Dividing Lines

Colorado is rethinking all of its major education policies. And everyone is jockeying for influence.

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
State Board of Education chairman Steve Durham, center, and vice chair Angelika Schroeder meet with Aurora Public Schools Superintendent Rico Munn in May 2015.

As Colorado prepares to adopt a new plan that will set the course for the state’s schools for the foreseeable future, competing priorities have emerged spotlighting familiar divides.

The state’s direction — and points of tension — will become clearer Thursday when Colorado Department of Education officials brief the State Board of Education on decisions it likely faces in developing a blueprint required under the nation’s new federal law.

But Republican board chairman Steve Durham already has made his intentions known.

In a May message to then-Education Commissioner Rich Crandall, the lobbyist and former lawmaker prioritized reversing Colorado’s adoption of Common Core State Standards, getting the state out of the PARCC multi-state testing partnership, “maximizing” local control and more.

Chalkbeat obtained Durham’s list, previously not made public, in an open records request.

The head of the state’s largest teachers union disputed that those topics reflect the public’s wishes. A bipartisan panel of state lawmakers, meanwhile, is pursuing its own path that one key member hopes will preserve much of what the state has been doing instead of blowing it up.

Thursday’s study session comes after department officials spent several months on a statewide “listening tour” meant to gather public input on how Colorado should change course under the new main federal K-12 education law, the Every Student Succeeds Act.

Department staff will share a list of decisions it believes the board needs to make — based on where it has flexibility — and describe conflicts between current state law and the new federal law.

The plan must address how the state will hold schools accountable for student performance, improve teacher quality and educate English language learners, among many other things.

The federal law, signed by President Obama last year, is supposed to grant states more flexibility from policies around academic standards and testing that some believe were too restrictive under its predecessor, No Child Left Behind.

Since ESSA was signed into law, educators, special interest groups and lawmakers have been trying to understand how much freedom the state will be get, all while jockeying for influence.

Durham’s list

Commissioner Crandall, who resigned from his post in May after only four months on the job, said Durham handed him his priority list after the board failed at a secret February meeting to provide the commissioner guidance on the direction the state should go.

Steve Durham’s ESSA Wishlist
Read board chairman Steve Durham’s four-bullet proposal here.

“He told me, ‘The Republicans met and these or our priorities,’” Crandall said in an interview.

Durham and other Republican members deny they met separately to draw up the document. But Durham did take credit for drafting the list himself.

“Absolutely, I wrote it,” Durham said.

Most of Durham’s request come as no surprise — including his call to drop the Common Core standards and pull Colorado out of PARCC by 2018. The Colorado Springs Republican long has criticized both, and has championed more local control since he was appointed to the board in 2014.

Durham in the list also calls for urging more districts to adopt the Core Knowledge curriculum, a rigid curriculum with specific grade-level expectations meant to instill “background knowledge” in subjects like math, language arts and geography. The curriculum is popular with charter schools in Colorado suburbs and some rural communities. Durham is a vocal supporter of charter schools.

That Durham privately pushed his agenda to reshape state education policy on Crandall is disturbing, said Kerrie Dallman, president of the Colorado Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union.

”I can tell you from attending the listening tours, those things did not come up,” she said. “Certainly there was talk around flexibility on having an alternative to PARCC, but there was no discussion on dropping Common Core or adopting Core Knowledge.”

Dallman added, “Our expectation would be that Colorado abides by the requirement to meaningfully consult all stakeholders including teachers, parents, students and community in developing its ESSA plan.”

For the plan to be approved by the federal government, the state education department must prove it sought community input, and the State Board and the governor all must sign off on the document.

That could prove challenging. The State Board and Senate are Republican-controlled, while Democrats hold the House and governor’s office.

Other influences

Dallman’s union, as well as the Colorado Association of School Executives and the Colorado Association of School Boards, have taken their own steps in hopes their members will have a say in the plan’s development.

Kerrie Dallman
Kerrie Dallman

In June, the three organizations hosted a joint meeting in Aurora where teams from school districts across the state gathered to learn about ESSA and weigh in on the state’s direction.

