slate vs. slate

School board candidates looking for an edge in local elections team up, capitalize on national debates

PHOTO: CleanSlateForJeffco.com
A team of five candidates in Jefferson County — known as The Clean Slate — is aiming to reset the entire school board. Their coordination is the latest evolution in a nationwide chess match in education reform.

The Clean Slate was solidified in a Jefferson County living room.

By the time the five school board candidates had arrived there that early September evening, most had already endured a five-month recruiting and vetting process.

Now they were hashing out where they agreed and parted on issues such as linking teacher pay to evaluations and how they could work together to restore harmony in Denver’s western suburbs after two years of controversy.

The architects of this coordinated effort were not political operatives, but a team of six Jefferson County mothers who previously had the ear of the school district’s superintendent and felt shut out of the process after three conservative school board members were elected as a slate in 2013.

The candidates who ultimately came together are part of an evolving political chess match that grows out of a long tradition of finding strength in numbers. By banding together, school board candidates up and down the Front Range and across the nation gain a leg up in raising money, spreading a cohesive message and cutting through the noise of what can be crowded ballots.

That cohesiveness is seen as a considerable advantage as once sleepy school board elections become less about local issues and more a proxy war for a national education debate that pits teachers unions against modern day education reformers.

“This slate didn’t happen because of cliques in Jeffco, but because there is a national agenda to take over public education,” said Kelly Johnson, one of the mothers behind the slate that wants to reset the entire county’s school board.

PREVIOUSLY: Why the tug-of-war for Jefferson County’s school board isn’t just about local classrooms

Slate politics are nothing new

Political slates were born out of the Progressive Era of the 1930s.

Fed up with the contemporary political machines that controlled and corrupted many large U.S. cities, members of the business class sought to reform municipal elections, said Luis Ricardo Fraga, co-director of Institute for Latino Studies at Notre Dame, who has studied nonpartisan elections for most of his career.

“The whole idea was to get political parties out of city politics,” Fraga said.

But after the successful adoption of nonpartisan elections, business and community leaders ended up building their own machines and slates on behalf of their interests.

Political slates became so common that after the Voting Rights Act of 1965 went into effect, the U.S. Department of Justice monitored slates in the South to ensure black communities weren’t shut out of the electoral process.

For much of the 20th century, the most common slates in school board elections featured candidates who won endorsements from local teachers unions, said Terry Moe, a Stanford University political scientist and union critic.

That’s because teachers have the biggest material stake in school board elections, Moe said. Their livelihood depends on decisions made by the school board.

“If you go back in time, unions were the only organized force,” Moe said. “If you were a school board member and the union didn’t like you, you were in trouble.”

The birth of the modern school board slate

Much of today’s school board politics can be traced to the 1999 Los Angeles school board election, when Mayor Richard Riordan hand-picked a slate of candidates to run against four incumbents backed by the city’s teachers union.

The mayor, with help from the business community, identified and bankrolled candidates who would challenge the status quo and usher in reform policies that would weaken union control. then bankrolled their campaigns.

Since then, education reform activists have replicated Riordan’s model in Denver, Indianapolis, and Oakland, among other cities.

Those tactics employed in major cities are now at play in suburbs and smaller metro-areas. In Colorado this election season alone, slates that fit this definition and their opposition are campaigning in the Douglas County, Colorado Springs District 11, Aurora and Thompson school districts.

In helping candidates raise money, these organizations also identify key policies and messages such as school choice to influence local debates regardless of location.

Funders and education-reform advocacy groups such as Students First and Stand for Children, in an effort to gain more traction with voters, are changing what matters in local school board elections, said Michael Hartney, a professor at Lake Forest College.

“They’re mainstreaming or nationalizing the debate,” he said. “Most voters don’t pay attention to school boards. To me [slates] give voters more knowledge.”

By creating flashpoints — like disagreements over teachers evaluations — policy debates can happen at the local, state and federal level and gain more traction, Hartney said. That, in turn, creates a more engaged voter.

“It’s about attention,” he said.

Fighting back

Unions and their supporters have been losing strength for decades, labor expert and author Philip Dine said.

Education reform efforts are further eroding the power of unions.

“Labor is doing whatever it can to fight back,” Dine said. “So they’re doing a lot of creative things whether reaching out to the public or forming alliances with other organizations.”

