A Few Words About Polis Education Transition Heartburn

Bob Schaffer.

Gov.-elect Jared Polis is grappling with the first real controversy he’s encountered since his double-digit victory earlier this month, with a less-then-enthusiastic response to certain members of his “transition team.” As John Frank at the Colorado Sun reported last week:

The team includes prominent Democrats, such as former Gov. Bill Ritter, Lt. Gov. Donna Lynne, former Colorado State University President Al Yates, former Democratic Party Chairman Rick Palacio and two former Democratic House speakers, Crisanta Duran and Andrew Romanoff. The Keystone Center will facilitate the effort.

But Polis touted his transition effort as a bipartisan affair and pointed to one prominent Republican on the team, former U.S. Rep. Bob Schaffer, a charter school leader who is a member of the education effort. Schaffer served in a similar role for Gov. John Hickenlooper in 2010, a move that drew scorn from liberals for his controversial stances in the past.

Marianne Goodland of the Colorado Springs Gazette elaborated further on the education team, which has justifiably rankled public school supporters:

The Polis education team — one of seven teams whose members were announced Friday — includes Jen Walmer, director of Democrats for Education Reform (DFER), a political group that advocates for charter schools. Some education-policy liberals accuse the group of seeking to restrict teacher unions.

Another is former U.S. Rep. Bob Schaffer, a Republican advocate for taxpayer-funded vouchers for private schools and formerly a member of the state board of education.

Schaffer also is chairman of the board of the Leadership Program of the Rockies (LPR) a Republican-leaning organization that provides training on conservative principles and leadership. Its graduates include three of the former members of the Douglas County Board of Education who approved a controversial private-school voucher program in 2011. Schaffer advocated for the state board of education to endorse the voucher program.
The Dougco program led to lawsuits, including a trip all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. It was dismantled last year after voters elected an anti-voucher school board.

Bob Schaffer, the failed 2008 GOP U.S. Senate turned headmaster of a politically conservative charter high school in Fort Collins, is not the only member of Polis’ education team drawing criticism. There’s also Mike Johnston, who lost to Polis in the Democratic primary largely due to his authorship of a much-reviled “teacher effectiveness” bill that since passage in 2010 has contributed directly to a shortage of teachers in Colorado with no discernible impact on student performance. For the large number of Democratic voters who think supporting public schools is predicate to “reforming” them, these people are more than bad choices: they’re the bad actors in public education base Democrats thought they were voting against. We said the same thing when John Hickenlooper appointed Schaffer to his education transition team, and it’s no less true today.

Since 2010, however, the landscape of education politics in Colorado has significantly changed. The Douglas County religious school voucher program was stymied in court and then soundly rejected by Douglas County voters who threw out the conservative board. The conservative education “reform” movement hit its zenith in 2013 after a slate of far-right school board members took power in Jefferson County, only to be overwhelmingly recalled from office two years later. Johnston’s rejection by Democratic primary voters despite massive infusions of cash from out-of-state education “reform” interests further underscores where the power has shifted on education in the last decade.

In 2004, Polis founded the New America School charter high schools with the specific purpose of “empowering new immigrants, English language learners, and academically underserved students.” Far from the predatory cherry-picking suburban charter schools (rightly) vilified by neighborhood school supporters, NAS is an example of a niche need charter schools can gainfully fill under the right circumstances. Will that experience manifest as a blind spot for Polis with regard to charter schools that aren’t so well-intentioned? That remains to be seen. But this is a charter school doing more good than harm.

With all of this in mind, and especially with Democratic majorities in both chambers of the legislature, the potential harm from appointing Schaffer and “ed reform” Democrats to Polis’ transition team is self-limiting–more so than when Hickenlooper appointed Schaffer to the same committee eight years ago. Polis himself takes pride in engaging with all sides, including those he has little to nothing in common with. The best response is for public education supporters to be loud in their opposition, and back that up with a strong presence in the legislature next year to ensure their policy goals are upheld.

And be assured, Colorado’s public schools are in better hands than the alternative.

7 Community Comments, Facebook Comments

  1. tomahawk says:

    it's obviously fine and good for education activists to express their views and make their case to the new governor and to the media, but this seems to be a pretty petty and possibly self-defeating tactic.  To get one's panties in a bunch over a transition team is to expend needless political capital and sow mistrust before any policies are on the table.  To attack the governor elect for wanting to honor and hear a range of views is to attack him for precisely the thing that will lead him to being a successful and re-electable governor!  I'm not disagreeing with their views, but if I were them I'd give a bit more credit to Polis and to the process of working with him.  Burning bridges and crying wolf on your allies before the game has begun is a classic bad-faith move.

