How education reform became a wedge issue among Colorado Democrats this election year
On the campaign trail, the Democratic candidates for governor of Colorado tend to hit the same themes when it comes to education: more money for schools, better pay for teachers, broader access to preschool and full-day kindergarten, more opportunities for higher education.
But this year’s Democratic primary season has also exposed an intra-party rift on education policy that’s been a long time coming.
For years, more moderate Democrats, often working in unison with like-minded Republicans, have championed education reform efforts ranging from school choice to holding educators accountable for student performance. Now, left-leaning Democrats who see those policies as undercutting public education and devaluing the work of teachers are ascendant within the party. They’re trying to tie Democrats who believe otherwise to President Donald Trump and his education secretary, billionaire philanthropist Betsy DeVos.
The dynamic was on full display at the state party convention this spring, when delegates booed the head of the Colorado chapter of Democrats for Education Reform and voted to cast out the organization from under the party’s tent. It is playing out more subtly on the campaign trail in a highly competitive gubernatorial primary. As a result, this election season could shift what’s considered mainstream Democratic education policy in Colorado – particularly when it comes to teacher performance and tenure.
This move to sideline Democrats for Education Reform is significant because the group champions positions on school choice and accountability that have enjoyed wide support in Colorado’s Democratic Party. The group’s state advisory board includes former lieutenant governors and speakers of the state House, along with former state Sen. Michael Johnston, now a candidate for governor.
“For some reason, the left of the Democratic Party has decided that choice and ed reform is anathema and has thrown in with anti-reform elements,” said long-time Democratic political consultant Eric Sondermann, who serves on the board of a Denver charter school.
DeVos supports private school vouchers and championed a free-market approach to charter schools in her home state of Michigan. Colorado charter supporters say their approach is far more regulated and creates options within public education. Sondermann said the DeVos/Trump agenda “could not be more far removed from what Colorado Democratic education reformers are talking about, but it damages the brand” of school choice and charter schools.
Johnston, who has attracted millions of dollars in donations from wealthy supporters of charter schools, is best known – infamous in the eyes of some teachers – for authoring Colorado’s teacher effectiveness law, which ties evaluations to student performance on state assessments. It was passed by Democratic lawmakers and signed by Democratic Gov. Bill Ritter. Johnston defends his record, but his education platform doesn’t include policies from the reform playbook.
Another gubernatorial candidate, former state Treasurer Cary Kennedy, has pledged to revisit that law if elected. Kennedy has the endorsement of the state’s teachers unions and has cast herself as the defender of public education in a race that also includes U.S. Rep. Jared Polis, a former State Board of Education member who founded two charter schools, and Lt. Gov. Donna Lynne, a former health care executive who is a co-founder of Colorado Succeeds, a bipartisan business-oriented education reform group.
“People talk about divisions among Republicans right now and treat the Democrats as a more or less united party,” said Seth Masket, a professor of political science at the University of Denver. “Education is the issue that really stands to divide the left in a very substantial way.”
An independent political group backing Kennedy tried to emphasize this divide in a recently released ad that both Johnston and Polis have said is unfair. The money for the ad came from teachers unions, Emily’s List, and another organization that supports female candidates. DFER, meanwhile, is sitting out the primary, but another group, Students for Education Reform Action Network, endorsed Johnston and its independent expenditure committee, Reaching the Summit, is campaigning for Johnston.*
Charter schools have enjoyed broad bipartisan support in Colorado, and no Democratic candidate is talking about rolling back school choice. But each year there are legislative efforts to expand or contract school choice in various ways — by making it easier for students to take advantage of open enrollment, by giving districts more authority to turn down charter schools, or by offering tax credits to offset private school costs.
In a divided legislature, many of these measures die in committee, but in 2017, charter schools scored a major victory with a bipartisan law requiring school districts to share revenue from tax increases with charters that they authorize. That legislation led one charter school group to rank Colorado No. 2 in the nation for the friendliness of its laws and regulations. With the left ascendant within the Democratic Party, will such bills still find Democratic support in the next legislature or in the governor’s office?
It’s not entirely clear what the long-term ramifications of these party fissures will be. There’s no obvious front-runner in the Democratic primary, and there is no guarantee that its winner will defeat a Republican opponent in November. The governor’s office has limited authority on education issues, and a lot will depend on which party controls the legislature. Sitting lawmakers of both parties predicted that the legislature will remain a place where all sides of education issues are heard.
But the governor does have a bully pulpit with which to set the agenda, if he or she so chooses. Colorado’s legislature has been split between a Republican-controlled Senate and a Democratic-controlled House. If Democrats have control of both chambers after November — something that is neither impossible nor guaranteed — the stage could be set to consider a new teacher accountability law less linked to test performance and considered more favorable to educators.
