Charter school supporters sound warnings over union win in Denver schools

Even as charter school supporters swept the Douglas County School Board election Tuesday, charter school advocates were losing power in the Denver Public School Board election, according to unofficial election results.

According to the Denver Post, charter-school advocates are warning that a union victory could have far-reaching statewide implications, given the current push for reform at the federal and state level.

Their claim:

If union-backed candidates were elected, the district’s momentum toward improvement would suffer and that could ruin Colorado’s shot at a share of the U.S. Department of Education’s competitive $4.35 billion “Race to the Top” fund.

The $4.3 billion Race to the Top competition, which has been billed as U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan’s greatest tool for reform, will grant stimulus funds to states that develop comprehensive reform strategies in four areas:  standards and assessments, data systems, teacher hiring, firing and evaluation, and turning around struggling schools. Duncan has made it clear that the money will not be divided equally among the states.

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But winning candidates, reported the Denver Post, shrugged off the assumption that they will slow the district’s—or state’s—work toward education reform.

Still, there’s no questioning the fact that the Denver Public School District—historically, one of the state’s most innovative—now looks to be dominated by candidates who have spoken out against the district’s reforms.

Media reports in the days leading up to the election framed the battle as one between unions and charter school supporters. In large part, this was because candidates appeared to either be receiving donations from reform-minded Denver businessman Thomas W. Gamel or unions, including the Denver Classroom Teachers’ Association, the Colorado Education Association, the United Food and Commercial Workers, and the Colorado AFL-CIO.

Gamel was a notable—and generous—contributor to the non-union candidates, spending more than $90,000 on Mary Seawell’s successful campaign over Christopher Scott.

According to EdNews Colorado, union-backed Scott had a less-than-graceful response to his defeat:

“I hope Mr. Gamel is as personally committed to DPS and our children as he is financially,” Scott said. “As we like to say in the consulting business, ‘You buy it, you own it.’  We will hold Mr. Gamel accountable for the actions of the board members his money has supported.”

But union-supported candidates Nate Easley and Andrea Merida won the other two seats—Merida with the help of scary union-backed pamphlets (pdf) about her opponent’s support for charter schools. In the same overblown language that the GOP used in Douglas County, a 527 group called Coloradans for Accountable Reform in Education (CARE) warned voters that charter schools are the enemy of neighborhood schools.

“Why can’t your kids walk to school?” asked the pamphlet. “Because charter schools across town too often siphon tax dollars away from local neighborhood schools.”

Though CARE will not have to release fundraising information until after the election, its spokeswoman told EdNews Colorado that the group receives money from the Denver Classroom Teachers’ Association and the Colorado Education Association.

Merida told EdNews Colorado that while she welcomed the group’s support, she had no idea who CARE was.

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Katie Redding

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