anger over mailers

Why Donald Trump and Betsy DeVos’s names — and faces — are all over this fall’s Denver school board races

Angela Cobián has spent much of her young career as a teacher and community organizer. The daughter of Mexican immigrants, the 28-year-old has advocated for justice for immigrants and spent two years teaching English language learners at a low-income northeast Denver school.

So when the political newcomer running to represent heavily Latino southwest Denver on the Denver school board saw an election campaign mailer that pictured her face alongside those of President Donald Trump and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, she felt “genuine shock.”

In an interview Friday with Chalkbeat, Cobián described being left reeling by what she called “a baseless and cruel assault on my public character.”

“As a young woman of color, I can’t think of a more hypocritical, absurd and inane attack on my identity,” she said. “I have in every single way lived out what the opportunity gap is in education. I have lived out what it means to be a young teacher of color in a very white-dominant space, teaching majority students of color. … I speak English and Spanish with pride. To see someone slap a black and white picture of me next to two people who are unqualified to lead our country, who are the embodiment of white privilege in Betsy DeVos and Donald Trump, is so frustrating. I feel powerless. I know what racism feels like, so this isn’t new. But I am deeply pained.”

The mailer was produced by a teachers union-funded independent expenditure committee whose registered agent, like Cobián, taught in a district-run school.

Its appearance this week represents an escalation in a rhetorical war over the priorities and direction of the state’s largest school district, with Trump and DeVos cast as central characters.

Opponents of the district’s policies signaled months ago they would seek to tie candidates who support Denver Public Schools’ reforms to DeVos, a billionaire champion of school choice. Supporters of the district’s agenda were ready with their own narrative: that their candidates would stand up to the Trump administration’s immigration and education policies.

All seven current DPS board members support the district’s strategies, which include giving families a choice from among district-run schools, charter schools and “innovation schools” that have autonomy but not as much as charters. DPS rates schools through a system that heavily weights state test scores, and recommends persistently low-performing schools be closed.

Four seats are up for grabs this fall, putting control of the board in play. Three incumbents are running, and newcomer Cobián’s positions are aligned with those pro-reform board members.

The mailer juxtaposing Cobián with Trump and DeVos was paid for by Every Student Succeeds, an independent expenditure committee bankrolled by funds of the Colorado Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union, and the Aurora and Denver teachers unions.

Here’s the other side of the mailer, which Chalkbeat received from multiple readers:

Chalkbeat school board election mail tracker
Get something in your mailbox about a school board election that deserves more scrutiny? Email pictures — and any other election coverage tips — to [email protected].

As of Tuesday, the Every Student Succeeds committee had spent more than $350,000 on the southwest Denver race and board races in Aurora, Mesa County and Brighton, records show. Independent expenditure committees are barred from coordinating with candidates’ campaigns. In Denver, the committee is backing Cobián’s opponent,parent and real estate agent Xóchitl “Sochi” Gaytán.

State records identify Every Student Succeeds’ registered agent as Susan Pinkney-Todd, who worked as a teacher at Denver’s South High School from 2012 to 2016 and is a substitute teacher this year, according to records provided by DPS. She also formerly served on the board of the Colorado Education Association. Pinkney-Todd did not respond to a phone message or email on Friday.

The committee’s registered filing agent, former Colorado Springs Democratic state Sen. John Morse, an accountant, also did not respond to requests for comment, according to state records. (The flier identifies him as registered agent).

Chalkbeat provided a spokesman for the Colorado Education Association, of which the Denver union is part, with a detailed description of the mailer, and also relayed Cobián’s comments.

In response, the spokesman provided a statement from CEA political director Karen Wick: “There is a lot of money in the Denver school board races that come from non-disclosed sources that should be looked into,” it said. The union also provided a statement from the president of the Denver teachers union, Henry Roman, which read: “The education reform agenda is everything DeVos and Trump are all about and we need to put a stop to it.”

Backers of Cobián and the three board incumbents are angrily speaking out. On Thursday, former Democratic speaker of the House Terrance Caroll called attempts to tie candidates to DeVos and Trump “patently false and defamatory.” Another union-funded independent committee mailer drew criticism this week for a false statement.

