family feud

Unified against Trump, the country’s would-be Democratic governors are divided on education

PHOTO: RJ Sangosti/The Denver Post
Donald Trump campaigned at the Jefferson County Fairgrounds in Golden, October 29, 2016.

Coming to a Democratic primary near you: a clash over education issues.

In several big states, governors who have supported charter schools are on their way out or facing a re-election fight in 2018. And while the party is united in its distaste for President Donald Trump, candidates vying for state leadership from California to Georgia are split on key education issues.

To simplify: In one camp are those who favor charter schools and accountability policies based in part on test scores, exemplified by the group Democrats for Education Reform. In the other camp are those — most prominently teachers unions — who emphasize greater investment in schools and are skeptical of solutions that focus on charters and choice.

Those tensions are growing, as the current president and his unpopular Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos make education reform a tougher sell than it was under President Obama, who supported charter schools.

“I do expect this fight to play out to some degree in Democratic primaries up and down the ballot,” said Shavar Jeffries, the DFER president. “The old-line forces see an opportunity to use the historically toxic Trump-DeVos brand to reverse progress we’ve made under Presidents Clinton and Obama.”

The National Education Association did not respond to a request for comment and a spokesperson for the American Federation for Teachers declined to comment on Democratic primaries.

So far, few candidates are publicly hashing out differences on education, and Jeffries said it’s too early to discuss specific races. But candidates’ past records and recent statements suggest that education will play an important role, particularly in the jockeying for endorsements from monied players like DFER and local unions. Meanwhile, Democratic supporters of charter schools are increasingly being linked to DeVos.

Here are five upcoming governors’ races where education could be a key issue in the Democratic primary.

In California, Newsom knocks Villaraigosa on schools

Antonio Villaraigosa and Gavin Newsom (Photos: David Starkopf / Office of the Mayor, Brian Kusler / Creative Commons)

It’s southern versus northern California: former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa is facing former San Francisco Mayor (and current lieutenant governor) Gavin Newsom in the race for governor of the country’s most populous state.

Villaraigosa has been a staunch supporter of charter schools and a frequent critic of teachers unions. Newsom has less of a record on education, but has hinted at differences between the two.

“I believe in public education and will fight like mad for our public schools,” Newsom said earlier this year. “This is not the case of every Democrat running for governor.”

California’s unusual primary system — in which all candidates, regardless of party, run on the same ticket and the top two vote-getters face each other in the general election — means it’s possible Villaraigosa and Newsom will face each other in the November 2018 general election.

California state treasurer John Chiang and former state schools superintendent Delaine Eastin are also running for the Democrats, though they trail in recent polls.

The next governor will replace Jerry Brown, who had started two charters of his own before taking office and has been a strong supporter of the privately managed, publicly funded schools. Brown even recently vetoed a bill to ban for-profit charters, though many charter school advocates have supported such a change.

Colorado candidates tote hefty education résumés

Jared Polis, Michael Johnston, and Cary Kennedy ((Photos: Third Way Think Tank / Creative Commons, Nic Garcia, City Energy Project / Creative Commons)

In John Hickenlooper, Democratic advocates of charter schools have had a staunch ally in the Denver statehouse. They’re hoping to keep it that way, as Hickenlooper exits and a number of prominent Democrats, all with extensive education backgrounds, vie to replace him.

The field includes two long-time supporters of charter schools.

One is Jared Polis, a congressman who helped start a network of charter schools (and who once got into a Twitter spat with education reform critic Diane Ravitch). Then there’s Michael Johnston, a former state senator and school principal who authored the state’s controversial teacher evaluation law, which relies heavily on student test scores. Johnston, who spearheaded a failed statewide ballot initiative to increase school spending, has already drawn significant support from the education reform world, inside and outside Colorado.

Neither has emphasized traditional education reform issues so far, though: Polis has focused on expanding pre-K; Johnston has emphasized tuition-free college.

Another prominent Democrat, former state treasurer Cary Kennedy, also seems likely to focus on education issues besides charter schools, including increasing teacher pay and reducing the number of standardized tests.