“We saw that as our kick-off to our involvement in developing the plan,” Dallman said, but added she’s skeptical the state’s education landscape could change that much. “There are opportunities for some shifts, but the truth of the matter is, unless we create some flexibility in local state mandates, we’re not going to see a lot of the changes folks want — especially rural districts.”

State lawmakers are also taking up ESSA on their own. A committee of three Republicans and three Democrats will begin meeting later this summer to study the new federal laws and identify areas where local laws need to be adjusted.

State Rep. Brittany Pettersen, a Lakewood Democrat, sponsored the bill that created the committee. She said she hopes the committee will be cautious and not rush to completely reimagine Colorado’s modern education policies, most of which passed between 2008 and 2012 with broad bipartisan support.

“I don’t want to redo everything we’ve done,” she said.

The ‘compromise’

How much influence the State Board should have on the plan has been an ongoing conversation since former-Commissioner Crandall first announced the department’s listening tours that reached a fevered pitch in June.

The ‘Compromise’ memo |
Read Durham memo to the State Board outlining the committee selection process here.

While meeting in Pueblo last month, State Board members debated their role in the development of the plan and what role advocacy organizations should play.

Board member Deb Scheffel, a Republican from Parker, was most vocal about the board having an early say in the plan. Durham was critical of what he called “special interest groups.”

“If I were going to put on my cynical hat — and I do often — I can predict what the position of every one of these groups is going to be,” Durham said at the meeting. “They are not our ultimate constituents. Our constituents are the children.”

But vice chair Angelika Schroeder, a Democrat from Boulder, cautioned: “We exclude them at our own peril.”

That discussion led to a “compromise,” Durham wrote in a June 13 email obtained by Chalkbeat, that includes the board appointing a variety of members to a committee that will be responsible for writing the plan. Organizations such as CEA and CASB will also be asked to name representatives.

The committee will work with state department staff through the fall to develop the first draft of the plan, which must be submitted to the federal government by October.

“It’s a way to diversify input,” Durham said in an interview, “so it’s not all driven by districts and interest groups.”

Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly reported that the Colorado General Assembly must approve the state’s education plan. It does not. 

promoting choice

Betsy DeVos defends vouchers and slams AFT in her speech to conservatives

U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos rallied a conservative crowd in Denver on Thursday, criticizing teachers unions and local protesters and defending private-school vouchers as a way to help disadvantaged students.

“Our opponents, the defenders of the status quo, only protest those capable of implementing real change,” DeVos told members of the American Legislative Exchange Council, an influential conservative group that helps shape legislative policy across the country. “You represent real change.”

DeVos delivered the keynote speech at the ALEC meeting, where she reiterated her support for local control of schools and school choice. Citing the conservative former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, she said education should be about individual students and families, not school systems.

“Lady Thatcher regretted that too many seem to blame all their problems on society. But, ‘who is society?’” DeVos asked, quoting Thatcher. “‘There is no such thing!’”

The American Federation of Teachers, she said, has exactly the opposite idea.

“Parents have seen that defenders of the status quo don’t have their kids’ interests at heart,” she said.

AFT President Randi Weingarten threw punches of her own Thursday, calling private school vouchers “only slightly more polite cousins of segregation” in a Washington, D.C. speech.

DeVos highlighted states that have introduced vouchers or new school-choice programs including North Carolina, Kentucky and Arizona. Indiana — home to the nation’s largest voucher program — also won praise.

Data from existing voucher programs may have sparked the one critical question DeVos faced, during a brief sit-down after her speech. Legislators want to know how to respond to complaints that voucher programs only help wealthy families, the moderator, an Arizona lawmaker, told DeVos.

In Indiana, for instance, vouchers are increasingly popular in wealthy school districts and among families whose students had not previously attended public school.

“I just dismiss that as a patently false argument,” DeVos said. “Wealthy people already have choice. They’re making choices every day, every year, by moving somewhere where they determine the schools are right for their children or by paying tuition if they haven’t moved somewhere.”

Earlier this year, DeVos criticized Denver as not offering enough school choice because Colorado does not have private school vouchers. Still, presenters at the conference Thursday introduced Denver to ALEC members — conservative legislators, business leaders and lobbyists — as “living proof” that charter schools and competition work.

