All in a Name

Colorado Democrats overwhelmingly reject Democrats for Education Reform at state assembly

More than 3,400 delegates gathered in the First Bank Center in Broomfield Saturday for the Democratic state assembly. (Erica Meltzer/Chalkbeat)

Delegates at the Colorado Democratic state assembly Saturday sent a clear message to the state chapter of Democrats for Education Reform: You don’t have a place in our party.

After booing down the head of the education reform organization, who described herself as a lifelong Democrat, delegates voted overwhelmingly Saturday to call for the organization to no longer use “Democrats” in its name. While it’s unclear how that would be enforced, the vote means a rejection of DFER is now part of the Colorado Democratic Party platform.

The one-sided platform fight revealed a growing divide among party activists and establishment politicians on education policy that could have implications for the governor’s race. Cary Kennedy, a former state treasurer who has the backing of the teachers unions, got 62 percent of the vote at the assembly, easily securing a place on the ballot alongside U.S. Rep. Jared Polis, who got 33 percent of the vote.

The advisory committee of the Colorado chapter of Democrats for Education Reform reads like a “who’s who” of prominent party members and includes former speaker of the state House Mark Ferrandino, who now works for Denver Public Schools, and former state Sen. Mike Johnston, a Democratic gubernatorial candidate and the author of several key education reform bills in Colorado.

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Johnston was not at the state assembly Saturday because he used signed petitions to secure his place on the primary ballot. Candidates in Colorado can get on the ballot either by collecting signatures or by going through the caucus and assembly process. A spokeswoman said Johnston was busy campaigning and did not have a comment on the platform vote.

The platform amendment reads: “We oppose making Colorado’s public schools private or run by private corporations or becoming segregated again through lobbying and campaigning efforts of the organization called Democrats for Education Reform and demand that they immediately stop using the party’s name Democrat in their name.”

DFER Colorado State Director Jennifer Walmer was clearly emotional as she defended her organizational and personal commitment to the Democratic Party. She was booed throughout her remarks and stopped speaking at one point to ask to be allowed to continue.

“My father used to have precinct caucuses in my home,” she said. “I’ve canvassed for Democrats my entire life. I have only ever supported Democrats. My board, which is a board of elected Democrats, we are simply focused on the idea that every child deserves access to a high-quality education. We are adamantly opposed to the Trump and DeVos privatization.”

Vanessa Quintana, a political activist who was the formal sponsor of the minority report, was a student at Denver’s Manual High School when it was closed in 2006, a decision that Democratic U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet, then Denver’s superintendent, defended at an education panel Friday.

She said that before she finally graduated from high school, she had been through two school closures and a major school restructuring and dropped out of school twice. Three of her siblings never graduated, and she blames the instability of repeated school changes.

“When DFER claims they empower and uplift the voices of communities, DFER really means they silence the voices of displaced students like myself by uprooting community through school closure,” she told the delegates. “When Manual shut down my freshman year, it told me education reformers didn’t find me worthy of a school.”

Just two people spoke up for Democrats for Education Reform. A charter school teacher, who was also booed, said she found the conversation “confusing” and that the educators she works with care deeply about equity. Charter schools in Colorado are authorized by either local districts or the state and receive public money, though they’re run by their own boards.

Another speaker declined to defend education reform itself but said that this shouldn’t be a litmus test issue for Democrats. Identifying himself as a gay man, he compared shunning education reformers to the Republican Party shunning gay members of their party.

After the vote, Walmer said she was concerned about the state of the party and its ability to unite against common opponents, but also that she doesn’t think the vote on the floor of the assembly represents regular party members. More than 3,400 delegates gathered in the First Bank Center in Broomfield Saturday for the state assembly, but only a portion of those were left for the platform debate, which occurred after delegates voted on statewide offices like governor, treasurer, and attorney general.

“I don’t think I have ever had a darker day as a Democrat because that is not my party,” she said. “They booed a gay man. They booed a teacher because they don’t teach in the right kind of school. … I work with people who have dedicated their lives to inclusion and equity and pushing back on the hateful rhetoric of (President Donald) Trump and (Education Secretary Betsy) DeVos, and I just saw that same hateful rhetoric in my own party. It was a horrible display of unity.”