Jen Walmer, Colorado state director of Democrats for Education Reform, said in an interview Friday that Cobián and the three board members seeking reelection are fighting to protect immigrants protected through the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, program, which Trump plans to end; to support LGBT students; and to provide “real public school options for kids.” The DPS board is unanimous in its opposition to private school vouchers championed by DeVos, and members also have spoken out against proposed federal budget cuts to education.

“Personal attacks are completely unacceptable,” Walmer said. “They are desperate lies that prey on people’s worst fears of the (Trump) administration.” To align those candidates “with someone as hateful as Trump is just unbelievable,” she said.

The union-funded mailer portraying Cobián as a kindred spirit of Trump and DeVos claims that “Cobián’s campaign is funded by groups with ties to Donald Trump and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, not to mention funding from the Koch brothers,” billionaires who are major supporters of conservative education reform efforts.

A small donor committee of Democrats for Education Reform had given $1,000 to Cobián’s campaign as of the last public filings. Meanwhile, a DFER affiliate called Education Reform Now Advocacy has been the sole funder this cycle of independent expenditure committee Raising Colorado. As of Monday, state records show that committee had spent more than $387,000 on the Denver school board races, and had hundreds of thousands of dollars more on hand.

As a 501(c)4 social welfare organization under the federal tax code, Education Reform Now Advocacy isn’t required to disclose its donors. District critics have decried the influx of such “dark money” into local races.

An email to Education Reform Now’s New York offices was not returned Friday. Walmer on Friday rejected any ties to DeVos and Trump and said “we have never taken money from the Koch brothers, nor would we ever.”

Several Raising Colorado mailers describe the candidates who support DPS reforms as a check against the agendas of Trump and DeVos. Here is one example:

Scott Gilpin, a co-founder of Our Denver, Our Schools, which opposes DPS reforms and is backing a slate of candidates who feel similarly, dismissed such attempts.

“The current school board can try as hard as they want to distance themselves from Trump and DeVos, but their actions speak louder than their campaign fliers,” Gilpin wrote in a text message. “Their votes to close schools, privatize education and expand high-stakes standardized tests are in lock step with Trump and DeVos.”

At least one mailer from the campaign of a candidate, at-large contender Robert Speth, draws a DeVos connection — in this case linking her to board vice president Barbara O’Brien, who Speth is seeking to unseat:

Denver’s school board race is not the first to feature attempts to tie candidates to Trump and DeVos. Union-funded groups unsuccessfully tried a similar tactic in Los Angeles earlier this year in the most expensive school board election in the nation’s history. Advocates of charter schools won a majority there for the first time.

Information voters glean from endorsements and literature that lands in their mailboxes can be influential in a low-turnout, off-year election with candidates who lack party labels, said Seth Masket, a political scientist and director of the Center on American Politics at the University of Denver.

“If people are trying to come up with a reason to support one candidate over another, there is a not a whole lot for them to go on without a ton of research, which most voters are not going to do,” he said. That doesn’t necessarily mean the Trump/DeVos-themed mailers will prove effective, he cautioned: Some voters might see it at an overreach.

For her part, Cobián on Friday said she wondering what the mailer tying her to two Republican figures she opposes vehemently would mean for her beyond the school board race.

“The practical side of me wonders what implications of this slander into the public record will have on my future career,” she said. “I am six years out of college and have spent those six years working public education and local politics, and I’m looking forward to a lifetime of service in organizing and social justice. Now I will wonder what the professional consequences are of these kinds of lies being in our Denver community.”

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story misidentified former state Sen. John Morse’s party affiliation. Thanks to Chalkbeat readers for pointing out immediately so we could fix. We also clarified the sentence about Education Reform Now Advocacy’s donors. To be clear: the identities of donors who support the group’s political activities are not made public.

