What the Democratic ‘blue wave’ on Election Night in Colorado means for education

DENVER, CO - NOVEMBER 6: Gabriella Martinez (center) cheers for newly elected governor of Colorado Jared Polis during the Democratic watch party in downtown Denver on Tuesday, November 6, 2018. Democrat Jared Polis defeated Republican Walker Stapleton in the governor's race to succeed the outgoing Democrat John Hickenlooper. (Photo by AAron Ontiveroz/The Denver Post)

BY ERICA MELTZER

November 7, 2018

Colorado voters on Tuesday elected a governor who ran on bold education promises but rejected a tax increase that would have made it easier to pay for them.

They also gave control of the state Senate to Democrats for the first time since 2014, increased the Democratic majority in the state House, and elected Democrats to every statewide office, from treasurer to secretary of state to University of Colorado at-large regent.

This “blue wave” swept incumbents from office and leaves Democrats with the coveted trifecta in state government — governor, House, and Senate — a development that opens new possibilities even as it also carries risks.

Jared Polis, a millionaire entrepreneur and Democratic congressman from Boulder, will be Colorado’s first openly gay governor. He has a long record in education, having served on the State Board of Education and founded two charter school networks. His platform included calls for funding full-day kindergarten and universal access to preschool for 4-year-olds.

He defeated Republican Walker Stapleton, the state treasurer, who provoked opposition from many teachers for his support of changes to the public pension system that would have cut benefits and increased contributions from employees. The feeling was mutual. Stapleton called Polis’ acceptance of the teachers union endorsement a “bargain with the devil.”

Polis can count on Democratic control of both chambers of the Colorado General Assembly, as his party headed toward a five-seat majority in the state Senate previously controlled by Republicans.

“Tonight, the voters of Colorado sent a clear message that they endorse Senate Democrats’ forward-looking agenda and reject the politics of cynicism and division,” Colorado Democratic Party chair Morgan Carroll said in a press release. “Working in tandem with governor-elect Jared Polis and a Democratic majority in the House of Representatives, we’re excited for the opportunity to roll up our sleeves and accomplish great things for the hardworking people of Colorado.”

This creates a wider opening for Polis to pursue his agenda, including fully funding kindergarten. Right now, the state pays for a little more than half a day’s worth of instruction. But quietly, even some liberal education advocates worry that’s not the best use for scarce education dollars. Most districts already provide a full day of instruction for young students and make up the cost either out of other funds or by charging parents tuition, as Denver does. Could this money be better spent on, for example, expanding preschool options?

In the past, Republicans in the Senate used procedural maneuvers to kill proposals to fund kindergarten before they could see a floor vote. Now legislators will have to have the full debate. Polis has been vague about how he would pay for his education plans and suggested that public-private partnerships could play a significant role.

In a state where suicide is a leading cause of death among people ages 10 to 24, Republicans have also blocked legislation that would expand suicide prevention efforts in schools and allow students as young as 12 to get counseling at school without first obtaining parental consent out of concerns that it would interfere with parental rights. They also blocked a “red flag” bill that would provide a mechanism to remove guns from people who were a danger to themselves or others. All of these efforts might see new attention from a Democratic majority.

Angela Osbirn, a preschool teacher who lives in Aurora, said Polis’ support for early childhood education influenced her vote.

“Early education is so important” to children, she said after casting her ballot at a polling center off Colfax Avenue. “It literally impacts their entire lives.”

Abby Humphrey, a former preschool director from Denver, said she voted a straight Democratic ticket, and education was her second most important issue, after “sending a strong message about the current administration” in Washington, D.C.

“Moving to Colorado, it was shocking to me how little the state appears to support public education and the funding of it,” she said. She believes Polis will help change that.

Charter schools, school choice, and the state’s accountability system have all enjoyed broad bipartisan support in Colorado, and most observers do not expect that to change. However, Republicans now are even less likely to advance their education priorities, like making it easier to open new charter schools or allowing tax credits for private schooling.