In an interview, Quintana said she sees education reform policies as promoting inequality, and she wants to change a status quo in which reformers are well represented in the party establishment. She feels especially strongly about ending school closure and sees school choice as a way to avoid improving every school.

“Families wouldn’t need a choice if every neighborhood had a quality school,” she said. “There should be no need to choice into a new neighborhood.”

She believes the reform agenda is not compatible with the education platform of the party, which reads, in part, “our state public education laws and policies should provide every student with an equal opportunity to reach their potential.”

This is not the first time Trump and DeVos have been deployed in intra-party fights over education policy in Colorado. In the most recent Denver Public Schools board race, their faces appeared on a campaign mailer attacking Angela Cobián, the daughter of Mexican immigrants who supports the general direction of the district’s reform policies. Cobián prevailed over her union-backed opponent.

Back in November, a group of party members that included state Sens. Mike Merrifield of Colorado Springs and Daniel Kagan of Cherry Hills Village and state Rep. Joe Salazar, a Thornton Democrat running for attorney general, as well as activists generally associated with the union side of education debates, sent a letter to party chairwoman Morgan Carroll asking that she send a cease and desist letter to Democrats for Education Reform.

The organization responded with its own letter that lays out its legal case for using the name. They’re not using the official party name, and its members are, in fact, Democrats. Walmer said the education policies that DFER supports are the same ones supported by former President Barack Obama.

No action has been taken on this matter so far, and a spokesman for the party wasn’t able to say Saturday what the impact of the platform vote would be. Walmer said she wasn’t worried about being any legal implications “because there are none.”

The change to the party platform passed out of the Denver County assembly last month, but was not initially included in the state platform. Instead it was presented as a minority report at the assembly. DFER sent a letter to delegates asking them not to support it, but did not prevail.

Van Schoales, a DFER board member and CEO of A Plus Colorado, an education reform advocacy group, called it a “symbolic attack,” but he believes support for policies like school choice and charter schools remains strong among Democratic elected officials.

“I don’t think there is as much of a division as people make it out to be,” he said.

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finish line

A $1.6 billion tax increase for Colorado education just got a lot closer to the ballot

Joi Lin, a Boulder Valley Education Association employee, checks notary pages on petitions for Great Schools, Thriving communities. (Erica Meltzer/Chalkbeat)

Supporters of more funding for Colorado schools turned in more than 170,000 signatures Wednesday to place a $1.6 billion tax measure on the November ballot.

If approved, the measure would increase the corporate tax rate and the income tax rate on individuals earning $150,000 or more, with the additional revenue going to increase base per-student funding, to pay for full-day kindergarten, and to put more money toward students with special needs, such as those learning English, those with disabilities, and those who are gifted and talented.

Organizers said volunteers collected more than 111,000 signatures, with paid canvassers collecting the rest to build up a substantial cushion and make approval more certain.  The measure needs 98,492 valid signatures to get in front of voters. Inevitably, some signatures are rejected for a variety of reasons. The day before the Wednesday deadline, volunteers were going over petition packets a third time to check for mistakes before turning them in.

The Colorado Secretary of State’s Office still needs to verify the signatures. Under tougher requirements approved in 2016, those signatures need to represent 2 percent of the registered voters in each of the state’s 35 senate districts – and to pass, the measure will need support from 55 percent of voters.

Getting that support will be no easy task, considering that the last attempt to raise taxes for schools, Amendment 66 in 2013, was defeated 2 to 1. Colorado’s Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights requires all tax increases to be approved by voters, and they’ve been loathe to approve statewide taxes for any cause, even as local school districts have been more successful.

Cathy Kipp, a school board member from the Fort Collins-based Poudre district, personally collected more than 4,000 signatures around the state, and she said she was pleased to see support from ordinary people even in many conservative communities. That decisions about how to spend the money would be made locally is key to winning over voters, she said.