A local Denver school board candidate, Tay Anderson, and state union leaders held a protest Wednesday ahead of DeVos’s speech. Attendees said they were concerned that ALEC’s efforts, and DeVos’s focus on vouchers and school choice, would hurt public schools.

DeVos didn’t make mention of Denver or Colorado in her speech Thursday, but she briefly referenced the protest.

“I consider the excitement a badge of honor, and so should you,” she said.

out of the running

Denver school board candidate Jo Ann Fujioka withdrawing from at-large race

PHOTO: Daniel Brenner/Special to the Denver Post
Jo Ann Fujioka, center, holds signs and participates in a song during a Rally for Health Care earlier this month.

One of three candidates vying to unseat Denver school board vice president Barbara O’Brien has announced that she is dropping out of the race.

Jo Ann Fujioka said in an email message to supporters this week that she’s ending her candidacy because two other candidates backed out of running with her as a three-person slate. No other candidates have dropped out of the race.

Fujioka, a former Jeffco Public Schools nurse and administrator who lives in Denver, said consultants hired by the Denver Classroom Teachers Association “pressured the other two candidates to withdraw from the slate and then informed me, ‘You bring nothing to the table.’”

Fujioka declined to name the other two candidates or the consultants. Asked about Fujioka’s withdrawal, union president Henry Roman said, “We have strong candidates in every district.”

Four seats on the seven-member Denver Public Schools board are up for election in November. All seven seats are currently held by board members who support the superintendent’s vision, which includes embracing school choice and replacing low-performing schools.

Three incumbents are running for re-election. In the fourth race, the incumbent has endorsed a candidate. Every race is now contested, and every race includes at least one candidate who disagrees with the superintendent’s vision.

Fujioka was running for the at-large seat held by O’Brien on a platform of opposing school closures and new charter schools. Fujioka said her strategy from the beginning was to form a slate of four like-minded candidates. (Until recently, only three races were contested, which is why she said the proposed slate had three members.)

The idea, she said, was that the slate would stand together against the district’s reforms, which she and others have sought to tie to the policies championed by U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos.

DeVos is best known for supporting private school vouchers, which DPS opposes.

“There’s a national anti-voucher, anti-DeVos, anti-Trump feeling,” Fujioka said. “…The fact that there are lots of activists against it, coupled with a ticket of four people saying, ‘This is what we’re railing against,’ that’s the advantage I see.”

Running individual campaigns against the incumbents would be more difficult, she said. When it became clear the slate wasn’t going to happen, Fujioka said she decided to withdraw from the race altogether — and explain her reasoning in a message to supporters, which she also posted on her website.

“It isn’t just that I quit,” she said. “That’s why I put that out there.”

O’Brien, who previously served as Colorado’s lieutenant governor for four years, responded to Fujioka’s statement with a press release saying she was disheartened to learn the reason that one of her opponents was dropping out of the race.

“Too often, women in politics find themselves facing unreasonable institutional barriers,” O’Brien said. “It’s discouraging, misguided and just plain wrong. … That a fellow progressive voice was forced to exit the race because consultants told her, ‘You bring nothing to the table,’ is more of the same that women in public service, and everywhere, have to tolerate.”

Fujioka called O’Brien’s statement “the sleaziest piece of campaign propaganda” she’d seen.

“I am appalled at Barbara hopping on this like a vulture to make it sound like she is so empathetic to my situation as a woman, when it really had nothing to do with being a woman,” Fujioka said. “Such a blatant appeal to women is shoddy at best.”

O’Brien said her statement was heartfelt.

Two other candidates confirmed that they’re still in the running against O’Brien: northwest Denver father Robert Speth, who narrowly lost an election to a school board incumbent in 2015, and former DPS teacher Julie Banuelos.

In the race for the board seat representing northeast Denver, two candidates — Tay Anderson and Jennifer Bacon — are challenging incumbent Rachele Espiritu.

In central east Denver, candidate Carrie A. Olson is challenging incumbent Mike Johnson.

And in southwest Denver, candidate Xochitl “Sochi” Gaytan is challenging candidate Angela Cobian, who has been endorsed by the board member who currently holds that seat.