Opposition to test-based school accountability, to school closures, and to the expansion of the charter sector outside the control of traditional public schools are not new within the Democratic Party. Teachers unions strongly opposed the federal Race to the Top grants that encouraged states, including Colorado, to expand charter schools and link teacher evaluations to testing.
But it was hard for opponents of education reform policies to get a foothold while a popular Democratic president, Barack Obama, was in office. By contrast, Trump and DeVos are spectacularly unpopular among the engaged Democratic voters who show up for assemblies and primaries.
“It puts the pro-reform side, which lumps a lot of things together, in a pretty awkward spot in Democratic internal politics,” said Jonathan Ladd, an associate professor of public policy and government at Georgetown University.
Will the June 26 primary turn on this issue? The delegates who voted to reject DFER represent a small, ideologically motivated subset of Democratic primary voters, who in turn represent a small portion of the voters who will show up in November.
At the same time, teachers unions provide “a lot of bodies and a lot energy, and that can be really important in a statewide election,” Masket said. And there isn’t the same support for education reform policies among the Democratic electorate as there is among Democratic policy makers, political scientists and pollsters said.
When Dave Flaherty of the Republican-affiliated polling firm Magellan Strategies does focus groups with Democratic and left-leaning unaffiliated voters, he finds “they are not clamoring for more charter schools. They’re not clamoring for vouchers. When they think about improving public schools, they think about improving teacher pay and attracting better teachers.”
School reform efforts ostensibly intended to benefit low-income communities of color have sometimes left those same communities feeling ignored in the decision-making process. A cohort of Denver activists trace their own political awakening to the decision to close the low-performing Manual High School when they were students there in 2006. The superintendent who ordered Manual closed was Michael Bennet, a close associate of Obama and now a U.S. senator.
One of those activists, Vanessa Quintana, led the charge against Democrats for Education Reform at the assembly. She represents a constituency — young, progressive, politically engaged people of color — that Democrats need as active voters if they’re going to realize a “blue wave” this year and in 2020.
Terrenda White, an assistant professor of education policy at the University of Colorado Boulder, said the assembly vote to cast out pro-reform Democrats was “not just symbolic.”
“These concerns about privatization are real, and the New Left really dropped the ball in terms of defending the public in public education,” she said.
Those in favor of reforms, she said, “sometimes act like critiquing these reforms means you were fine with what came before. That does not have to be the case. But the things we are doing to promote change did not necessarily bring equity. The urgency and energy that reformers bring is really valuable, but it was not always inclusive of the communities they aimed to serve.”
Kerrie Dallman, president of the Colorado Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union, said she didn’t know the anti-DFER vote was coming until she got a letter from the organization defending its record and its Democratic bonafides in advance of the assembly.
“What was most surprising to me was the realization was that it wasn’t just our association that has concerns about DFER’s outsized influence in politics and in education policy,” said Dallman, who, as a party delegate, voted to oust the pro-reform group and who believes teacher effectiveness shouldn’t be based on test scores.
Although the gubernatorial candidates declined interviews for this story, Johnston said in an emailed statement that he believes the divide among Democrats is smaller than the rancorous assembly vote would suggest. In response to Chalkbeat queries, Lynne, the current lieutenant governor, called for “the biggest tent possible” to support public education and teachers. Polis declined to comment. Kennedy, who won 62 percent of the vote from the same delegates who rejected DFER, said in an emailed statement that public education “isn’t about politics.”
“I am not affiliated with DFER,” she wrote. “We want our kids to meet high standards, and we need to measure their progress, but I am concerned our education system is focused too much on high-stakes testing, narrowing curriculums, and blaming teachers.”
When Chalkbeat caught up with Kennedy in person, she declined to answer a yes or no question about whether she supported the idea of casting DFER out of the Democratic tent.
Meanwhile, Jennifer Walmer, head of DFER’s Colorado chapter, continued to be a presence at the Capitol throughout the legislative session, frequently testifying on behalf of education-related bills. Occasionally people approached her to tell her how sorry they were for what happened at the assembly.
“We won’t be distracted by an intra-party fight,” Walmer told Chalkbeat after one committee hearing. “I’m doing the work for Colorado kids.”
Eric Gorski contributed reporting.
*Correction: This article has been updated to reflect that Gov. Bill Ritter, not Gov. John Hickenlooper, signed Colorado’s teacher effectiveness law, and to correct the name of an organization that is campaigning for Johnston.
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