Big money

Many streams of cash flow to legislative races

Democratic Senate candidates with ties to education continue to gather significant campaign contributions, and outside political committees now also are spending significantly in battleground races.

For example, consider Arvada Democrat Rachel Zenzinger, an appointed freshman who sits on the Senate Education Committee and who is seeking a full-four year term from a Jefferson County district evenly divided among Democratic, Republican and unaffiliated voters.

Democrats are battling hard to maintain – or improve – their 18-17 majority in the Senate, and the heavy spending in certain races reflects that.

Zenzinger’s campaign committee has raised more than $193,000 according to a campaign finance report filed Monday, one of the largest amounts of any Democratic Senate candidate. She raised nearly $20,000 in just the last two weeks of September.

But Zenzinger also has been the indirect beneficiary of at least $71,000 in additional spending by what are called independent expenditure committees. Two of those committees, Citizens Alliance for Accountable Leadership and Colorado Voters Voice, have paid for television ads and digital media supporting her candidacy.

Independent committees also have spent money on behalf of several other Democratic Senate and House candidates. Election law allows independent expenditure committees to spend money for and against candidates, but those efforts aren’t supposed to be coordinated with candidates.

Citizens Alliance and Voters Voice are part of a network of committees affiliated with the Democratic Party, labor unions and progressive groups. Democrats and donors organized the system several elections ago and have successfully used it to support candidates.

Here’s an example of how it works:

  • A group named Mainstream Colorado has raised $2.9 million. Its donors include corporations, political action committees, other groups and individuals. From the education world, the Colorado Education Association has given $100,000, the American Federation of Teachers $50,000 and Education Reform Now $85,000. (That last group connected to Democrats for Education Reform.)
  • Mainstream has spent $2.3 million, including $720,708 to Citizens Alliance. In turn it spent that money with Adelstein Liston, a Chicago-based political consulting and advertising firm, to produce advertising materials boosting Zenzinger and four other Democratic Senate candidates, as well as materials opposing some Republican candidates.

Republicans use similar tactics with outside committees. A committee named the Senate Majority Fund, which backs GOP candidates, has raised $1.3 million and spent $470,377. It’s received $22,000 from K12 Management Inc., the for-profit education company, and $20,000 from Ed McVaney, a longtime school choice backer, among lots of other contributors. The Fund is what’s called a “527” committee, and such groups don’t necessarily have to specify which candidates they support or oppose.

Another 527, Colorado Citizens for Accountable Government, has raised $350,000 and spent $205,399, again without reporting which races it’s spending in.

Citizens Alliance is an “independent expenditure” committee and subject to somewhat different reporting rules.

The complexity and variation in campaign finance contribution and reporting laws is part of the reason for the variety of committees. There are limits on the size of contributions to candidate committees, and corporations can’t donate directly to candidates. Such limits don’t apply to independent expenditure and 527 committees, so they offer a way to support candidates without direct contributions to candidate themselves.

Other Democratic Senate candidates who’ve been the beneficiaries of independent spending by Citizens Alliance include Andy Kerr in Jefferson County, Mike Merrifield in Colorado Springs and Judy Solano in Adams County.

Those three are have high-profile names in education. Kerr, a Jeffco teacher, is chair of the Senate Education Committee. Merrifield and Solano are retired teachers and former House members. Merrifield was chair of House Education, and Solano was known as one of the legislature’s harshest critics of standardized testing.

How the candidates and committees are doing

Many candidate committees continued a fast pace of fundraising during the last two weeks of September. Senate candidates of both parties grew their war chests at a faster rate than House candidates.

There was virtually no new fundraising by the two committees battling over Amendment 68, the slots-for-schools constitutional amendment. Both those groups raised and committed their funds earlier in order to reserve TV ad spots.

The two sides have spent a total of about $32 million, about the same amount as the annual general fund spending of a 5,000-student school district.

Get the details in the chart below. Select a candidate or candidates to generate bar graphs at the top of the chart. Story continues after the chart.

Education-focused committees less active

Things were relatively quiet for education-oriented political action and small donor committees during the latest reporting period.

Raising Colorado, an independent expenditure committee affiliated with Democrats for Education Reform, spent $10,243 on a mailing for Rep. Brittany Pettersen, D-Lakewood, and $12,594 on direct mail for Sen. Cheri Jahn, D-Wheat Ridge.

The Public Education Committee, the main campaign contribution arm of the CEA, also made some modest new contributions to Democratic candidates.

The DCTA Fund, affiliated with the Denver Classroom Teachers Association, made its first foray into the general election campaign with some small contributions to a few Democratic legislative and statewide candidates, and it also gave to the state Democratic Party.

Key to chart: SDC means small donor committee, usually funded by dues or individual small contributions from a large number of people. IE means independent expenditure committee, which can spend for or against candidates, but spending can’t be coordinated with campaigns. PAC means political action committee, which can contribute directly to candidates.

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See disparities in how Colorado schools are serving black, Hispanic, and white students

Ismael Mora raises his hand on the first day of school at McGlone Academy in Denver on Aug. 15, 2018. (Photo by AAron Ontiveroz/The Denver Post)

Chalkbeat continues its closer look today at recently released state test scores. The scores are one way to measure whether schools are doing a good job serving different groups of students, including students of color. This story focuses on students by race and ethnicity.

