State Board elections

Testing issue follows candidates on campaign trail

Ask candidates running for the State Board of Education this year what voters want to talk about and you generally get a quick answer – testing.

The four candidates for two contested seats all expect that the question of how much and what kind of standardized tests should be given will be a major issue for the new board and legislature that take office in 2015. The candidates have differing but nuanced views on the issue, but most of them are open to considering changes in the state’s assessment system.

Chalkbeat Colorado interviewed each of the four about testing and other key education issues. See summaries of their responses below, but first here’s a brief look at who’s running.

The candidates

District 3 – Republican incumbent Marcia Neal of Grand Junction faces Democrat Henry Roman of Pueblo in this sprawling district that covers most of western Colorado and stretches east to Pueblo.

Neal is a former social studies teacher and Mesa 51 school board member who sometimes is a swing vote on the state board. She’s been a strong advocate of increasing the size of the school trust lands permanent fund, which earns revenues from state lands. Roman is a former Pueblo 60 superintendent, has worked recently as a charter school consultant and is making his first run for elected office.

District 7 – Democratic incumbent Jane Goff of Arvada is a former Jefferson County foreign language teacher and administrator who also served as president of the Jefferson County Education Association. She’s being challenged by Republican Laura Boggs of Lakewood, a former Jeffco school board member who was a one-woman conservative minority before the board changed hands in the 2013 election.

Issues in District 3

Testing

Marcia Neal
Marcia Neal

“I think there are a lot of concerns around the PARCC tests,” Neal said. “It’s sort of this gigantic issue.” She says Colorado faces “a real dilemma” in what to do about its testing system.

“So far I don’t think we’ve done a very good job of balancing” testing and classroom instruction, she said She hopes the task force that’s studying the issue can suggest and good balance on testing changes.

Roman said, “Right now I think we need to stay with” current plans for full PARCC testing next spring. He likes online testing because it promises quicker results for teachers to use. And he said he’s open to considering changes such as sampling, where every student is not tested every year, and reducing state tests to federal minimums. “We’ve burdened our teachers with too much testing.”

Academic standards

Neal voted against Colorado adoption of the Common Core State Standards in 2010 but said, “I’m very supportive of high academic standards.”

Roman said the state should stick with the current Colorado Academic Standards, which include the Common Core for language arts and math. “These happen to be the ones that are in place, and I support them” but is open to changes in the future.

School finance

Henry Roman
Henry Roman

“I know we need more money,” Neal said, but she believes there isn’t a direct relationship between funding levels and student achievement. She’s opposed to raising school funding without detailed plans for how more money would be used.

“I think we need to address the negative factor,” Roman said, referring to the formula used by the legislature to set total district funding every year. “We need to find a way to get back the funding schools should have been receiving.”

School choice

“I’m very much in favor of choice,” Neal said, but she doubts tuition tax credits or vouchers are in the state’s future, saying, “I don’t think that’s something the courts are ready to do.”

“I’m not in support of vouchers,” Roman said. “I think our current school choice options are excellent,” adding that he feel’s it’s important that charters “accept all students and that their performance is as good or better” than traditional schools.

What voters are saying

Neal said, “90 percent of the time it’s, ‘Where do you stand on Common Core?’ It dominates the conversation.”

Roman said, “What I’m hearing a lot of is there’s too much testing, and for the most part there’s too much emphasis on the core academic subjects to the exclusion of other subjects.” He added, “I’m also hearing about lack of equitable funding.”

The State Board’s role

Asked about the board’s role relative to the governor and the legislature, Neal said, “It does have a role to play, but it doesn’t make policy decisions, and it probably shouldn’t. … People tend to ignore us and then when something happens they want us to fix it, and we can’t.”

Roman said, “I see it as a body that takes what the legislature has passed and puts it into policy and procedure.”

Both candidates are concerned about the volume of education legislation – “There’s no limit to what the state legislature passes,” Roman said. “I’ve gotten to that I sort of dread the legislative session,” Neal commented.

The Jeffco controversy

Neal said the situation has “gotten pretty muddled” with the combination of two issues, curriculum review and teacher-board differences over salaries. She said, “I understand the history concern” about AP U.S. History and said that as a teacher “I always tried to go down the middle.”

“A class should reflect history as objectively as possible,” Roman said, adding that he supports the new AP class.

