ch-ch-changes

Democrats have won control of the State Board of Education. So now what?

PHOTO: Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post
State Board of Education vice chairman Angelika Schroeder, left, and chairman Steve Durham, listen to public comment at the State Board of Education's September meeting.

When Rebecca McClellan joins the State Board of Education in January, Democrats will have partisan control of the board for the first time in nearly 50 years.

But what that means is uncertain given that the party is far from united on education issues.

While the Democrats share a desire for fewer culture war battles and a greater emphasis on the needs of Colorado’s most vulnerable students, they differ on issues such as the viability of Colorado’s existing academic standards and the role of charter schools in public education.

And it’s unclear where McClellan, a former city councilwoman from Centennial, fits into the mix. McClellan won the support from two distinct camps inside the education community that don’t always see eye-to-eye: the state’s largest teachers union and Democrats for Education Reform.

Chalkbeat interviewed the Democratic members of the state board and observers to get a sense of how things might change with the balance of power flipped. Here’s what we learned.

It’s unclear who will lead the board.

Conventional wisdom would suggest that Angelika Schroeder, a Democrat from Boulder, would take over as chairwoman since she currently serves as the board’s vice chair.

Schroeder, who is recovering from heart surgery, declined to comment on whether she wants the job. Meanwhile, two of her Democratic colleagues, Val Flores of Denver and Jane Goff of Lakewood, say they are considering a bid to be chair.

“I believe I’d be a good contender for that position,” Flores said.

“I’m thinking about where I could be the most effective,” Goff said. “Maybe it’s being chair, maybe it’s not.”

Goff said she hopes that regardless of which Democrat is elected chair, a Republican can serve as vice chair. Before the most recent setup, Republicans filled both the chair and vice chair positions while their party held power.

“I think things have gone smoothly,” she said of the board’s current leadership structure. “Maybe more so than we expected with a Democrat and Republican.”

Current board chairman Steve Durham, a Colorado Springs Republican lobbyist and former lawmaker, did not respond to requests for comment.

A shift in control likely won’t change the board’s plans for the state’s lowest-performing schools or the state’s education plan. But the review of Colorado’s academic standards could get interesting.

The state board is working on three major priorities: figuring out what to do about the state’s lowest performing schools, developing the state’s federally required education plan and launching a review of the state’s academic standards.

The board has been working with state education department officials for months to create a process to address the state’s lowest-performing schools that have not improved enough under a five-year timeline. Now the board must begin handing out sanctions, which could include shutting down schools or turning them over to charter operators.

That process, which will include public hearings and recommendations from department officials, is likely to stay in place.

McClellan said she’s planning to weigh heavily what the schools have to say.

“My goal is to really give heavy weight to local input,” she said.

The education department is also far along in crafting a plan to comply with the nation’s new education law, the Every Student Succeeds Act. The department is overseeing a variety of committees that include teachers, school leaders and activists in writing the plan addressing issues such as the state’s poorest schools and teacher training.

“ESSA is the most fundamental thing the state board is going to deal with in the next five years,” said Jen Walmer, the Colorado state director for Democrats for Education Reform, who backed McClellan.

The state is already in compliance with most of the new federal law and much of the plan is based on what’s already in place. If the state did want to dramatically alter course, that would need to come from the legislature, not the state board.

The state’s review of the academic standards could be a very different story, however. A clear process has not been articulated yet. Both parties have divisions when it comes to the standards, which include the Common Core State Standards.

Dumping the Common Core has been a rallying cry for some Republicans and Democrats, for different reasons. However, classrooms across the state have been teaching the standards for more than five years and many in the field hope the state does not do an about-face.

Flores has been an outspoken critic of the standards, while Schroeder has defended them. McClellan has not taken a position on the standards, only saying that she’ll follow the advice of those in the field.

“Val is a real wild card,” said Kerrie Dallman, president of the Colorado Education Association, the teachers union. “We’re very likely to see agreement between Angelika and Jane. I think it’s too early to tell where Rebecca will fall.”

Some Democrats want to “improve” the image of the board by staying focused on the big issues.

During the last two years, the state board has made more headlines over issues such as whether to allow high schools to sell diet soda and whether students should take surveys that ask them about their health decisions than academic matters.

