Debate about schools splits Democrats

CHARLOTTE, N.C. – On television this week, Democrats will roar in unison for President Barack Obama.

On the streets outside the Democratic National Convention, it’s not that simple.

Democrats of every stripe have descended on Charlotte, hoping to shape the party’s agenda.

One of the most contentious debates is about schools, especially teachers. And Colorado is right in the middle of it.

About 200 people showed up Tuesday for a town hall by Democrats for Education Reform that featured, among others, state Sen. Mike Johnston, D-Denver, and U.S. Rep. Jared Polis, D-Boulder.

Both are supporters of data-driven reforms in the schools, stricter standards for teachers and better use of charter schools. Johnston sponsored a bill in 2010 that ended “tenure as we know it” for teachers and allowed job protections only for high-performing teachers, based in part on how well their students do on standardized tests.

Job protections “ought to be earned based on performance, and they ought to be kept based on performance,” said Johnston, a former teacher and principal.

The idea is controversial inside the party, and its reception with major allies like teachers unions has ranged from frosty to hostile.

But President Barack Obama’s administration has supported many of the same changes Johnston has backed, and that has angered some of his fans.

Outside the event, three women stood wearing signs that read “trust teachers” and bearing large fake pencils fashioned out of yellow foam tubes. They tried to attend the town hall but weren’t allowed in.

Carol Sawyer, a Charlotte parent and member of a local pro-public school group called Mecklenberg ACTS, was one of the protesters, and she said Obama has let her down but not lost her support.

“I am very disappointed. I fully support President Obama, and I want him to be re-elected,” she said, but she doesn’t like Education Secretary Arne Duncan’s agenda of “excessive testing” in schools.

She also opposes charter schools, which Democrats for Education Reform supports.

“They don’t improve education, and they are creating a hyper-segregated system,” Sawyer said.

The party’s official platform, adopted Tuesday, calls for respecting and rewarding teachers and uses careful language when it talks about firing ineffective ones.

“We also believe in carefully crafted evaluation systems that give struggling teachers a chance to succeed and protect due process if another teacher has to be put in the classroom. We also recognize there is no substitute for a parent’s involvement in their child’s education,” the platform says.

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