Issues in District 7

Testing

Jane Goff
Jane Goff

“I think it’s a dilemma for everybody,” Goff says of K-12 testing. “I’m not hearing very much at all of let’s throw the whole thing out,” and said she’s willing to look at changes in the system, including reducing state tests back to federal minimums. But, she added, “Accountability is the hard part, the sticky wicket.” She supports current plans to use the PARCC tests.

Boggs discusses testing in the context of her strong support for local control, criticizing what she calls “a one-size-fits-all system” and saying “districts need to have flexibility” in testing – “while absolutely still holding the system accountable.”

Academic standards

Goff said she “absolutely” supports the current Colorado Academic Standards, thinks changing them now would be disruptive for districts. “The challenge is getting people to understand what it’s all about.”

Boggs thinks “We need a robust conversation about what the actual standards need to be. … Parents and community members need confidence in our standards, and there’s clearly not that now.”

School finance

Laura Boggs
Laura Boggs

Goff said, “I’m not a tax fan” and that voters need better explanation of how new revenues would be spent. Referring to Amendment 66, the defeated 2013 K-12 tax increase, she said, “I don’t think people really understood how that could benefit their school district and the state as a whole.” While she supports reduction of the negative factor, she added, “I can’t see any great benefit in restoring more money to schools is that hurts, say, health programs.”

Boggs faults legislators for not spending more money on K-12 during the 2014 session, given a large balance in the State Education Fund. She sees general voter support for local school tax measures (as opposed to defeat on A66) as evidence that citizens “want local control back.”

School choice

Goff said she’s comfortable with the quality of state charter school law and feels progress has been made with online schools but that continued work is needed to improve student achievement at online schools and some charters. She said she generally opposes vouchers and tuition tax credits but would be willing to consider such mechanisms for some special education students.

Boggs calls herself “a huge supporter” of choice and charter schools but has concerns about vouchers and tax credits. “A great public education system is a great equalizer, so I’m not really wild about proposals that take money out of the public school system.” She also said a statewide tax credit law could be “a little dicey because you are infringing on local control.”

What the voters are saying

“Number 1 right now is testing. That’s hot, it’s very hot,” Goff said. “It’s probably right up there with what’s going on in Jeffco.”

Boggs said, “The voters are telling me that our child are over-tested … the teachers are telling me that they don’t have the flexibility. … a one-size-fits-all education system is not something they’re interested in.”

The State Board’s role

Goff acknowledges that the board often is subordinate to the governor and legislature but thinks SBE members should take a more visible role on education issues and should show “more leadership.”

Boggs said the board should “get more energized in the conversation” about largely flat student achievement levels but stressed again “my passion is for the local control piece” of education.

The Jeffco controversy

Jefferson County is a big part of the 7th District, and both Goff and Boggs have close personal tied to the district.

Chalkbeat asked the candidates how controversies over the board could affect their race.

“Right now education is so hot and people are so passionate about it,” Goff said, adding that it’s hard to tell how that might translate into the state board race. “I think it’s still early to tell.”

Boggs was critical of the new AP U.S. history program but also of the original wording of the Jeffco board’s curriculum review resolution. She said the impact in the broader electorate is hard judge. “I’m probably not the best person to ask about that,” she added, given that primarily talks to people who are involved with education.

Board campaigns are quiet

State Board candidates usually campaign in the shadow of statewide and congressional candidates, with their big television ad budgets, and of the better-funded legislative hopefuls, who can blanket their districts with yard signs, literature drops and phone calls.

The 3rd District has 29 counties – many mountainous and thinly populated – and is especially challenging for SBE candidates.

“It’s very difficult,” said Neal. “I have not traveled as much as I’d like to.” She sends literature and yard signs to county GOP offices for distribution, and she’s planning newspaper and maybe radio ads in Pueblo and Durango, two population centers where she’s not as well known as in the Grand Valley. “I do what I have with the money I have and the time I’ve got.”

Roman said he’s been traveling extensively on the Western Slope in order to raise his profile there, attending candidate forums, coffees, Democratic events and “a lot of parades.”

Neal has raised about $11,500, while Roman’s campaign war chest was nearly $17,000 at the end of September.

In the 7th District Goff has been attending candidate forums and Democratic events, getting yard signs placed and literature distributed and is sending postcards to targeted Adams and Jefferson county neighborhoods. She’s also advertising in weekly community newspapers.

Boggs said, “I’m going to everything I’m invited to,” but that mailings aren’t planned “unless there’s a whole lot of money coming in that I don’t know about.”

Goff has a wide fund-raising edge with about $23,000 compared to Boggs’ $3,800.