Locally, the Jefferson County teachers union launched a campaign, Stand Up For All Students, complete with T-shirts, buttons and county-wide protests to draw attention to the school board majority.

While the Jefferson County Education Association has distanced itself from the recall, it was messaging developed by Stand Up For All Students — that the school board majority lacked transparency, wasted tax dollars and was disrespectful — that ended up on the recall petition.

And the union has endorsed and contributed to the Clean Slate.

But the union also has been busy working behind the scenes on other projects outside of the recall that might generate even more goodwill with a community unlikely to support unions.

Throughout the year, the union teamed up with parents and a national foundation to host hundreds of house parties and conduct a survey to craft a platform for unity. The platform, which will be released in final form after the election, calls for more collaboration between teachers, parents and school board, funding for early childhood education, and less testing.

Consequences for governance

Not all slates lead to radical change.

Some teams, like a 2013 school board slate in Greeley, end up not being fully elected.

In other instances, former allies turn against each other.

That’s what happened in Colorado Springs’ District 11 when a conservative slate backed by real estate developer Steven Schuck was elected in 2003.

According to The Gazette, the four-member slate attempted to launch a voucher program but was unsuccessful. They hired and fired a new superintendent within a year. And a power struggle ended in a recall of two reformers.

Another potential consequence of increased polarization at the local school board level is governing paralysis tantamount to Congress, which continues to be less and less productive, political consultants and education researchers said.

Some observers of Denver Public Schools pointed to a 4-3 split on the board as one reason why student achievement didn’t improve more quickly between 2009 and 2013.

And political acrimony between reformers and unions in Washington D.C., and Chicago made headlines, but little progress for students.

“The day when you were elected to school boards, because you were a leading citizen or you wanted to fulfill your civic duty, those days seem to be from a bygone area,” said Denver-based independent political analyst Eric Sondermann. “Now you almost have to have an ideological agenda on one side of divide or another. I think there is a real danger to this.”

diverse offerings

School leaders in one Jeffco community are looking at demographic shifts as an opportunity to rebrand

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
A student at Lumberg Elementary School in Jefferson County.

Along the boundary between the two largest school districts in Colorado is a corridor of Jeffco schools unlike most others in that largely suburban district.

These schools near the Denver border are seeing drops in enrollment. They have a larger number of students who are learning English as a second language and a larger number of families living in poverty. The schools traditionally have performed lower on state tests.

The school principals who got together recently to talk about strategies for improving their schools say there’s one thing they know they’re doing well: creating biliterate students.

But the demographics around the schools are changing, and now school and district officials are looking at how they can respond with new programs to attract newcomers to neighborhood schools while still serving existing families.

“It’s almost like there’s two Edgewaters,” Joel Newton, founder of the Edgewater Collective, told principals at the meeting last week. “The area is gentrifying crazy fast.”

Five of the six dual language programs in Jeffco Public Schools are located in Edgewater and Lakewood. They were created, in part, as a response to the needs of the large numbers of students who do not speak English as a first language.

Three elementary schools that feed into Jefferson Junior-Senior High School in Edgewater are working on rebranding their schools and seeing if they can create a two-way dual language program that can also benefit native English speakers and keep more of them in the neighborhood schools.

“All three of the elementary schools have the same offerings,” said Renee Nicothodes, an achievement director for this region of schools in Jeffco. “Are we offering what the community wants? Are students choicing out or is gentrification forcing them out?”

Currently the dual language programs at Molholm Elementary, Edgewater Elementary, and Lumberg Elementary are all one-way programs, meaning that all the students in the program are native Spanish speakers. They receive all instruction in both Spanish and English.

A two-way dual language program, which the district runs in two other Jeffco schools, requires mixed classrooms where half of the students are native English speakers and the other half speak Spanish as their first language. Students receive instruction in both Spanish and English, but in the mixed classroom, the idea is that students are also learning language and culture from each other as they interact.

Educators believe the changing demographics in Edgewater might allow for such a mix, if there’s interest.

Jeffco officials are designing a community engagement process, including a survey that will gauge if there are enough families that would be attracted to a two-way dual language program or to other new school models.

Newton pointed out to principals that as part of their work, they will have to address a common myth that the schools’ performance ratings are being weighed down by scores from students who aren’t fluent in English.