“The money will be spent however the local school district wants to spend it,” she said. “I knew teachers last time who didn’t want to vote for (Amendment 66) because it was so proscriptive.”

Kipp said Poudre likely would use the money to improve mental health services for students and raise teacher salaries.

Supporters believe the more challenging petition process, which required them to fan out across the state, will ultimately be to their advantage in the campaign to come.

“We have education supporters having conversations around the state about what additional revenue could mean for them,” said Susan Meek, a spokeswoman for Great Education Colorado, a key organization backing the tax increase. “The money will be spent locally. Every school district can go out and say what it would mean for them. Perhaps it is vocational-technical education. Perhaps it’s having school five days a week. Perhaps it is having a counselor in every school.”

And to make the case that a statewide tax on businesses and those with higher incomes is a better way to raise money than local taxes, supporters have broken down how much money each district would get and how large a property tax increase it would take to raise that money locally. Often, it’s a very big number.

Colorado ranks 28th among the states in per-student funding, according to the most recent report from the National Education Association, which includes local, state, and federal funding in its comparison. However, Colorado spends much less than other states of comparable wealth and generally gets poor marks for equity. School districts vary enormously in how much they spend on each student, and half the districts in the state are operating on four-day weeks because they can’t afford to be open more than that.

Since the Great Recession, state lawmakers have withheld roughly $7.5 billion that would have gone to K-12 education under a constitutionally mandated formula. The 2018-19 state budget includes a 6.95 percent increase for education, roughly $475 more per student, but supporters of more money for schools say that the increase doesn’t begin to address years of underfunding.

“It’s hard for people to understand how you can have one of the fastest growing economies in the nation and can’t fund schools at the level you did before the Great Recession,” said Tracie Rainey, executive director of the Colorado School Finance Project, another backer of the initiative.

The only way to really address the issue is a major source of new revenue, they say. And that’s what Initiative 93 would provide.

The tax measure calls for:

  • Raising the corporate income tax rate from 4.63 percent to 6 percent.
  • Raising the income tax rate from a flat 4.63 percent to between 5 percent and 8.25 percent for people earning more than $150,000. The highest tax rate would be paid by people earning $500,000 or more.
  • Setting the residential property assessment rate at 7 percent for schools. That’s lower than it is now but higher than it is predicted to be in 2019 because current law has the unintended effect of gradually reducing the residential assessment rate.
  • Setting the non-residential property assessment rate at 24 percent, less than the current 29 percent.

According to a fiscal analysis by the state, the average taxpayer earning more than $150,000 would pay an additional $519 a year, while those earning less would be unaffected. The average corporate taxpayer would pay an additional $11,085 a year. The change in property taxes would vary considerably around the state, but based on the average statewide school levy, many property owners would pay $28 more on each $100,000 of market value in 2019 than they otherwise would. Commercial property owners will see a decrease.

Total property tax revenue collected by school districts is expected to go down statewide, but the measure would partly stabilize property assessments, whose volatility has complicated school finance in Colorado.

A 1982 provision called the Gallagher Amendment sets a formula for the share of property taxes paid by residential and commercial owners, with the effect that skyrocketing values along the Front Range have ratcheted down residential assessment rates across the state. But in poorer rural communities without the tax base of cities like Denver or Boulder, that’s had devastating consequences for school districts, fire districts, and other small taxing entities, even as business owners, ranchers, and farmers have faced a heavier burden.

The state has had to make up much of the difference, and lawmakers are meeting during the off-season to try to come up with a fix. Any change would require voter approval – and could be a tough sell in part because it would be hard to explain.

Initiative 93 only deals with the assessment rate for schools in order to comply with Colorado’s single-subject rule for ballot measures, but it does represent a partial Gallagher fix. This provision was included for several reasons. One, it means that new revenue will actually increase school funding, rather than simply backfilling ever declining local taxes, and two, it provides some tax relief to ranchers and farmers, a selling point in rural communities that have been more reluctant to approve tax increases. And there’s a third argument, that stabilizing property tax revenue will free up more money in the state budget for other needs beyond education.