  2. NotHopeful says:

    I don't agree with Bob Schaffer's political views, and I certainly did not vote for him in 2008, but he has proven to be a highly effective school leader at Liberty Common School and that institution is doing good work in Larimer County. Schaffer and his team do have some worthy ideas about how to educate kids. You or I may not agree with all of them, but they do deserve to be heard and considered. Some are quite possibly worth imitating.

    Mike Johnston has been an amazing school leader in the past. His ideas, again, may not have universal appeal. But that doesn't mean they shouldn't be voiced in the governor-elect's working group. Besides, you caricature Johnston as being all about punishing teachers. That's not accurate. He has been an articulate voice for improving schools in many other ways, too. 

    Public education is a mess and it's not because there's choice and charters. It's because students and families have no incentive to care about outcomes on the standardized tests, a goodly number of students in some communities – like Denver, Aurora, Adams County, and some rural areas – lack motivation to work hard in school and some parents don't encourage education or emphasize its value, and bureaucracies regard the per-pupil funding as an incentive to keep passing kids along whether they learned what they should have or not because to do otherwise would cost the money that comes with the kid who takes the slot the next year.

    We have terrible incentives in public education, our public education system has no idea what its mission is, and our society has confused age of child with academic progress. We have state academic standards, yes, but they are not consistently applied or taken seriously, and standardized tests cannot possibly give reliable data unless and until all students have a powerful incentive to prepare well and do their best. That has to involve using the test results to determine whether a child moves to the next grade or, at least, to the next level of schooling (elementary to middle to high) and definitely we need a high school competency exam as a prerequisite to graduation.

    Right now most school basically warehouse kids. We also have huge problems with behavior in urban schools. Administrators and district bureaucrats don't like to address behavior because, if a record is kept, they can be held accountable later when the behavior worsens on grounds of having known and done nothing or not having known when they should have known. Moreover, administrators – or, at least, many of them – spend much of their time on paperwork and not so much on dealing directly with students. The bottom line is that it's hard for kids to learn in schools where the culture tolerates behavior problems from the students.

    Visit any neighborhood middle or high school in Denver or Aurora or most of Adams County if you doubt this.

    We need Schaffer's views and Johnston's experience on this panel. We need more opportunities to listen to each other and compromise, not less, and it would be a bad idea to exclude them because their ideas don't square with yours or mine.

    • RepealAndReplace says:

      This is an advisory position so Polis and crew are free to accept or reject as much or as little of Schaffer’s opinions as they wish to.

      I certainly have never voted for Schaffer and it is extremely unlikely that I ever would but Polis is entitle to hear from anyone he wishes before making policy decisions.

      Remember, even the broken clock is right twice each day.

    • OpenSpace says:

      One problem is there is no one on the education transition team who works in the trenches of public education today, either at the K-12 level or in community college or higher ed. Where are the teachers who can talk about the lack of resources, overwhelming mandates, the overuse and reliance on standardized tests (and the huge amount of time they take away from instructional time), stupid directives that treat kids like widgets and teachers like robots, etc etc

      The media and others keep referring to charter and voucher advocates as "reformers" when they generally just call for stripping public money out of public schools and giving it to private, for profit actors. The folks in the public schools have ideas for reforms too but no one listens to them — case in point, the Polis transition team.

      • Meiner49er says:

        Gotta agree with your last paragraph, Open. What's most interesting to me is the way this transition committee perpetuates old debates that could have been easily resolved by appointing some of the leaders from Mesa 51, Greeley West, St. Vrain, or Thompson.

        There are good things happening in public schools like these, but this committee won't likely be a forum for that. Instead, it is likely to just make a wedge issue out of education in order to drive the full-day kindergarten promise. Not a bad tactic, mind  you, but a tactic nonetheless.

  3. davebarnes says:

    "first real controversy"
    How about we ask the "man in the street" what s/he thinks about this issue?

    • Pseudonymous says:

      Don't even need to go that far.  This is who Polis is.  He supported 191, the bill Johnston is "hated" for– in fact, he tried to make it law at the federal level.  He's long been aligned with DFER.  He's a "reformer."  It wasn't enough for me not to vote for him, but folks like me who don't like charter schools shouldn't be surprised by anything they read here; that’s the guy we picked.

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