Colorado schools chief to lawmakers: Don’t expect total overhaul of state laws just yet

Colorado’s education chief told lawmakers hoping for a total overhaul of the state’s education laws not to expect too much, too fast on Thursday.

Speaking to a joint committee of legislators studying the nation’s new federal education law, Interim Education Commissioner Katy Anthes said that current law would “form the backbone” of the new plan that Colorado must come up with by next spring.

Her statements tempered some expectations that the state might be about to make radical shifts to policies that have raised concerns in recent years, like the state’s academic standards and school accountability rules.

But both Anthes and State Board of Education Chairman Steve Durham also told the panel that they hope the federal law would allow the state to rethink some of its own laws, too. Just not quite yet.

“The real question is: Does the new law provide for the General Assembly to change the inputs you’ve given to us at this point,” Durham said, referring to current state law. “Right now, I’m not sure. But I hope the answer is yes.”

Most of the state’s current education laws were passed between 2008 and 2012, in part to be competitive for federal grant dollars.

The six-member legislative committee, which met for the first time Thursday, is meeting through the rest of the year to study the new federal law, the Every Student Succeeds Act, which was signed into law by President Obama last December.

The new law was initially praised for the freedom it provides states to chart their own course on policies around testing, academic standards, and teacher quality. In Colorado, that could mean dropping the Common Core State Standards or a new teacher evaluation law.

However, some in Colorado are skeptical how much flexibility the state will really have. Colorado officials have called the U.S. Department of Education proposed guidelines on how the law is to be put in practice a federal overreach.

Anthes’s remarks on Thursday satisfied some lawmakers, including state Sen. Michael Merrifield, a Colorado Springs Democrat.

Before Anthes addressed the committee, Merrifield said he was concerned that the General Assembly would be shut out of the process of creating the state’s plan.

But after Anthes’s testimony, he said, “I feel a lot better than I did a few hours ago about the process.”

Others are still waiting for dramatic change.

State Rep. Jim Wilson, a Salida Republican, said he left disappointed that the department hasn’t already been more aggressive in rethinking policies that many of his rural school districts find burdensome.

“I don’t know about the rest of you,” he said, “but the people in my district aren’t happy with the same ol’ same ol.’”