“I want all our kids to be thinkers and creative problem-solvers, not just good test-takers,” said Kennedy, who wrote a 2000 state constitutional amendment that required regular education funding increases.

Lieutenant Governor Donna Lynne is also considering jumping in, and businessman Noel Ginsburg, who founded a youth apprenticeship organization, is running.

Whoever wins will likely face a hard-fought general election in this perennial swing state.

Georgia candidate linked to DeVos at progressive conference

Stacey Abrams and Stacey Evans

Term limits mean that Georgia’s Republican Governor Nathan Deal, a big charter-school supporter, will leave office next year. Two Democrats are running to replace him: Stacey Abrams and Stacey Evans, both state representatives.

Evans recently came in for criticism at a progressive conference for her support of charter schools and a tax-credit scholarship program, which functions like a school voucher program. Some attendees held up signs that read “Evans = DeVos.”

Abrams, who is vying to be the nation’s first black female governor, responded with an implicit jab. “Activists in Atlanta peacefully protested this morning on the critical issue of preserving public education for every family in our state,” she said.

The nominee will likely face an uphill battle in this red state.

New York’s Cuomo under pressure on charters, education funding

Cynthia Nixon, Andrew Cuomo, and Stephanie Miner (Photos: Syracuse City Schools, MTA, Diana Robinson / Creative Commons)

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo is planning to run for a third term, but his record on education has left some progressives wary.

He has been a key ally of the state’s charter lobby, put in place teacher evaluations based heavily on student test scores (a stance he has since backed away from), and supported school-spending increases substantially lower than what funding advocacy groups like the Alliance for Quality Education have called for.

Cynthia Nixon, the prominent actress and long-time spokesperson for the union-backed Alliance, has said she’s considering a run. She has said her campaign would focus on education issues, particularly school funding. Cuomo also risks a challenge from a more conventional candidate: Syracuse mayor Stephanie Miner, who has polled within striking distance of the incumbent.

That said, a primary against the powerful and well-financed Cuomo is far from guaranteed and if it happens, is likely a long shot.

Tennessee candidates may differ on charters

Craig Fitzhugh and Karl Dean (Photos: Sean Braisted / Creative Commons, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers)

Tennessee Democrats haven’t won a statewide office in over a decade, but that hasn’t deterred two Democrats from running for the state’s top office.

One is Karl Dean, who pushed to expand charter schools as the mayor of Nashville. But local charter advocates have faced a number of setbacks, including the defeat of several favored school board candidates. Dean has said charter schools will not be the centerpiece of his education agenda, though his record on education has already come under criticism from charter school critics.

Opposing Dean in the primary will be Craig Fitzhugh, the minority leader in the Tennessee house of representatives. He has generally been more skeptical of charter schools and drawn more support from unions than Dean.

The winner will likely be an underdog in the general election battle to replace Bill Haslam, the current Republican governor, who has strongly backed the expansion of charter schools.

More money

Aurora school board campaigns pulling in money from big names

Aurora's school board candidates at a candidate forum hosted by RISE Colorado. (Photo by Yesenia Robles)

New big names are stepping in to contribute to Aurora’s school board races this year, including some longtime contributors to some Denver school board candidates.

Daniel Ritchie, a Denver philanthropist, and Patrick Hamill, the founder and CEO of Oakwood Homes, contributed to some Aurora candidates this year, according to new campaign finance reports that were due Tuesday. State records show they had not in the past. Ritchie in 2012 did support an Aurora committee to pass a tax measure for the school district.

The contributions are further evidence of Aurora’s growing profile among education reform advocates. Over the last three years, the district’s school improvement work has attracted the attention of groups and think tanks that sense opportunity in a traditionally overlooked district with a large population of underserved students. A couple of Denver’s popular college-prep charter school operators, DSST and Rocky Mountain Prep, have put down roots in Aurora.

The new campaign finance reports show that eight school board candidates vying for one of four seats on the Aurora school board raised almost $50,000 so far. One candidate, incumbent Barbara Yamrick, had not filed a report as of Wednesday afternoon.

