Mark Twain said, “I am dead to adverbs, they cannot excite me.” Gov.-elect Jared Polis didn’t get that message. He named his transition team website: “Boldly Forward.” Boldly forward heads badly backward is more accurate.
Individuals on Polis’s transition team for education policy highlight the governor-elect’s in-your-face rejection of what almost all parents in the state want: a healthy, adequately funded public school system that provides quality education and builds community through neighborhood schools.
Polis appointed former state senator and defeated gubernatorial candidate Michael Johnston and Democrat for Education Reform (DFER) leader Jen Walmer to his education transition team. Johnston received thousands of dollars from various DFER oriented contributors and PACs.
Polis added pro-charter school newspaper publisher Dean Singleton and the school voucher supporter, former U.S. Rep. Bob Schaffer to his team. Former Colorado State University president Al Yates leads the group. The scale tips toward the DFER philosophy, such as it is.
Former state Sen. Johnston built his career on his Wall Street/DFER backed notions that charter schools, extensive student testing, intrusive student data collection, and teacher pay for performance based on teacher assessments would make Colorado’s public schools great.
Johnston wrote DFER sponsored SB10-191 that diverted money from the classroom toward overwrought teacher performance evaluation. He promoted this expensive bill at the height of the Great Recession when school districts didn’t have the money to implement it. He ignored district pleas at the time.
With DFER support, Johnston then supported bills on the expensive and time-consuming Common Core testing program. This legislation produced a massive parent-teacher rebellion with thousands of students opting-out of testing and, later, a significant revision of student achievement assessments especially for high schools.
Both pieces of legislation, as predicted, have been radically changed. The original bills squandered millions of precious public school dollars and thousands of hours of classroom teaching time. Even today, kids who opt out of tests sit at home while their classmates take days to finish exams.
Walmer, the executive director for the Colorado branch of DFER, testified and lobbied for SB-191 and the testing bills. Her message was not well received among Democrats at the nominating assembly before the 2018 Democratic primary.
DFERs cite a Benenson Strategy Group poll of 1,000 Democratic voters in support of their views. As an example, the poll indicates that Democrats believe that every child should have a “fair chance to succeed.” Let’s hope that Colorado citizens of every political stripe agree with that statement.
DFERs argue that charter schools and school choice represent the newest and best thinking on improving public schools. Parents in Republican Douglas County disagreed when they voted out of office their pro-voucher school board and, in the most recent election, supported more money to improve their neighborhood schools. Two-thirds of the bond and mill requests passed in the most recent election (16 out of 21).
Charter schools have been around for 25 years now, with varying levels of quality, so they’re hardly the boldest move in public education. Most Democrats, especially the hundreds of thousands of women who voted for Polis, would choose to put energy into figuring out how to invest in and improve their neighborhood elementary, middle, and high schools.
The people of Colorado do not want to re-litigate these old neighborhood school vs. charter school battles. DFERs provide no solutions for rural education funding. And their policies don’t fix the exasperating deficiencies in teacher pay, college loans, and affordable housing that make the teaching profession so difficult for young educators.
Polis took contributions from DFERs, but the people of Colorado did not. The governor-elect should get behind the hard work on public education that the people, especially his women supporters, would like him to do. Let that idea go boldly forward.
Paula Noonan owns Colorado Capitol Watch, the state’s premier legislature tracking platform.