The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Colorado Democrats tell Democrats for Education Reform to pound sand

Colorado teachers rally this month outside the state Capitol in Denver to demand more funding for schools and to oppose changes to the state’s pension system. (Colleen Slevin/AP)

The Democratic Party in Colorado just told an influential group of school reformers to pound sand — and went so far as to ask the group to stop using the word “Democrats” in its name.

At their 2018 state assembly last weekend, Colorado Democrats first booed Jennifer Walmer, head of the Colorado chapter of the national Democrats for Education Reform (DFER), an influential political action committee. It is supported heavily by hedge fund managers favoring charter schools, merit pay tied to test scores and restricting the power of teachers unions.

Then, as Chalkbeat reported, the state Democrats approved an amendment to the party’s 2018 platform that says this:

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.

Democrats for Education Reform sent a statement saying:

We are Democrats and we’re not focused on intraparty drama driven by special interests.
We are going to keep doing everything we can to make sure every child has access to a high-quality public education.

Democrats for Education Reform, founded more than a decade ago, was at the center of a split within the Democratic Party over school reform that began to play out with the 2008 election of President Barack Obama. Many in the education world had thought Obama would make equity of opportunity the center of his school changes, but he instead focused on accountability systems based on standardized testing, school closings, the Common Core State Standards and expansion of charter schools.

These policies became so unpopular with the party’s labor base that Arne Duncan, Obama’s education secretary for seven years, became a target for the two major teachers unions. The National Education Association, the largest union in the country, even called for Duncan to step down, saying that his changes were hurting — not improving — the country’s public education system.

The traditional partisan divide over education policy was wiped away, with Democrats for Education Reform embracing changes that Republicans traditionally have pushed, including school vouchers. It has accepted money from individuals and organizations that support school restructuring based on the principle that schools should be run like businesses, not as civic institutions. And it has donated to like-minded organizations, including the American Federation for Children, which was founded by Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, a longtime advocate for alternatives to public schools.

As New York public school advocate Leonie Haimson wrote here, this wasn’t the first time that Democrats have asked education reform advocates to stop identifying themselves as Democrats. The Los Angeles County Democratic Party did it in 2012, with an unenforceable cease and desist letter. And the state Democratic Party in California passed a similar measure in 2013.

But Haimson said the move by the Colorado Democrats may signal that public sentiment among Democrats is growing against school privatization efforts in a way it never has before. President Trump’s selection of DeVos as education secretary may have helped spur that movement.

Democrats for Education Reform sent a letter (see full text below) to delegates at the state convention urging them to reject the effort to denounce the organization, saying it had been marked by “misinformation and outright lies about education policy.” The majority of the delegates voted in favor of the amendment.

Colorado had been one of the centers of the corporate-based education restructuring movement. This comes from the website of the Democrats for Education Reform:

DFER-CO has been at the forefront of a long list of political and policy change in Colorado that includes the passage of SB 191 (changing teacher tenure and evaluation) and SB 213 (rewrite of school finance with more funding and reform) and recently supporting high school graduation based on proficiency. DFER-CO also supported a number of successful school district and legislative races over the last six years, including an undefeated 2016 cycle for Democrats in the state legislature. DFER-CO was also instrumental in turning the State Board of Education blue for the first time in 50 years, and for consistent victories for kids at the local school board level.

As Chalkbeat noted, “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.”

Walmer was booed at the state assembly throughout her speech, and Chalkbeat quoted her as saying: “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.”

Local elections in 2017 suggested that the “reform is good and unions are bad” mantra that has ruled education policy in Colorado for more than a decade may be losing its resonance with voters. The movement for change was hit in three important school board races in Denver, Aurora and Douglas County. Despite outside funding, often with dark money, only two of the 11 “reform” candidates in those three races were victorious.

As The Answer Sheet reported last year:

As we reported here in The Answer Sheet, Raising Colorado, an Independent Expenditure Committee, is a funnel for dark money supplied by the New York-based Education Reform Now Advocacy (ERNA), which is the 501(c)(4) arm of Democrats for Education Reform (DFER). ERNA contributed $465,000 to Raising Colorado in 2014 and about another $100,000 to other similar organizations in the state. In 2015, ERNA contributed an additional $375,000 to the IEC. Much of that money was dedicated to helping candidates backed by Raising Colorado seize total control of the Denver school board.