Colorado Votes 2017

How Colorado’s teachers unions claimed school board victories Tuesday

The nation's second largest teachers union is spending $300,000 to support a slate of candidates running for the Douglas County school board. Those candidates posed for pictures at their campaign kick-off event are from left, Krista Holtzmann, Anthony Graziano, Chris Schor, and Kevin Leung. (Photo by Nic Garcia/Chalkbeat)

Building on recent successes, Colorado’s teachers unions sharpened their political operation and took advantage of an unsettled national electoral climate to score victories this week in some of the state’s largest school districts.

Slates of school board candidates backed by teachers unions won majorities in Aurora, Douglas and Jefferson counties. And in Denver — where the union has been unable to stop or slow the school district’s reform strategies — two candidates supported by the union won seats on the city’s seven-member board.

The political and education policy circumstances differ in each of the four school districts — the dynamics look much different in Denver, for example, than in Douglas County.

But with some differences, teachers unions have during the past two local school board election cycles adopted and refined a playbook to counter the money and influence of their policy foes.

National, state and local unions spent more time engaging their members and other labor organizations, recruited and groomed better candidates most places, and devoted considerable financial resources to ensure wins. Unions also loosely aligned themselves with vocal parent groups in some districts, and pushed a variety of messages — both local and national, positive and negative — on doorsteps and in voters’ social media streams and mailboxes.

The time was ripe for such strategies to pay off. Civil rights groups and factions of the Democratic Party have ramped-up their criticisms of charter schools. And then there is the controversy over Donald Trump’s presidency and his tapping of billionaire Betsy DeVos as education secretary.

Kerrie Dallman, president of the Colorado Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union, emphasized the unions’ attempts to join forces with like-minded groups.

“I think we’ve gotten better, chiefly at talking to the community,” she said. “It’s not teachers alone. It’s parents and other community organizations working together. It’s been particularly grassroots in that regard. It has to be.”

Van Schoales, CEO of A+ Colorado, which monitors and critiques reform efforts in Denver and Aurora, said the election should be a wake-up call for reformers who favor strategies such as giving schools more autonomy and holding schools accountable for performance.

“The union did a much better job than they’ve done in the past,” he said. “This should be a message to folks that there is a lot of work to be done to engage the community” before Election Day about how the reforms are improving schools.

Perfecting their game 

Months before the November election, the Douglas County Federation of Teachers rented classrooms to hear the frustrations of their members and to encourage them to participate in this year’s election. 

The message to teachers from their leaders was clear: Talk to your parents, talk to your family, talk to your neighbors about the candidates you support. In an off-year election, consistent and sustained outreach — not attack mailers — is key, union leaders said.

And with no statewide ballot issue to compete with, teachers could more easily capture voters’ attention.

But during the run-up to Nov. 7, those teachers fanned out across the district and walked with members of the Douglas County Parents political committee, in addition to making more than 30,000 phone calls to voters — far more than they’ve ever made.

Particular emphasis was put on turning out the 19,000 union members living in Douglas County.

Similar mobilization efforts played out in Aurora and Denver. While union leaders there are still tallying up totals, anecdotally they believe they made more contact with voters than in recent years.

“We extend our greatest thanks and appreciation to the hundreds of educators who gave their time and talent to participate in neighborhood walks, phone banks and all other forms of support,” said Henry Roman, president of the Denver Classroom Teachers Association. “We have seen a great deal of participation, so that has been exciting.”

Teachers were trained to discuss in person and on the phone hyper-local and poll-tested messages, union officials said. In Aurora, the school district with the largest concentration of black and refugee students, teachers discussed career and vocational training. In Douglas County, one of the nation’s wealthiest counties, they discussed how higher teacher turnover driven by the school board’s policies was leading to lower academic achievement.

Opponents of the teachers unions were busy contacting voters in the lead up to the election as well. Americans for Prosperity, a free-market advocacy organization, spent six-figures in September to promote charter schools and the Douglas County private-school voucher program.

Multiple messages

While teachers and parent volunteers were knocking on doors, independent political committees fueled by donations from the teachers unions were hitting mailboxes across the Denver-metro area with advertisements — sometimes delivering a more divisive message.

Some of those mailers and other voter outreach attempts came under fire.