The elementary schools that are part of the Jefferson improvement plans in the district all saw higher state ratings this year. Molholm Elementary, one of these schools, saw the most significant improvement in its state rating.

“Our (English learner) students in our district, particularly at these three schools, are truly performing at a very high level, but it does take time,” said Catherine Baldwin-Johnson, the district’s director of dual language programs. “In our dual language programs, those students are contributing to the higher scores at those schools.”

Some school-level data about the students in the dual language programs can’t be released because it refers to small numbers of students, but Baldwin-Johnson said her department’s district-level data show that at the end of elementary school, students from those programs can meet grade-level expectations in both languages, demonstrating bilingual and biliteracy skills.

One challenge is that after students leave elementary school, there are few options for them to continue learning in both languages in middle or high school. Some middle and high schools offer language arts classes in Spanish. Some high school students can also take Advanced Placement Spanish courses.

As part of the changes the district is making for the Jefferson schools, officials are researching whether they may be able to offer more content classes, such as math or science, in Spanish.

“The vision for the Jefferson area in Edgewater is to make sure students have the opportunity to be bilingual when they leave high school,” Baldwin-Johnson said.

But the reason is also tied to students’ ability to perform in English, said Jefferson Principal Michael James.

“For our dual language kids, if they are not proficient in their home language, chances are they’ll never get proficient in English,” James said. “We have to make sure we’re developing those skills in that language so then we can transfer it to English. It’s a many-year commitment.”

Offering classes in different subjects in Spanish may still be years out.

An opportunity that will be available sooner for all students in the Jeffco district is a seal of biliteracy. The seals, an additional endorsement on high school diplomas, are being used in many other states and in a handful of districts in Colorado. They will be available for students in Jeffco starting next year if they can prove fluency in English and another language.

Idea pitch

Despite concerns, Jeffco school board agrees to spend $1 million to start funding school innovations

Students at Lumberg Elementary School in Jeffco Public Schools work on their assigned iPads during a class project. (Photo by Nicholas Garcia, Chalkbeat)

Jeffco school employees can apply for a piece of a $1 million fund that will pay for an innovative idea for improving education in the district.

The school board for Jeffco Public Schools on Thursday approved shifting $1 million from the district’s rainy day fund to an innovation pool that will be used to provide grants to launch the new ideas.

The district will be open for applications as soon as Friday.

The board had reservations about the plan, which was proposed by the new schools superintendent, Jason Glass, in November, as part of a discussion about ways to encourage innovation and choice in the district. The board was concerned about how quickly the process was set to start, whether there was better use of the money, and how they might play a role in the process.

Glass conceded that the idea was an experiment and that pushing ahead so quickly might create some initial problems.

“This effort is going to be imperfect because it’s the first time that we’ve done it and we don’t really know how it’s going to turn out,” Glass said. “There are going to be problems and there are going to be things we learn from this. It’s sort of a micro experiment. We’re going to learn a lot about how to do this.”

During the November discussion, Glass had suggested one use for the innovation money: a new arts school to open in the fall to attract students to the district. He said that the money could also be used to help start up other choice schools. School board members balked, saying they were concerned that a new arts school would compete with existing arts programs in Jeffco schools. The board, which is supported by the teachers union, has been reluctant to open additional choice schools in the district, instead throwing most of their support behind the district-run schools.

Board members also expressed concerns about what they said was a rushed process for starting the fund.

The plan calls for teachers, school leaders and other district employees to apply for the money by pitching their idea and explaining its benefit to education in the district. A committee will then consider the proposals and recommend those that should be funded out of the $1 million.

Board members said they felt it was too soon to start the application process on Friday. They also questioned why the money could not also help existing district programs.

“I think a great deal of innovation is happening,” said board member Amanda Stevens.

Some board members also suggested that one of them should serve on the committee, at least to monitor the process. But Glass was adamant.

“Do you want me to run the district and be the superintendent or not?” Glass asked the board. “I can set this up and execute it, but what you’re talking about is really stepping over into management, so I caution you about that.”

Glass later said he might be open to finding another way for board members to be involved as observers, but the board president, Ron Mitchell, said he would rather have the superintendent provide thorough reports about the process. The discussion is expected to resume at a later time.

Stevens said many of the board’s questions about details and the kind of ideas that will come forth will, presumably, be answered as the process unfolds.

“Trying is the only way we get any of that information,” Stevens said.