Because four of the school board’s seven seats are up for election, and only one incumbent is attempting re-election, November’s winners could align as a majority and point the district in a new direction.

The district’s profile has risen among education watchers as it attempts reforms of some of the lowest performing schools in the state. Its strategies include an innovation zone where five schools have new autonomy from district, union and state rules, and through an evolving new process for opening charter schools.

The candidates who have raised the most amount of money are Miguel In Suk Lovato, who reported $14,181 in donations, and Gail Pough, who reported $10,181.32.

How much did candidates raise, spend?

  • Gail Pough, $10,181.32; 6,533.24
  • Lea Steed, $1,355.00; 878.24
  • Kyla Armstrong Romero, $6,365.55; 3,019.81
  • Kevin Cox, $2,554.00; $2,291.93
  • Miguel Lovato, $14,181.00; $9,336.96
  • Jane Barber, $150.00; $988.10
  • Debbie Gerkin, $7,755.43; $2,350.24
  • Marques Ivey, $4,965.30; $2,791.84/li>
  • Barbara Yamrick, did not file

Both received donations from Ritchie, Hamill and Democrats for Education Reform. Lovato also reported donations from Linda Childears, the president and CEO of the Daniels Fund, and other Daniels Fund employees. Lovato works there as a senior grants program officer. Pough also reported donations from Denver school board candidate Jennifer Bacon, and Democratic state Rep. Rhonda Fields.

Candidate Lea Steed and Debbie Gerkin also received donations from Democrats for Education Reform.

The organization had contributed to Aurora candidates in the past, but on a smaller scale.

Union interests also have been active. Four candidates, Gerkin, Kyla Armstrong-Romero, Kevin Cox and Marques Ivey, are organized as a slate endorsed by Aurora’s teacher’s union. The Public Education Committee, which is a union funded committee, donated $1,125 directly to candidate campaigns. The same committee also reported in-kind donations, meaning non-monetary, of almost $3,000 to three of the slate members, for polling.

The candidates also reported their expenditures, which mostly consisted of consultant fees, advertising materials or yard signs and rental space or food for volunteers.
Reports filed earlier in the week from independent expenditure committees show Democrats for Education Reform and union groups have also spent money this year to advocate for some Aurora school board candidates on their own. Independent expenditure committees are not allowed to donate directly to candidates, but can campaign on their own for or against candidates. Their reports were due earlier this week.

Movers & shakers

Haslam names three West Tennesseans to State Board of Education    

PHOTO: TDOE
Members of the Tennessee State Board of Education listen to a July presentation about TNReady scores by Education Commissioner Candice McQueen.

A Memphis real estate executive, a Cordova lawyer and a Decatur County high school student are the newest members of Tennessee’s State Board of Education.

Gov. Bill Haslam announced appointments this week to dozens of state boards and commissions, including the 11-member education panel, which sets policy for K-12 schools in Tennessee.

The new members are:

  • Darrell Cobbins

    Darrell Cobbins is a Memphis native and third-generation real estate professional who attended Catholic, public and private schools. He has degrees from Rhodes College and the University of Memphis and worked for the Greater Memphis Chamber of Commerce. He is president of Universal Commercial Real Estate, which he founded in 2007. Representing the ninth congressional district, he replaces William Troutt, who retired this year as president of Rhodes College and is moving out of state.

  • Lang Wiseman is an attorney in Cordova who graduated from Bolton High School in Arlington. He attended the University of Tennessee on a basketball scholarship and finished as the 24th leading scorer in the school’s history. Wiseman went on to graduate from Harvard Law School and is a partner at Wiseman Bray Attorneys. Representing the eighth congressional district, he replaces Cato Johnson, who accepted a position on the University of Memphis Board of Trustees.

  • Haden Bawcum, of Bath Springs, is the board’s student member, a position that changes annually. He is a senior at Riverside High School in Decatur County.

The appointments became effective in July and are expected to be confirmed by state lawmakers early next year. Board members are not paid.

B. Fielding Rolston is chairman of the board. A retired executive with Eastman Chemical Co. in Kingsport, he was first appointed in 1996.

You can find answers to the board’s frequently asked questions here.