This database is the third of three that Chalkbeat published this week. The first looks at student growth scores by family income, and the second looks at growth scores by disability status.

On the whole, black and Hispanic students in grades 3 through 8 scored lower on literacy and math tests taken this past spring than white students did. Those gaps have persisted for years in Colorado and across the nation.

But the raw scores don’t tell the whole story. While they show whether or not students are at grade level, they don’t show how much academic progress students made in the year leading up to taking the tests. Take, for instance, a fifth-grader who jumped from reading at a first-grade level to a fourth-grade level. The student made a lot of progress but still isn’t at grade level.

The state aims to measure such academic progress with something called a “growth percentile,” or growth score. State education officials have focused on growth scores as a better gauge of teaching and learning than raw test scores, which tend to be correlated to race or family income.

That’s why the state heavily weighs growth scores when assigning quality ratings to districts and schools. That’s also why we’re featuring them in the searchable database at the bottom of this story.

Growth scores work like this: Each student’s raw test score is compared with the scores of students who performed similarly to them in previous years. The growth score is a percentile: A 99 means a student did better than 99 percent of students with similar test score histories.

The state also calculates growth scores for entire districts, schools, and groups of students by ranking from highest to lowest all of their growth scores and then finding the midway point, or median, among the students.

In the charts below, you’ll see median growth scores for 15 metro area districts. For each district, you’ll see three scores: One for black students, one for Hispanic students, and one for white students.

Including the scores of white students provides an indication of whether districts are serving students of color as well as they’re serving white students. Testing experts caution that growth scores are just one piece of the puzzle when measuring a school’s quality.

Credit: Sam Park/Chalkbeat

In most districts, white students showed more academic progress than black or Hispanic students did. But there were some exceptions. In the Mapleton school district, located north of Denver, black students showed far more progress in literacy than did white or Hispanic students. About 2 percent of the district’s nearly 9,000 students are black.

Credit: Sam Park/Chalkbeat

The database below goes even deeper to show median growth scores at all Colorado elementary and middle schools for black students, Hispanic students, and white students. Those three groups are the biggest in Colorado. We did not include growth scores for smaller groups of students, including Asian and Native American students, because of the technological limitations of our database and because Colorado’s student data privacy rules obscure many of the scores for those students.

A note about the numbers themselves: The median growth score for the state is always about 50. The state considers growth scores between 35 and 65 “typical,” meaning students made a typical amount of academic progress that year.

Scores higher than 65 suggest students are making above-average academic progress – evidence, perhaps, that a school’s curriculum is working for those students or their teachers are getting the training, support, and resources they need to be effective

Scores lower than 35 suggest the opposite.

Look up your elementary or middle school in the database below. The database also allows you to pull up several schools at once and see their scores side-by-side.

A “-” symbol means a score is not publicly available. The state obscures test results for small groups of students in what has been a controversial effort to protect student privacy.

school by school

Look up disparities in how your school is serving students with special needs

Zachary Tucker, a 5th grader in Colorado Springs, answers questions in class with his service dog, Clyde, in 2014. Clyde helps Zach with his Aspergers syndrome, a high functioning form of autism. (Photo By Joe Amon/The Denver Post via Getty Images)

Some of the largest gaps in test results in Colorado are between students who have special needs, and students who don’t.

Chalkbeat has been looking at data released earlier this month from state tests students took this spring.

Students with special needs historically underperform the general student population on state tests. However, advocates say that with the right help, students with non-cognitive disabilities should be just as likely to score as well as their peers.

The database below provides a breakdown of test data for students in third through eighth grade. The tool is an easy way for you to compare gaps among schools and the statewide average.

This database is the second of three that Chalkbeat plans to publish this week.
  • To look up disparities by poverty, read our first story here.
  • To look up disparities by student race and ethnicity, read our third story here.
  • What you’ll see is a growth score — it’s a number calculated by the state that shows how students did year-over-year when compared only with students with similar academic histories. The scale is created to set the state median growth at about 50. If a school has a growth score of 55, for instance, that means the students in that school, on average, improved more than 55 percent of their academic peers.

    The state has been weighing growth heavily when rating schools each year, but is now reconsidering that calculation.

    Last year, looking at achievement data, Chalkbeat found some of the widest gaps in school districts such as Poudre, Boulder Valley and St. Vrain. But looking at the growth scores this year, the widest gaps in how much students improved from year to year are in Adams 14 and Denver.

    Denver’s school district often has some of the state’s largest disparities when it comes to the education of different students. Adams 14, which actually had no gap when it came to the growth of students on math tests, but a very large gap in literacy, had a troubled year when it came to special education. The program director left in the spring, and several parents said they discovered late in the year that their children hadn’t received the help they should have according to their education plans.

    Credit: Sam Park/Chalkbeat

    Some districts remain unique cases. For instance, while the gap in Littleton is wide, its students with special needs had the highest growth in literacy among special needs students in other metro-area districts.

    In Englewood, students who have an individualized education plan had, on average, higher growth in math than students who did not require such a plan.

    Credit: Sam Park/Chalkbeat

    Some school-level data is obscured by the state in a controversial attempt to protect student privacy. Below, if you see the “-” symbol, that means the score for that group of students at the school is not publicly available.

    In the tool, “IEP” refers to the growth scores of students with Individualized Education Program plans required for students with special needs.

    Look up your school here: