a more perfect union

For teachers unions, budget is more proof of a pendulum shift in New York education policy

PHOTO: Jessica Glazer

In an unlikely outcome, the charter school sector and the teachers union can both claim victory in this year’s budget deal.

The charter sector is excited about a funding boost, while the unions are relishing an ideological shift that got its start months ago and is borne out in the state’s newfound support for “community schools.”

The satisfaction of both groups points to a larger theme: In a shift, the budget had much more to do with haggling over funding than arguing over education policy.

“The whole tone difference was really nice,” said United Federation of Teachers President Michael Mulgrew. “It was nice to work on education instead of fighting over everything.”

Charter schools will walk away with $54 million more in per-pupil spending, a number double what Gov. Andrew Cuomo originally proposed. Meanwhile, the state will invest $175 million in so-called community schools, which will provide wraparound services to students and families.

Pleasing both unions and charter schools is no small feat. But the union’s win is a bigger-picture victory that falls in line with other state policy shifts.

Last year, the unions unsuccessfully fought a teacher evaluation system that increased the weight of state standardized tests. By December, the governor had switched his stance on teacher evaluations and called for an overhaul of the state’s learning standards. With the direction of state policy shifted, lawmakers were free to focus on funding this year and kick policy decisions back to the State Education Department.

“There are members who will tell you that education dominates the budget each year, so for it not to fully dominate is a big win,” Assemblywoman Patricia Fahy said.

The largest education change in this year’s budget, which gives more resources to struggling schools, solidifies the shift in emphasis from accountability-focused changes to resource-driven reform. It is a proposal that Mulgrew says he can get behind.

“I love the community and learning school stuff,” Mulgrew said. “You know how much we’re invested in this as a union.”

Carl Korn, spokesman for the state teachers union, agrees that there was a decided tone change. Last year, the union spent most of its time protesting, while this year he watched “the pendulum swinging,” he said.

As the unions celebrate the state’s big-picture changes, charter schools showed that they could still score their own budget wins. Not only did they come out with much more funding than first proposed, they also avoided a union-backed measure that would withhold money from charter schools that do not enroll a certain percentage of high-needs students.

Charter advocates did not succeed in unfreezing the city’s funding formula, which would allow charter school funding to increase at the same rate as district school funding. But that policy will end next year, and charter sector leaders say they are unconcerned.

“This is a good budget for charter schools, the students they serve and the State of New York,” said James Merriman, CEO of the New York City Charter School Center.

But the increased charter school funding and a failure to pass the legislation to withhold further charter school funding did not dampen Mulgrew’s view of the deal.

“We’re making progress,” he said.

Follow the money

Final Denver school board campaign finance reports show who brought in the most late money

PHOTO: Denver Post file
Victoria Tisman, 8, left, works with paraprofessional Darlene Ontiveros on her Spanish at Bryant-Webster K-8 school in Denver.

Final campaign finance reports for this year’s hard-fought Denver school board elections are in, and they show a surge of late contributions to Angela Cobián, who was elected to represent southwest Denver and ended up bringing in more money than anyone else in the field.

The reports also showed the continued influence of independent groups seeking to sway the races. Groups that supported candidates who favor Denver Public Schools’ current direction raised and spent far more than groups that backed candidates looking to change things.

No independent group spent more during the election than Raising Colorado, which is affiliated with Democrats for Education Reform. In the week and a half before the Nov. 7 election, it spent $126,985. That included nearly $57,000 to help elect Rachele Espiritu, an incumbent supportive of the district’s direction who lost her seat representing northeast Denver to challenger Jennifer Bacon. Raising Colorado spent $13,765 on mail opposing Bacon in that same period.

Teachers union-funded committees also were active in the campaign.

Individually, Cobián raised more money in the days before the election than the other nine candidates combined. She pulled in $25,335 between Oct. 30 and Dec. 2.

That includes a total of $11,000 from three members of the Walton family that founded Walmart: Jim, Alice and Steuart. The Waltons have over the years invested more than $1 billion in education-related causes, including the creation of charter schools.

Total money raised, spent by candidates
    • Angela Cobián: $123,144, $105,200
    • Barbara O’Brien: $117,464, $115,654
    • Mike Johnson: $106,536, $103,782
    • Rachele Espiritu: $94,195, $87,840
    • Jennifer Bacon: $68,967, $67,943
    • Carrie A. Olson: $35,470, $35,470
    • Robert Speth: $30,635, $31,845
    • “Sochi” Gaytan: $28,977, $28,934
    • Tay Anderson: $18,766, $16,865
    Julie Bañuelos: $12,962, $16,835

Cobián was supported in her candidacy by donors and groups that favor the district’s brand of education reform, which includes collaborating with charter schools. In the end, Cobián eclipsed board vice president Barbara O’Brien, who had been leading in contributions throughout the campaign, to raise the most money overall: a total of $123,144.

The two candidates vying to represent central-east Denver raised about $5,000 each in the waning days of the campaign. Incumbent Mike Johnson pulled in $5,300, including $5,000 from Colorado billionaire Phil Anschutz. Teacher Carrie A. Olson, who won the seat, raised $4,946 from a host of donors, none of whom gave more than $500 during that time period.

The other candidates raised less than $5,000 each between Oct. 30 and Dec. 2.

O’Brien, who staved off two competitors to retain her seat representing the city at-large, spent the most in that period: $31,225. One of her competitors, Julie Bañuelos, spent the least.

money matters

In election of big spending, winning Aurora candidates spent less but got outside help

Four new board members, Kyla Armstrong-Romero, Marques Ivey, Kevin Cox and Debbie Gerkin after they were sworn in. (Photo courtesy of Aurora Public Schools)

A slate of Aurora school board candidates that won election last month were outspent by some of their rival campaigns — including in the final days of the race — but benefited from big spending by a union-backed independent committee.

Outside groups that backed the winning slate spent more overall during the campaign, but wound down as pro-education reform groups picked up their spending in the last period right before the election. Those efforts were not enough to push their candidates to victory.

According to the last campaign finance reports turned in on Thursday and covering activity from Oct. 26 through Dec. 2, Gail Pough and Miguel Lovato spent the most from their individual contributions.

Together Pough and Lovato spent more than $7,000 on calls, canvassing and consulting fees. Both candidates were supported by reform groups and had been reporting the most individual contributions in previous campaign finance reports.

But it was the slate of candidates endorsed by the teachers union — Kevin Cox, Debbie Gerkin, Kyla Armstrong-Romero and Marques Ivey — that prevailed on election night.

How much did candidates raise, spend?

  • Gail Pough, $12,756.32; $12,328.81
  • Lea Steed, $1,965.00; $1,396.16
  • Kyla Armstrong Romero, $7,418.83; $3,606.12
  • Kevin Cox, $2,785.54; $2,993.07
  • Miguel Lovato, $16,856.00; $16,735.33
  • Jane Barber, $1,510.32; $1,510.32
  • Debbie Gerkin, $4,690.00; $4,516.21
  • Marques Ivey, $5,496.50; $5,638.57
  • Barbara Yamrick, did not file

The slate members spent varying amounts in the last few days before the election. For instance, Cox, who won the most votes, spent $403 while Ivey who recorded the fewest votes of the four winning candidates, spent $2,056.

Most of the slate candidates’ spending went to Facebook ads and consulting fees. The four also reported a non-monetary contribution in the form of a robocall from the Arapahoe County Democratic Party.

Other financial support for candidates, through independent expenditure committees, showed that the group Every Student Succeeds which was backed by union dollars and was supporting the union slate, spent less in the last days than the reform groups Raising Colorado and Families First Colorado which were supporting Pough and Lovato.

Overall, the independent expenditure committee groups spent more than $419,000 trying to sway Aurora voters.

Incumbent Barbara Yamrick failed to file any campaign finance reports throughout the campaign.