Other districts, other members

Valentina Flores
Valentina Flores

The board’s 1st District seat, which primarily covers Denver, is also on the ballot this election. Retired educator Valentina Flores, who defeated a reform candidate in the June Democratic primary, is the only candidate on the ballot. (Learn more about her background and views in this earlier Chalkbeat Colorado story.) Flores will replace Democrat Elaine Gantz Berman, who chose not to run again.

Board chair Paul Lundeen, a Republican from Monument, is running unopposed for a seat in the state House. Once he’s elected a GOP vacancy committee will choose a replacement for his District 5 board seat.

Three board members are in the middle of terms and not on the ballot: Republican Pam Mazanec of Larkspur (4th District), Republican Debora Scheffel of Parker (6th) and Democrat Angelika Schroeder of Boulder (2nd).

About the State Board of Education

Here are key facts about the board:

  • Seven members elected on a partisan basis
  • Board districts are the same as congressional districts
  • Term limits: Two six-year terms
  • Current board is four Republicans, three Democrats
  • Members are unpaid
  • Board generally meets monthly
  • Constitutional duty: “General supervision of the public schools”
  • Specific duties: Hiring education commissioner, issuing regulations to implement state education laws; revoking teacher licenses; granting waivers to education laws; approving teacher prep programs; adjudicating district-charter disputes; certifying multi-district online programs; overseeing reports, task forces and various other groups; adoption of state content standards and tests; deciding conversion plans for failed schools and districts; distribution of grants, among others
  • Board website

IPS School Board Race 2018

Indiana teachers union spends big on Indianapolis Public Schools in election

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy/Chalkbeat
IPS board candidate signs

The political arm of Indiana’s largest teachers union is spending big on the Indianapolis Public Schools board. The group donated $68,400 to three candidates vying for seats on the board this November, according to pre-election campaign finance disclosures released Friday.

The three candidates — Susan Collins, Michele Lorbieski, and Taria Slack — have all expressed criticism of the current board and the leadership of Superintendent Lewis Ferebee. Although that criticism touches on many issues, one particular bone of contention is the district’s embrace of innovation schools, independent campuses that are run by charter or nonprofit operators but remain under the district’s umbrella. Teachers at those schools are employed by the school operators, so they cannot join the union.

The trio was also endorsed by the IPS Community Coalition, a local group that has received funding from a national teachers union.

It’s not unusual for teachers unions to spend on school board elections. In 2016, the union contributed $15,000 to an unsuccessful at-large candidate for the Indianapolis Public Schools board. But $68,400 dwarfs that contribution. Those disclosures do not capture the full spending on the election. The three candidates endorsed by Stand for Children Indiana — Mary Ann Sullivan, Dorene Rodríguez Hoops, and Evan Hawkins — are likely getting significant unreported benefits.

Stand for Children, which supports innovation schools, typically sends mailers and hires campaign workers to support the candidates it endorses. But it is not required to disclose all of its political activity because it is an independent expenditure committee, also known as a 501(c)(4), for the tax code section that covers it. The group did not immediately respond to a request for information on how much it is spending on this race.

The candidates’ fundraising varied widely in the reporting period, which covered the period from April 14 to Oct. 12, with Taria Slack bringing in $28,950 and Joanna Krumel raising $200. In recent years, candidates have been raising significantly more money than had been common. But one recent candidate managed to win on a shoestring: Elizabeth Gore won an at-large seat in 2016 after raising about $1,200.

Read more: See candidates’ answers to a Chalkbeat survey

One part of Stand for Children’s spending became visible this year when it gave directly to tax campaigns. The group contributed $188,842 to the campaign for two tax referendums to raise money for Indianapolis Public Schools. That includes a $100,000 donation that was announced in August and about $88,842 worth of in-kind contributions such as mailers. The group has a team of campaign workers who have been going door-to-door for months.

The district is seeking to persuade voters to support two tax increases. One would raise $220 million for operating funds, such as teacher salaries, over eight years. A second measure would raise $52 million for building improvements. Donations from Stand for Children largely power the Vote Yes for IPS campaign, which raised a total of $201,717. The Indiana teachers union also contributed $5,000.

Here are the details on how much each candidate has raised and some of the notable contributions:

At large

Incumbent Mary Ann Sullivan, a former Democrat state lawmaker, raised $7,054. Her largest contribution came from the Indy Chamber Business Advocacy Committee, which donated $4,670. She also received $1,000 from Steel House, a metal warehouse run by businessman Reid Litwack. She also received several donations of $250 or less.