There are other things that make this effort different from past attempts, supporters say. Amendment 66 was widely perceived as a top-down effort that came from Denver. It raised taxes on everyone, and it made changes to the school finance formula that created winners and losers among districts, making it hard for many school board members and superintendents to support it.

Supporters of Initiative 93 describe it as being built from the ground up over a two-year process that included lots of input from school districts across the state, as well as from advocacy organizations like the NAACP and Padres y Jóvenes Unidos. It raises taxes only on businesses and higher-income earners, who represent less than 8 percent of individual income tax returns, and while it encourages the legislature to adopt a new school finance formula, it ensures that every district will see an increase.

Skeptics see just another attempt to throw money at the problem.

“Things are different this time, and it’s that they’re asking for more money,” said Luke Ragland of the conservative education reform group Ready Colorado.

A better approach, Ragland said, would be to tie increased funding to policies that could be expected to improve educational outcomes. There’s no guarantee that this money will make it into the classroom or into teachers’ paychecks, he said.

“There are places in terms of human capital, in terms of attracting talent and keeping it in the classroom, where more money would make a difference, but not just pouring more money into the current system,” he said.

Supporters of the measure will be campaigning in a complicated political environment, possibly sharing the ballot with a major tax increase for transportation, as well as a governor’s race and legislative contests that will determine control of the state Senate, where Republicans currently hold a one-seat majority.

Candidates up and down the ballot likely will be asked to take a position on the ballot measure, layering partisan politics over a measure that supporters hope will have broad appeal.

“You start this analysis with the assumption that it’s an uphill battle because we don’t really pass statewide tax increases, while schools pass lots of local taxes and bond measures,” said political consultant and pollster Floyd Ciruli. “The difference is trust. At the statewide level, people don’t trust that the money will go to benefit their local schools.”

Ciruli sees advantages, though, to asking voters in a mid-term election. Turnout will be higher than in an off-year, when older, more conservative voters tend to dominate, and even-year voters are more likely to have Democratic tendencies and be more open to taxes.

The contentious Democratic primary, which focused on education, also “primed” voters to see low funding as a key problem for schools, he said.

“The environment is pro-education,” Ciruli said. That places the tax measure “in the ballpark, but it’s still a challenge to do a statewide tax increase.”

Lisa Weil, executive director of Great Education Colorado, said the organizations working on the measure decided not to worry too much about “conventional wisdom” and move forward until they saw a compelling reason not to put something on the ballot.

“We’re not naive about the fact that we’re in a political environment, but we’re also creating that political environment,” she said. “Our entire state has a hunger to do right by kids.”

in their own words

Colorado 2018 election: Where Jared Polis and Walker Stapleton stand on education

Democrat Jared Polis and Republican Walker Stapleton will compete to be Colorado's next governor. (Denver Post)

What do the candidates for governor of Colorado think about school funding and school choice? How would they address the achievement gap? And what educational choices did they make for their own children?

We put these questions and more to Democrat Jared Polis and Republican Walker Stapleton, the winners of their parties’ respective primaries last month.

Colorado voters who care about education will have distinct choices in November. The governor has a limited formal role in education policy, but his agenda can shape the legislative process – and limit what’s possible.

Polis, 43, is a five-term congressman from Boulder. An entrepreneur who took his parents’ greeting card company online, Polis went on to found several other internet companies. He previously served on the State Board of Education and founded two charter schools. Polis took 44 percent of the vote in a hard-fought primary in which education played a key role.

Stapleton, 44, is finishing his second term as state treasurer and previously served as the CEO or chief financial officer for a number of private companies. He took 48 percent of the vote in a four-way primary after cultivating the support of both hardliners like Tom Tancredo and members of the Republican establishment.

One of them will replace Gov. John Hickenlooper, a Democrat, who is prevented by term limits from running again. Democrats have controlled the governor’s office since 2007.

Here’s what the candidates had to say, in their own words.

These responses have been lightly edited for clarity and length.