Goff hopes Democratic control will change that.

“The challenge for all of us is to focus,” she said. “I’m hoping we can veer around some of these surprise issues that pop up that may or may not be relevant.”

The board in recent years has been hard-pressed to identify any sort of measurable goals or initiatives, in part because board members have resigned or were forced out by term-limits. And the department has had three education commissioners in two years.

The only major accomplishment the board has under its belt is advocating a student data privacy bill that won unanimous support from the state legislature.

“Will the board lead?” asked Van Schoales, CEO of A+ Colorado, an education reform advocacy group. “The board hasn’t led on improving Colorado schools. There has been no leadership on improving schools since this board has been in control and in the last two commissioners.”

Goff said the board should meet to articulate its goals and vision.

Will Katy Anthes stay in her role as education chief? A lot of people hope she will.

Praise for interim education commissioner Katy Anthes is nearly universal and bipartisan. Regardless of the election result, observers were hoping Anthes, who stepped into the role in May, would stay well beyond the end of the 2017 legislative session as she’s promised.

Since 2015, the department has suffered a string of high-profile resignations, including two commissioners. Anthes was appointed interim in part to stop the exodus of education department staff.

STEM in Colorado

Colorado lawmakers are stepping in to help prepare students for the state’s booming tech sector

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Students at Northglenn High School who are studying biomedical science work on an assignment. The class is part of the school's STEM offerings.

More Colorado students could be building smartphone apps by the end of next school year.

In an effort to prepare students for the state’s booming technology job market, lawmakers are considering three bills that would beef up access to computer science classes and provide students with new credentials after they leave high school.

A Chalkbeat analysis last year found that only about two out of every seven students in Colorado have access to courses in STEM — short for science, technology, engineering and math.

The bipartisan bills could change that, increasing access to computer science courses for the state’s black, Latino and rural students, and — for the first time — begin to define what a quality STEM program is.

The first bill scheduled to be debated by the House Education Committee on Monday would require schools to include technology in lessons alongside traditional subjects, such as English and civics.

It would also require the education department to create lessons to help educators teach computer science as a standalone course, and set up a $500,000 grant program to help train them.

“Kids need to be up to speed on these things in order to function in the current marketplace,” said Senate President Kevin Grantham, a Canon City Republican and one of the bill’s sponsors, along with Speaker Crisanta Duran, a Denver Democrat. “The more they’re attuned to the technology of the times — all the better. It will help them in college and getting their job and careers.”

The technology sector is the fastest growing in Colorado. There are an estimated 13,517 open computing jobs in the state, according to Colorado Succeeds, an education reform advocacy group that represents the state’s business community.

Some states have already made the shift to include technology in their learning standards. In Arkansas, which made the change in 2015, officials say the new standards have already started to break down stereotypes about who can do computer science.

“What we’re trying to do is to make computer science a normal part of their academic lives,” said Anthony Owen, the state director for computer science education in Arkansas. “When we make it normal for everyone, it’s abnormal for no one.”

A second bill under consideration in Colorado would make mostly technical changes to the state’s new P-Tech schools, a model that mirrors a New York City school that partners with IBM to give students work experience and a path to an associate’s degree while in high school.

The model allows students to stay in high school for up to six years — which has caused schools that house P-Tech programs to worry about their graduation rates.

House Bill 1194 would change the way the state calculates graduation rates to avoid penalizing schools that have P-Tech students enrolled for an extra two years.

The third bill, House Bill 1201, would create a special kind of diploma that shows colleges and employers that its holder is proficient in STEM subjects. To get the diploma, students would have to take a variety of STEM classes, earn high marks on standardized math exams, and demonstrate their science skills through a special project they complete their senior year.

“I want to make sure, across Colorado, that we have clear expectations and that they’re equitable expectations,” said Rep. James Coleman, a Denver Democrat and sponsor of the bill. “All of our schools are doing a good job preparing our kids, but I want to be specific in terms of what our colleges and workforce is seeking in our graduates.”

The bill, however, stops short of defining what coursework students must complete. Local schools will decide that. That was important to Jess Buller, the principal of West Grand’s K-8 school who helped write the bill. He noted that different schools and districts offer different STEM courses.