Retired Indianapolis Public Schools teacher Susan Collins, who is one of the candidates supported by the union, raised $16,422. The Indiana Political Action Committee for Education contributed $15,000. She also received several donations of $200 or less.

Ceramics studio owner and Indianapolis Public Schools parent Joanna Krumel raised $200. Her largest contribution, $100, came from James W. Hill.

District 3

Marian University Executive Director of Facilities and Procurement and Indianapolis Public Schools parent Evan Hawkins raised $22,037. His largest contributions from individuals were from businessmen Allan Hubbard, who donated $5,000, and Litwack, who donated $2,500. The Indy Chamber Business Advocacy Committee contributed $4,670 and web design valued at $330. He also received several donations of $1,000 or less. His donors included IPS board member Venita Moore, retiring IPS board member Kelly Bentley’s campaign, and the CEO of The Mind Trust, Brandon Brown.

Frost Brown Todd trial attorney and Indianapolis Public Schools parent Michele Lorbieski, who is one of the candidates supported by the union, raised $27,345. The Indiana Political Action Committee for Education contributed $24,900. She also received several contributions of $250 or less.

Pike Township schools Director of Information Services Sherry Shelton raised $1,763, primarily from money she contributed. David Green contributed $116.

District 5

Incumbent Dorene Rodríguez Hoops, an Indianapolis Public Schools parent, raised $16,006. Her largest contributors include Hubbard, who donated $5,000; the Indy Chamber Business Advocacy Committee, which gave $4,670 and web design valued at $330; and the MIBOR PAC, which contributed $1,000. She also received several contributions of $500 or less, including from Bentley.

Federal employee and Indianapolis Public Schools parent Taria Slack, who is one of the candidates supported by the union, raised $28,950. The Indiana Political Action Committee for Education contributed $28,500.

Innovation zone

Two more Denver schools win additional freedom from district rules

PHOTO: J. Zubrzycki/Chalkbeat
Alex Magaña, then principal at Grant Beacon Middle School, greeted students as they moved between classes in 2015.

Two more Denver schools this week won more flexibility in how they spend their money and time. The schools will create a new “innovation zone,” bringing the district’s number of quasi-autonomous zones to three.

The Denver school board on Thursday unanimously approved the schools’ application to operate more independently from district rules, starting in January.

The new zone will include Grant Beacon Middle School in south Denver and Kepner Beacon Middle School in southwest Denver. The two schools are high-performing by the district’s standards and follow a model that allows students to learn at their own pace.

With just two schools, the zone will be the district’s smallest, though Beacon leaders have signaled their intent to compete to open a third school in the growing Stapleton neighborhood, where the district has said it will need more capacity. The district’s other two innovation zones have four and five schools each.

Schools in zones are still district schools, but they can opt out of paying for certain district services and instead spend that money on things that meet their specific needs, such as additional teachers or aides. Zones can also form nonprofit organizations with their own boards of directors that provide academic and operational oversight, and help raise extra dollars to support the schools.

The new zone, called the Beacon Schools Network Innovation Zone, will have a five-member board of directors that includes one current parent, two former parents, and two community members whose professional work is related to education.

The zone will also have a teacher council and a parent council that will provide feedback to its board but whose members won’t be able to vote on decisions.

Some Denver school board members questioned the makeup of the zone’s board.

“I’m wondering about what kinds of steps you’re going to take to ensure there is a greater representation of people who live and reside in southwest Denver,” where Kepner Beacon is located, asked school board member Angela Cobián, who represents the region. She also asked about a greater representation of current parents on the board.

Alex Magaña, who serves as executive principal over the Beacon schools and will lead the new zone, said he expects the board to expand to seven members within a year. He also said the parent council will play a key role even if its members can’t vote.

“The parent council is a strong influence,” he said. “If the parent council is not happy, that’s going to be impacting both of the schools. I don’t want to undersell that.”

Other Denver school board members questioned the zone’s finances and how dependent it would be on fundraising. A district summary of the zone’s application notes that the zone’s budget relies on $1.68 million in foundation revenue over the next 5½ years.

Magaña said the zone would eventually seek to expand to four schools, which would make it more financially stable. As for philanthropic dollars, he said the zone would work to ensure any loss of revenue doesn’t hurt the schools’ unique programs or enrichment.

“I can’t emphasize enough that it won’t impact the schools,” he said.

Ultimately, Denver school board members said they have confidence in the Beacon model and look forward to seeing what its leaders do with their increased autonomy.