Flores win confounds the local education punditry

The Colorado Statesman

The 7 p.m. report from the Denver County Clerk placed Dr. Valentina Flores so far ahead of Taggart Hansen in the State Board of Education primary in District 1 that even her supporters at Democratic headquarters on Sherman Street were at a loss to explain the results election night. Her 55-45 lead would continue to swell throughout the evening until it reached 58.9 percent to her opponent’s 48.2 percent. The punditocracy had previously awarded the seat to Hansen, who enjoyed support from the Democrats for Education Reform and its well-heeled network of independent expenditure committees. It is expected that financial reports will show that Hansen’s supporters outspent Flores by a margin of six, eight or even 10 to one. It wasn’t uncommon for Denver Democrats to receive a dozen mail pieces from Hansen for every flyer they received from Flores.

Dr. Valentina Flores

So what happened? Dave Sabados of Compass Strategy Group managed the Flores campaign and has begun to develop a specialty of defeating Denver’s education “reformers,” having also managed Arturo Jimenez’s re-election to the Denver School Board several years ago. There is nothing like overconfidence to undermine a campaign, and the success of reformers in sweeping last year’s Denver School Board races may have deceived the Hansen campaign. The initial indicator that this election might not be a similar cakewalk was the 1st Congressional District Assembly where Flores narrowly grabbed the top line. Then, as Sabados observes, “…Taggart’s people seemed to be satisfied with mailing it in.” He often failed to appear at Democratic meetings, did no apparent personal canvassing and, aside from voter mailboxes, was something of a ‘phantom’ candidate.

Sabados also designed an outreach heavily reliant on social media and hands-on, person-to-person campaigning. While Hansen relied on robocalls touting his endorsement by virtually every Democrat in town, from the Mayor on down, Flores’ volunteers were manning old-fashioned phone banks where they actually talked to voters. My own perusal of Hansen’s website in search of an election night party (apparently there was none), found that visitors to his site were also visiting those of Flores. Voters were seemingly educating themselves, and venting as well. Lisa Gilford, wife of the late Jim Monaghan, left a message demanding the Hansen campaign “…stop with the robocalls!” (Hint to Lisa: return your ballot early and you won’t be bothered.) Flores also undertook door-to-door voter identification in selected precincts, relying on volunteers among her supporters with the American Federation of Teachers and the CEA.

Shoe leather defeated dollars, with a substantial assist from Latino precincts across the west side of the city. Flores, herself, is a self-effacing and humble advocate for “evidence based” reforms — which doesn’t include a reliance on charter schools and the scapegoating of teachers. A teacher training educator herself, Flores believes young teachers need three to five years of continuing support to master their professional skills. She much prefers to discuss what needs to be done to strengthen public schools and serve kids, than to speculate on her surprising political success. Sabados points out that the so-called reform movement has enjoyed support from the 30 percent slice of Republican voters in Denver while Democrats are far more skeptical of its reform agenda, supporting strong neighborhood schools over the “ multiple choice” specialty options on offer to parents.

This dispute is far from settled. But Dr. Flores is likely to provide a much needed voice on the State Board demanding proof — “reality based evidence” —­ that Colorado’s hell bent rush towards privatization of classrooms will actually improve results. She argues that the teacher can only determine 8-12 percent of performance, certainly no more than 20 percent. “Teacher evaluation needs to be well staffed and its goals realistic,” she observes. “Linking 50 percent of pay to test results is just nuts!”

mnhwriter@msn.com