Dark money just keeps on coming in school board races

Here’s the DFER letter:

Here is the party’s education section of its 2018 platform, without the amendment:

Democrats are the party of public education. Colorado Democrats believe that our state public education policies should
provide every student with an equal opportunity to reach their potential. Education is not only a basic right; it is also a
necessary component of a healthy democracy. Our students face a globally competitive economy and Democrats believe in
equal opportunity to prepare all students to solve the problems of tomorrow.
Modernizing Education in Colorado
Colorado Democrats hold a vision for education that ensures all Colorado children receive a quality education and with schools
fully funded to achieve these ends, We support making education a top priority by calling for a statewide ballot measure to
amend the Colorado Constitution to codify that all children within the borders of the state receive a free public, uniform, and high quality education that prepares students for careers and higher education.
Preschool and K-12
We demand full funding of a thorough and uniform education with public monies to public schools that are locally controlled.
We also demand increased funding for Preschool and K–12 education. This can be accomplished by repealing Article 10,
Section 20, of Taxpayers Bill of Rights (TABOR) and the Gallagher Amendment from the Colorado Constitution.
To this end:
1. We support the adequate and equitable funding of public education in Colorado.
2. We oppose guns in school, more guns would make our schools less safe and but all students and staff at increased
risk of becoming a victim of gun violence.
3. We support the creation of a unified, comprehensive system of public education in Colorado.
4. We support increased funding for mental health, counseling services, and suicide prevention for all schools to meet
needs of all students.
5. We support restoration of education funding to pre-recession levels consistent with the intent of the voters under
Amendment 23.
6. We support efforts to build an adequate tax base for quality public education at all levels.
7. We support adequate funding for students with special needs.
8. We support adequate capital investment in our aging public school buildings.
9. We oppose unfunded federal and state mandates on our local school districts.
10. We oppose public funds being used to support private or religious schools, for-profit corporate education management
organizations or charter schools.
11. We believe that charter schools be held to the same standards that traditional K-12 schools.
12. We oppose vouchers and tuition tax credits for non-public PreK-12 education, which dilute funding from our already
underfunded public schools.
13. We support continued funding of school nutritious meal programs for children living in or near poverty.
14. We support the elimination of dark money from public school board elections and support establishing finance reforms
for these elected positions.
Inclusivity and Diversity
We demand an education system which is inclusive of our diverse population. We oppose policies and practices that
discriminate and further widen the achievement and opportunity gaps.
As Colorado Democrats:
1. We support policies and programs, which include, elevate, and honor all students regardless of English language
2. We support the integration of diverse communities into public schools.
3. We support diverse communities having principals, teachers, and paraprofessionals that reflect the student
4. We oppose any efforts or policies which lead to re-segregation of student populations.
5. We recognize the needs of special populations of students including medically, emotionally, physically or
developmentally disabled, English Language Learners, gifted/talented students and support programs of inclusion and
6. We support anti-bullying policies in schools.
7. We support lower class sizes for at-risk students, especially for homeless, ELL, and economically stressed children.
8. We oppose the criminalization of student behavior which can be managed by staff and family.
9. We support parental involvement in school activities and outreach programs, especially for poor and at risk and
vulnerable student populations.
10. We support adult education programs that afford career training and continuing education.
Student Curriculum, Instruction, and Evaluation
We demand a rich, balanced curriculum, which acknowledges the importance of educating the whole child, and provides
effective instruction and meaningful evaluation.
To this end:
1. We support a curriculum in all public schools, which recognizes the importance of all subjects including art, vocal and
instrumental music, physical education, reading, writing, mathematics, science, social studies, civics, history, foreign
language, theatre, vocational education, etc.
2. We support extracurricular activities, clubs, and athletics and enrichment classes as part of a well-rounded public
education system.
3. We support a curriculum, which prepares students with 21st century learning skills of critical thinking, problem-solving,
creativity, innovation, and collaboration.
4. We support a curriculum that strives for authentic teaching and learning and oppose the use of a scripted curriculum
which “teaches to a standardized high-stakes test”.