“We want that STEM endorsement to be that sign of distinction, that a student completed a program and does not need the remedial work that might be required for other students,” Buller said. “The bill is specific enough, but flexible enough.”

Morgan Kempf, the STEM science specialist for Pueblo City Schools, said she is excited to offer such a credential.

In the absence of a special diploma, Pueblo Central High School, the city’s STEM school, has sought outside accreditation to give weight to its STEM courses. The school has also started handing out school letters, usually a tradition reserved for varsity athletes, to exceptional STEM students.

“It’s an extra stamp of approval that recognizes and appreciates what they’re doing and at the level of rigor they’re doing it at,” Kempf said. “That stamp of approval lets students and potential employers know they’re meeting expectations.”

Week In Review

Betsy DeVos’s second week at the U.S. Education Department: What you need to know

PHOTO: Department of Education

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos’s second full week on the job was characterized by mixed messages.

She made the department’s first big policy shift, but might not have wanted to. She criticized teachers and said they were doing a great job. And some education leaders criticized her policies while at the same offering to work with her.

It’s a lot of news, and we’re here to help you keep up. Some highlights:

She a lost an internal battle to keep Obama-era protections for transgender students — though it also became a PR win. Accounts of the fight come from the New York Times, which said DeVos couldn’t outmaneuver Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who wanted to kill the old guidance requiring schools to allow transgender students to use the bathrooms of their choice. That prompted some headlines like this one, from Quartz: “Betsy DeVos—of all people—is fighting Donald Trump to protect transgender students.”

One interpretation, courtesy of Justin Cohen: “The more cynical way to view this story, is that the administration was always going to rescind this guidance, and that letting DeVos disagree publicly with Jeff Sessions would give her a temporary, harmless PR coup after a bruising confirmation process.” If that’s true, “Outside political pressure matters, and in this case, that pressure might have forced the hand of a cabinet secretary.”

The New Yorker’s take: “But trying to do something good—if that is, indeed, what DeVos tried to do—deserves no praise when the end result is to be complicit in something bad.”

We’re seeing the influence of others in Trump’s inner circle. Sessions is one — and Education Week explains that his influence over the transgender guidance led to some hand-wringing about whether Democrats should have directed more of their anti-DeVos fervor at the attorney general during his confirmation fight.

Steve Bannon, Trump’s chief strategist and the former head of Breitbart News, described Trump’s agenda in a speech at the Conservative Political Action Conference as having three parts: national security, economic nationalism, and the “destruction of the administrative state.” Trump’s Cabinet nominees “were selected for a reason, and that is deconstruction,” he said. And in her own on-stage interview at CPAC, DeVos said she thinks the federal government should have “as light a touch as possible” on education.

Some education leaders say they are open to working with her. Two leading education officials say they don’t support DeVos’s outlook or policy priorities but will sit down with her anyway. Randi Weingarten, head of the country’s second largest teachers union, has committed to touring two schools with DeVos — one that she picks and one that DeVos chooses. “You have to talk, and you have to engage,” Weingarten told the New Republic.

New York City Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña sounded a similar note this week: “I work with everyone,” she said. “I will have conversations with anyone and everyone to ensure that the work we’re doing here is being celebrated and recognized, and we’ll see what time will bring.”

And one notable leader who has offered public support for DeVos, Success Academy charter schools founder Eva Moskowitz, is facing forceful pushback from her own staffers, according to Politico.

That comes after DeVos got into trouble with teachers — then tried to mitigate the damage. DeVos’s comments criticizing teachers at the first public school she visited for being in “receive mode” spread via social media last weekend, drawing sharp criticism from the school itself.

DeVos responded, “Great teachers deserve freedom and flexibility, not to constantly be on the receiving end of government dictates.”

But the episode appeared to cut off goodwill from one education leader: Kaya Henderson, the former head of D.C.’s public schools. Her response on Twitter started with, “Sorry lady. Tried to give you the benefit of the doubt.”

DeVos’s popularity is low but on the rise. A poll found that public opinion of DeVos is back to pre-confirmation hearing levels — with a third of Americans seeing her favorably. During the confirmation process, just 12 percent of Americans viewed her favorably, the same poll found.