EducationElection 2018News

Colo. Democrats reject education-reform group at state assembly

Author: Erica Meltzer, Chalkbeat Colorado - April 16, 2018 - Updated: April 16, 2018

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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.

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.

Erica Meltzer, Chalkbeat Colorado