“Governor-elect Polis has long been a stalwart for progressive ed reform,” Jen Walmer, Colorado state director for Democrats for Education Reform, said in an email. “We are thrilled with his victory and know he will serve Coloradans well in the fight for more equitable funding and better results for our kids.”

Colorado lawmakers are in the midst of re-examining how much state support each school district gets. Democratic control reduces the pressure for a bipartisan compromise, but disagreements may not fall along party lines. Without significant new revenue, rewriting the formula for distributing revenue would mean some districts get less than they do now. Expect intense behind-the-scenes lobbying from a range of interest groups — and possibly kicking the can down the road. Significant changes may have to go to the voters, and bipartisan backing would still carry weight with them.

One open question: Will the legislature revisit Colorado’s teacher effectiveness law, which ties teacher evaluations to test scores? Democrats passed and signed the law, but many teachers and their union leaders hate it and believe it’s unfair. Even many supporters of the law agree it could use updating. But what would take its place? That debate could prove contentious and reopen rifts within the Democratic Party that were on full display during the primary.

Another open question: How much will Polis exert his influence in the legislative process? Outgoing Gov. John Hickenlooper often took a hands-off approach, but Polis has years of experience in Congress as a legislator in his own right.

Lawmakers in this purple state have often prided themselves on a “Colorado way,” making incremental progress on key issues through painstaking bipartisan compromise. In recent years, this process has produced legislation that requires school districts to share more money with charters and updates the state’s accountability system, which monitors and sometimes intervenes in low-performing schools and districts. A shift in the balance of power gives Democrats the ability to take larger steps on some issues and makes compromise on others less likely.

Even as he acknowledges he would like to see Republicans wield more power in state government, Luke Ragland of the conservative education reform advocacy group Ready Colorado said he believes divided government produces better policy.

“Ideas get tested,” he said. “I worry if we have unified party control, those ideas don’t get tested in the same way.”

The third time was not, in fact, the charm for advocates of more school funding. Colorado voters stuck with tradition and rejected a $1.6 billion tax increase on corporations and higher-income earners that would have gone to education. This leaves lawmakers to work within existing budget constraints and sends advocates back to the drawing board.

One possibility: An effort in 2020 to lift the revenue cap on state government imposed by the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights. This would allow the state to keep additional money generated by a strong economy and put it toward roads, schools, and other needs without raising taxes or causing voters to choose between their preferred causes in separate ballot measures.

Lisa Weil of Great Education Colorado, one of the main organizations backing Amendment 73, said the coalition that formed behind that measure would be at the Capitol urging lawmakers to do more for schools.

“We will never stop advocating for what is right for our students,” she said at a small gathering at a downtown Denver hotel. “The vibe here is not one of sadness but of resolution. We want to make sure that Colorado is a state that uses its successful economy to invest in its students.”

Throughout the election season, Polis declined to take a position on Amendment 73. Weil said a measure referred to voters by lawmakers, with the full support of elected officials, might have a better opportunity of passing.

Advocates for more school funding dodged a bullet with the failure of Proposition 109, which would have required the state to issue up to $3.5 billion in transportation bonds without a new revenue source to pay off the debt. They feared that locking in debt obligations for road construction would crowd out school funding during the next economic downturn.

The failure of Proposition 110, a sales tax increase to fund an even larger package of transportation projects, was not surprising, but it means that roads and schools will continue to compete for money in the state budget.

A measure that would have pushed oil-and-gas operations much further away from homes and schools failed by a large margin in the face of a well-funded “no” campaign backed by industry. State and some school district officials had warned of financial catastrophe if the measure passed, as it would have put large portions of eastern Colorado off limits to oil-and-gas development.

But the concerns over potential health effects of fracking near children, as well as the risk of fires, explosions, and other industrial accidents, will not go away. This battle will continue in the courts and in the regulatory realm, with the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission set to hold hearings on school setbacks in December.

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