Hold your horses

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

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Interim Education Commissioner Katy Anthes addresses a joint committee of lawmakers studying the nation's new education laws.

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.’”

Raise your voice

Memphis, what do you want in your next school superintendent?

PHOTO: Kyle Kurlick for Chalkbeat

Tennessee’s largest school district needs a permanent leader. What kind of superintendent do you think Shelby County Schools should be looking for?

Now is the chance to raise your voice. The school board is in the thick of finalizing a national search and is taking bids from search firms. Board members say they want a leader to replace former superintendent Dorsey Hopson in place within 18 months. They have also said they want community input in the process, though board members haven’t specified what that will look like. In the interim, career Memphis educator Joris Ray is at the helm.

Let us know what you think is most important in the next superintendent.  Select responses will be published.

Asking the candidates

How to win over Northwest Side voters: Chicago aldermen candidates hone in on high school plans

PHOTO: Cassie Walker Burke / Chalkbeat Chicago
An audience member holds up a green sign showing support at a forum for Northwest side aldermanic candidates. The forum was sponsored by the Logan Square Neighborhood Association.

The residents filing into the auditorium of Sharon Christa McAuliffe Elementary School Friday wanted to know a few key things from the eager aldermanic candidates who were trying to win their vote.

People wanted to know which candidates would build up their shrinking open-enrollment high schools and attract more students to them.

They also wanted specifics on how the aldermen, if elected, would coax developers to build affordable housing units big enough for families, since in neighborhoods such as Logan Square and Hermosa, single young adults have moved in, rents have gone up, and some families have been pushed out.

As a result, some school enrollments have dropped.

Organized by the Logan Square Neighborhood Association, Friday’s event brought together candidates from six of the city’s most competitive aldermanic races. Thirteen candidates filled the stage, including some incumbents, such as Aldermen Proco “Joe” Moreno (1st  Ward), Carlos Ramirez-Rosa (35th Ward), and Milly Santiago (31st Ward).

They faced tough questions — drafted by community members and drawn at random from a hat — about bolstering high school enrollment, recruiting more small businesses, and paving the way for more affordable housing.

When the audience members agreed with their positions, they waved green cards, with pictures of meaty tacos. When they heard something they didn’t like, they held up red cards, with pictures of fake tacos.

Red cards weren’t raised much. But the green cards filled the air when candidates shared ideas for increasing the pull of area open-enrollment high schools by expanding dual-language programs and the rigorous International Baccalaureate curriculum.

Related: Can a program designed for British diplomats fix Chicago schools? 

“We want our schools to be dual language so people of color can keep their roots alive and keep their connections with their families,” said Rossana Rodriguez, a mother of a Chicago Public Schools’ preschooler and one of challengers to incumbent Deb Mell in the city’s 33rd Ward.  

Mell didn’t appear at the forum, but another candidate vying for that seat did: Katie Sieracki, who helps run a small business. Sieracki said she’d improve schools by building a stronger feeder system between the area’s elementary schools, which are mostly K-8, and the high schools.

“We need to build bridges between our local elementary schools and our high schools, getting buy-in from new parents in kindergarten to third grade, when parents are most engaged in their children’s education,” she said.

Sieracki said she’d also work to design an apprenticeship program that connects area high schools with small businesses.

Green cards also filled the air when candidates pledged to reroute tax dollars that are typically used for developer incentives for school improvement instead.

At the end of the forum, organizers asked the 13 candidates to pledge to vote against new tax increment financing plans unless that money went to schools. All 13 candidates verbally agreed.

Aldermen have limited authority over schools, but each of Chicago’s 50 ward representatives receives a $1.32 million annual slush fund that be used for ward improvements, such as playgrounds, and also can be directed to education needs. And “aldermanic privilege,” a longtime concept in Chicago, lets representatives give the thumbs up or down to developments like new charters or affordable housing units, which can affect school enrollment.

Related: 7 questions to ask your aldermanic candidates about schools

Aldermen can use their position to forge partnerships with organizations and companies that can provide extra support and investment to local schools.

A January poll showed that education was among the top three concerns of voters in Chicago’s municipal election. Several candidates for mayor have recently tried to position themselves as the best candidate for schools in TV ads.