Andrea Rogers, the New York State Director for the Northeast Charter Schools Network. The rejections only heightened the anxiety.

“I think these denials skyrocketed the issue to the front of people’s minds,” she said.  

And yet, during the same meeting, the board praised and signed off on the opening of five other charter schools, which brings the number of new schools approved this year to more than any year since 2013.

The meeting was emblematic of the mixed signals that this Board of Regents have been sending over the last few months, feeding different interpretations among both those who advocate for charter schools and those who champion traditional schools

The board’s willingness to criticize and question charters have many believing the Regents are, at best, skeptics and, at worst, opposed to the publicly funded, privately run schools that they authorize and oversee.

At the same time, the Regents have not been without praise for charters, and some charters say they have appreciated the support of the body and the state’s support staff.

Chancellor Betty Rosa said the Regents’ decisions are evidence of nuance, not rigid ideology or partisanship.

“I think there’s too many times when people want to simply say ‘you’re for’ or ‘you’re against.’ It’s so much more complicated than that,” Rosa told Chalkbeat in an interview Wednesday. “To me, if it’s a wonderful opportunity for kids — you got me. If it’s not, I’m probably going to be your worst enemy.”

As an authorizer, the Board of Regents has the power to approve new schools and decide which of its 87 schools should remain open. In addition to deciding the fate of individual schools, the board is rethinking how it evaluates all of its schools   and whether they should take a closer look at measures like surveys or chronic absenteeism.

With several new members and a relatively new leader, the Regents’ actions have been under particular scrutiny for signs of partisanship. Some have seized on recent events, such as critical statements made by some Regents as charter schools have come before the board for approval or renewal.

One Regent suggested that charter schools achieve high test scores by pushing out students; another suggested a charter school in Brooklyn is contributing to segregation.

Rosa has fiercely opposed a proposal that would allow some charter schools to certify their own teachers, calling the idea  “insulting.” The board also rejected a batch of Success Academy renewals, arguing that their authorizer attempted to renew the high-performing but controversial charter schools too soon. (The move had little practical effect, since their authorizer, SUNY, can override the board’s decision.)

Rosa said the sum of these decisions does not mean either she or the board is anti-charter. Her opposition to the teacher certification proposal had nothing to do with the source of the proposal — a charter authorizer — but because, she said, she believes the idea is an affront to the teaching profession and will allow unqualified teachers to enter classrooms.

The Success Academy renewals, she said, were returned based on legal requirements — and were not an appraisal of the charter network.

But taken together, observers of different educational ideologies have concluded that the board is more likely to probe problems with charter schools than in the past.

“It is quite a change from a couple years ago, and it does show greater misgivings about charter schools than what we saw under the board as it was previously constructed,” said Bob Lowry, deputy director of the New York State Council of School Superintendents. (Lowry said he appreciates that the board is paying more attention to how charter schools will affect the funding of surrounding school districts.)

The state’s teachers union has picked up on the change and praised the board for providing more oversight of charter schools, while calling on them to do more.

“The Regents, at this point, are providing much overdue scrutiny of the charter sector,” said NYSUT spokesman Carl Korn. “We believe that the Regents and the state education department need to do more, but this is a good step.”

Charter school advocates agree, seeing the Board of Regents’ actions as worrying. Since the board’s philosophy is hard to pin down, schools are starting to wonder if they can switch authorizers, Rogers said.

Yet there are signs that charters’ fear are based on conclusions that are far too sweeping. As the board rejected two schools outside of New York City, they also lauded applications for schools opening in the city a fact that may suggest differences in how the Regents assess schools in different areas of the state.

Regent Christine Cea welcomed a new school in Staten Island, saying she is “totally in favor of it.” Rosa expressed excitement about a new KIPP school in the Bronx, saying the community has “tremendous support” for its opening.

Rosa said Regents are more thoughtful and involved in reviewing schools now. She suggested that there are educational innovations that can be learned from charter schools, but also offered some critiques. At the top of her list, she worries that charter schools are not well-equipped to serve students with the most severe disabilities.

Several schools that are currently authorized by the board expressed their appreciation for the Board of Regents and those in the state education department’s charter school office who provide technical assistance to schools and create charter school recommendations for the board.

“On our quest to better serve scholars with learning differences, we have found no better ally,” said Eric Tucker, who is a co-founder of Brooklyn Laboratory Charter School. “Through technical assistance and oversight, the Regents push public schools like ours to continually improve to better serve the needs of all students, all days.”

Still, said Bob Bellafiore, an education consultant who works with charter schools, several Regents come from district school backgrounds, and so their default attitude is to question charter schools and support the traditional school model.

“They’re much more district school system people,” Bellafiore said.

What's Your Education Story?

Tips for teaching poetry in a women’s prison. ‘Remember, you are not allowed to hug anyone.’

PHOTO: Lwp Kommunikáció, Flickr CC
Inmates at the Indiana Women's Prison.

Adam Henze was one of seven educators who participated in a story slam sponsored by Chalkbeat, Teachers Lounge Indy, WFYI Public Media and the Indianapolis Public Library on Sept. 5. Every teacher shared stories about their challenges and triumphs in Circle City classrooms.

A poet and educator, Henze read a poem about a day in his life as a poetry instructor at the Indiana Women’s Prison. Henze recounts the painful struggle to reconcile his experiences with the crimes for which his students were serving time — some life sentences for murder

It’s a story full of darkness, but it also offers hope that, as Henze said, “we are the sum of the things that we have done, but we’re also the sum of the things that we have yet to do.”

Check out the video below to hear Henze’s story.

You can find more stories from educators, students and parents here.