One piece of mail in Denver attempted to connect candidate Angela Cobián, a daughter of Mexican immigrants who ran in support of many of the changes Denver schools were making, to Trump and DeVos.

“The union capitalized on legitimate fears of Colorado families that Trump and DeVos are causing incredible harm to our communities,” said Jen Walmer, state director for the political action committee Democrats for Education Reform, which through an affiliate spent more than $345,000 to influence the Denver elections. “What I find deplorable is that in Denver the union used the Trump playbook to slander progressive Democrats, including immigrants and women of color, who are running to continue the education legacy of Barack Obama.”

Union officials declined interview requests before the election to discuss campaign mailers and the overall tone of the campaign. This week after the returns were in, union leader Dallman told Chalkbeat that she had not seen the southwest Denver mailer before it was sent out, and she questioned whether it focused on the right issues.

“I think it’s important for school board races to focus on the issues, and I think that the issue here was the support of unfettered charter school growth without adequate accountability and transparency,” she said this week. “I don’t know that issue was clear in the mailers.”

In Douglas County, some voters received text messages sending them to a website created by a committee backed by the teachers union that depicted the union’s opposition as swamp creatures with green skin and glowing red eyes. The committee, which received $300,000 from the American Federation of Teachers, the nation’s second largest teachers union, used the Trumpian slogan to encourage voters to “Drain the Swamp.”

A spokeswoman for the “Elevate Douglas County” slate, the target of the website, called the attacks “mind-blowingly ironic,” and an attempt “to confuse and suppress Republican voters who have not yet turned in their ballots.”

Lessons for reformers

The school reform movement is far from monolithic. In liberal Denver, Democratic-inspired strategies target the district’s large population of disadvantaged students. One of the tenets is universal school choice, and a “portfolio” of district-run, charter and other types of schools.

In wealthy Douglas County, Republican-backed candidates who won control of the board in 2009 brought market-based philosophies including a private school voucher program. That drew national attention in part because most voucher programs target low-income students.

Aurora Public Schools, meanwhile, is trying to forge its own distinctive reform path, including recruiting high-performing charter schools and revamping its principal hiring process.

Union officials and their policy allies sought to blur those lines during the 2017 election, labeling the different reform factions as cut from the same “corporate reformer” cloth.

Max Eden, a senior fellow at the free-market think tank Manhattan Institute who has spent time studying the Douglas County school district, said policymakers who want to improve the system must gauge the willingness of their community.

“The former (Douglas County school) board never stopped to think about what the parents wanted,” he said. “The reforms in Douglas County ran into the ground because teachers and principals felt it was something being done to them.”

Some reform advocates are rethinking the value of attempting to sway school races.

Tyler Sandberg, a co-founder and senior policy advisor for Ready Colorado, a conservative education reform nonprofit, said his group did not invest heavily in school board elections this year because he said they are shifting their focus to the state.

“When we helped pass the bill that got charter equity funding, we didn’t have to go and fight 178 school boards,” Sandberg said. “School boards, they have become a place where unions have a stacked deck. At the state legislature, you have a much more level playing field.”

Local school districts that are ahead of the state in implementing reforms, can still serve as “labs” Sandberg said, for demonstrating how something would work.

“But ultimately, it’s gotta be a Colorado-wide solution,” Sandberg said. “ We can’t have a patchwork of unequal policy.”

Marty West, associate professor of education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, said supporters of reform efforts — especially Democrats — need to do a better job of explaining why they back certain policies, especially now that Obama has left office.

“There are signs in the national election results this week that Democrats may make significant headway at the state and local level next year when many more seats are in play,” he said. “And that typically makes it harder to pursue the traditional reform agenda. That really places a sense of urgency for reformers to reach out to Democrats to convince them of the merits of their ideas.”

Both CEA’s Dallman and DFER’s Walmer said after the election that they saw potential for common ground on some issues of relevance before the 2018 elections.

“A common interest is funding,” Dallman said. “Our communities are continually forced to make up a shortfall in state funding and in doing so, we perpetuate the system of choosing winners and losers. Organizations that believe in public education have to work together to solve the school funding problem.”