5. We oppose excessive standardized testing, and especially any corporate driven, state mandated curriculum or high
stakes teacher or student measurement tool which is not research-based, scientifically supported, and/or recognized
by the academic community. One-size-fits-all schooling leads to standardization and conformity, which undermines
the qualities required of an empowered and engaged citizenry.
6. We support early childhood education (preschool and full-day kindergarten) opportunities as the best investment for a
child’s future school success.
7. We support evidence-based intervention strategies for struggling students, drop-outs, and low-performing schools and
oppose efforts to impose strategies that have no proven track record of success.
8. We support vocational, career, and technical training and post-secondary programs for high school students.
9. We support diverse learning styles, multiple measurements of achievement and evaluation tools, and multiple
pathways to success.
10. We support the decoupling of student test scores from teacher evaluation and compensation.
11. We oppose pay-for-performance, or merit-based pay.
12. We support NAEP (National Assessment of Educational Progress) as a reliable and sufficient data source. It is a
government run and non-profit endeavor that has been used in every state for years and has been verified for validity
and reliability through multiple independent reviews and should suffice for national, state, and local education
agencies students’ academic performance and accountability.
13. In light of breaches of student data, we advocate for student privacy rights that reflect ethical, lawful, and responsible
security of student data.
14. We oppose the monetization of student data and support legislation which prohibits student data exchanged for
services, benefit, or for profit in any way.
15. We oppose for-profit training programs oriented towards factory model education and the practice of placing
inexperienced and non-credentialed teachers in low-performing, high needs schools with hard to serve students.
Educator Rights
We demand fair wages and benefits, safe working conditions, and legal rights for all public school educators.
To this end:
1. We support rights of teachers form and join unions, including teachers of charter schools.
2. We support due process and believe it should not be weakened to address complaints against teachers.
3. We support a livable professional wage, safe and supportive working conditions, and adequate benefits for all
educators and the educators’ right to organize.
4. We support fair and equitable recruitment, retention, licensing and hiring practices of teachers and leaders for all
public schools.
5. We support the fair evaluation of educators using multiple, comprehensive measurements.
6. We support licensed, effective teachers in all public school classrooms.
7. We support efforts to eliminate the educator equity gap, which is the practice of placing inexperienced,
underperforming, ineffective, or less qualified teachers and leaders in low-performing, high-needs schools.
8. We support academic freedom and believe that no educator should fear reprisal for exercising their constitutional
9. We support providing teachers with better tools, administrative support and procedures to handle disruptive behavior.
Higher Education
We support providing access to affordable high quality public higher education for all residents of the state. We demand
increased state funding of Colorado’s public colleges and universities.
As Colorado Democrats:
1. We support free public higher education for all students.
2. We support our undocumented students and demand that the federal government follow Colorado’s efforts to provide
in-state tuition and financial aid to undocumented high school graduates with the opportunity to attend a state college
or university.
3. We oppose tuition increases that reduce access and affordability to a higher education.
4. We oppose further cuts to student financial aid, such as student loans, work-study programs, scholarships, and Pell
grants, which restrict students’ access to colleges or universities.
5. We support fair and equitable compensation for adjunct and part-time faculty at our public colleges and universities.
6. We support the rights of graduate students and student athletes to unionize as employees for equitable treatment and
7. We support funding for merit scholarships for highly qualified students from Colorado to encourage them to attend
universities and colleges in Colorado.
8. We support increased state funding of Colorado’s higher education institutions.
9. We support vocational training programs in Green Energy Technologies, Information Technology, and other skills that
will be needed in the 21st century economy for those who choose not to pursue a college degree.
10. We support restoration of statutes of limitations and bankruptcy protection on student loan debt. We insist that
congress structure loans and/or provide statute of limitations to alleviate college debt, and/or at the minimum reduce
high interest rates on students and make student loan interest rates comparable to what most banks pay.
11. We support and must make STEM education more accessible for women and minority students.
12. We support allowing individuals convicted of non-violent felonies to apply for and have the ability to receive student