Walmer echoed Dallman’s conciliatory tone looking ahead to the 2018 midterm elections.

“There is someone to fight here,” she said, “and it isn’t each other.”

— Chalkbeat reporters Melanie Asmar and Yesenia Robles contributed

Big wins

Local voters approved several big money measures for schools this election — including in places you might not expect

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

At least three Colorado school districts whose voters have a history of avoiding tax increases passed ballot measures on Tuesday, providing victories to advocates who ran robust grassroots campaigns amid a growing awareness about the impact of school funding shortfalls.

Voters in Mesa County Valley District 51, based in Grand Junction, passed a $118.5 million school bond and a $6.5 million annual property tax increase. Colorado Springs 11 voters approved a $42 million annual property tax increase and Greeley-Evans District 6 voters approved one worth $14 million a year.

In all three districts, more than half of students are eligible for free or reduced-price meals, an indication of poverty. In both Colorado Springs and Greeley-Evans, the wins came a year after voters rejected tax increases for schools.

Statewide, 23 of 34 school tax measures passed, according to the Colorado School Finance Project, which tracks school ballot initiatives. Observers said they were encouraged by the broad support for education measures this year, including among districts that don’t easily pass tax hikes.

Lisa Weil, executive director of the school funding advocacy group Great Education Colorado, said the overall trend on local school ballot measures was encouraging, but noted that some district funding initiatives failed, including in Brighton, Montezuma-Cortez and Sterling.

“It shows the importance of a statewide solution,” she said. District-level ballot measures “still do not address the statewide inequities that occur because of the structure of our school funding system.”

That said, Weil, who is a graduate of Greeley Central High School, said she was thrilled about that district’s success this year.

So was Greeley-Evans Superintendent Deirdre Pilch, who described the failure of a similar tax measure last year as “devastating.” The defeat meant cuts to busing for students, outdated materials and employee wages well below those of other northern Colorado districts.

Proceeds from the mill levy override passed Tuesday will boost lagging wages for hourly employees, help the district start an elementary summer school program and pay for security, technology and curriculum updates, Pilch said.

The reason voters agreed to support the tax measure this time was twofold. Besides a more concerted effort to inform voters how the money would be spent, the district created a citizens oversight committee for extra accountability, she said.

In Colorado Springs District 11, officials asked for voter feedback after last year’s defeat and subsequently moved from two tax measures to one and simplified the ballot language. The money will be used to boost teacher salaries, add counselors and upgrade buildings.

Devra Ashby, spokeswoman for the district, credited the committee that led the ballot campaign for its on-the-ground efforts — 80,000 phone calls, 40,000 homes visits and 30,000 pieces of campaign literature.

In Mesa County, supporters of the bond and mill levy override that passed on Tuesday say the same kind of door-to-door campaign, along with funding requests for only the most critical needs, helped win voters’ support.

Sarah Johnson, the parent of a ninth-grader in the district, said there hasn’t been a successful school tax measure since before her daughter started kindergarten.

“This has been a long time coming,” she said. “We’re a really low-tax county. We have a history of really rarely passing tax increase measures.”

Johnson said the new dollars will pay for crucial things such as building repairs, but she’s particularly excited about curriculum updates.

For years, district teachers have done the best they could with limited financial support but, “They’ve been pulling their hair out,” she said

One example comes from her daughter’s Advanced Placement Human Geography class. The teacher worried that her textbooks were so outdated the school was at risk of losing its AP accreditation for the class, she said.

Sarah Shrader, a Grand Junction parent who owns a company that designs zip line and ropes courses, said she’s been part of discussions for years about “how hard it is to recruit executives and talent … because of the condition our schools are in,” she said.

The list of problems is long: broken heating systems, crumbling roofs, ancient carpeting and old teaching materials. The Mesa County Valley district has the middle of five state ratings — “Accredited with Improvement Plan.”

Shrader, who served on the campaign steering committee, said she sees the new tax measures as an investment that will boost economic development in the area.

“I want to see this community thrive and I think we have to invest in our schools,” she said. “This is just the beginning.”