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.

listening tour

We asked six Colorado school board members what they want from the state’s next governor. Here’s what they said.

Democratic gubernatorial candidates Donna Lynne, Noel Ginsburg and Cary Kennedy at a candidate forum hosted by the Colorado Association of School Boards. (Photo by Nic Garcia)

Late last week, nine candidates for Colorado governor came together to talk education, addressing an annual fall conference of school board members.

Now, we’re giving some of those audience members a chance to speak up.

Before the gubernatorial hopefuls took the stage, Chalkbeat recorded interviews with a half-dozen school board members who represent districts across the state. Our question to them: What are the big education questions you hope the next governor will take on?

Not surprisingly, funding challenges came up time and again.

One school board member asked for a more predictable budget. Another asked for schools to get their fair share of annual increases in new tax dollars. One went so far as to say the next governor would be a chicken if he or she didn’t take on reforming the state’s tax code.

We also heard a desire for leadership on solving teacher shortages, expanding vocational training and rethinking the state’s school accountability system.

Here are the six gubernatorial wishes we heard from Colorado’s school board members:

Reform TABOR to send more money to schools

Wendy Pottorff, Limon Public Schools

Since the Great Recession, Colorado schools have lost hundreds of thousands of dollars. And while the state legislature has tried to close its education funding shortfall, lawmakers haven’t been able to keep up. Getting in the way, Pottorff says, is the state’s Taxpayer Bill of Rights, or TABOR.

Change the conversation about public schools


Paul Reich, Telluride School District

Reich says public schools are under attack under the false premise that they’re failing — and that isn’t helping the state recruit bright young teachers. He said the next governor must change the conversation about schools to make teaching a more desirable profession.

Provide a clear budget forecast

Anne Guettler, Garfield School District

Approving a school district’s budget is one of the many responsibilities of a Colorado school board. That’s a tall challenge when the state’s budget is constantly in flux, Guettler says. She hopes the next governor can help provide a clearer economic forecast for schools.

Rethink school accountability to include students and parents

Greg Piotraschke, Brighton 27J

Colorado schools are subject to annual quality reviews by the state’s education department. And it’s time for the state to rethink what defines a high-quality school, Piotraschke said. He suggested the governor could help rethink everything from how the state uses standardized tests to how to incorporate parents and students into the review process.

Give schools more resources to train the state’s high-tech workforce

Nora Brown, Colorado Springs District 11

In light of Colorado growing tech sector, several gubernatorial candidates have come out in support of more technical training for Colorado students. But that costs money, Brown says. The Colorado Springs school board member said promising better job training for high school students without more resources is empty.

Remember there’s a difference between urban and rural schools

Mark Hillman, Burlington School District

Crafting statewide policy is an onerous task in Colorado, given the diversity of the state’s 178 school districts. Hillman said the next governor must remember that any legislation he or she signs will play out 178 different ways, so they must be careful to not put more undue pressure on the state’s smallest school districts.

Colorado Votes 2018

Five things we learned when Colorado’s gubernatorial candidates got on the same stage to talk about education

Colorado Republicans running for governor addressed some of the state's school board members at a forum hosted by the state's association of school boards. From left are George Brauchler, Steve Barlock, Greg Lopez, Victor Mitchell and Doug Robinson. (Photo by Nic Garcia/Chalkbeat)

Nine Republicans and Democrats hoping to become Colorado’s next governor offered contrasting views Friday of the state’s public schools to an audience of more than 100 local school board members.

Most of the five Republicans told the crowd of locally elected officials — who are charged by the state’s constitution with governing Colorado’s public schools — that their programs were in need of improvement and innovation, and that they were there to help.

The four Democrats hoping to succeed fellow Democrat Gov. John Hickenlooper, who is term-limited, pledged to reform the state’s tax code to send more money to schools.

The candidates spoke at the annual fall delegation conference of the state’s association of school boards.It was the first forum of its kind to address education issues exclusively this election election cycle.

Unlike previous elections, Colorado’s public education system has been a key policy debate early in the campaign. Several candidates, especially Democrats, have worked on education issues before.

Here are our five takeaways from the forum:

The Republican candidates didn’t pull any punches when they said the state’s public schools were in need of improvement — and several said that they were the ones to do it.

From District Attorney George Brauchler to businessman Doug Robinson, every Republican candidate said one part or another of the state’s school system needed to do better.

“Education is life itself,” said former state lawmaker Victor Mitchell. “And there is no greater challenge facing our state than 50 percent of our at-risk kids who graduate can’t complete college-level course work.”

Both Mitchell and Robinson pointed to their experience as entrepreneurs as evidence that they could help set the state’s schools free of what they consider unnecessary red tape. Brauchler called for empowering teachers and parents.

Every Democrat and several Republicans agreed that the state’s schools were in a “funding crisis.” But they offered very different paths forward.

It was an easy question for Democrats. Businessman Noel Ginsburg, former state Sen. Michael Johnston, former state treasurer Cary Kennedy and Lt. Gov. Donna Lynne were in lock-step that the state’s schools are in need of more money.

“If we don’t fundamentally solve this crisis, the rest of the issues don’t matter,” Johnston said.

Former state Sen. Michael Johnston and Lt. Gov. Donna Lynne talk after a forum for gubernatorial candidates. Both are Democrats. (Photo by Nic Garcia/Chalkbeat)

Johnston and Kennedy forcefully pledged to take on the state’s Taxpayer Bill of Rights, which limits how much tax revenue the state can collect and requires voter approval to raise taxes.

Lynne was more tempered. While she acknowledged tax reform was needed, she said wanted a legislative committee working on school finance to complete its work before suggesting any overhauls.

Greg Lopez, the former mayor of Parker and a small business owner, was the only GOP candidate who said he would take on the state’s complicated tax laws. If elected, he promised to establish a committee to send a reform proposal to voters.

Robinson and Brauchler acknowledged that schools were in a funding crunch. But they stopped short of saying they’d send more money to schools.

Mitchell said “he wasn’t sure” if there was a funding crisis, but added, “The system should be reformed before it’s fully funded.”

PERA, the state’s employee retirement program, could play a prominent issue in the election — especially for Republicans.

Earlier at the conference, school board members received a briefing on a proposed overhaul to the state’s retirement program, which includes school district employees.

While the situation is not as dire as it was a decade ago, the program’s governing board has become so increasingly worried about unfunded liabilities that it’s asking state lawmakers to pass a reform package to provide more financial stability.

Two Republicans, Brauchler and Steve Barlock, who co-chaired President Trump’s campaign in Colorado, said PERA was in crisis. Barlock warned school board members that their budgets were in jeopardy as lawmakers fiddle with the system.

Neither went into any detail about how they hoped to see the retirement program made more fiscally stable. But watch for this issue to gain greater traction on the campaign trail, especially as Republican state Treasurer Walker Stapleton ramps up his gubernatorial campaign, and as lawmakers begin to wrestle with PERA reforms next year. (Stapleton did not attend the forum.)

Some candidates offered careful responses to a question about school choice. Others, not so much.

Every Democrat and one Republican, Brauchler, said they respected a family’s right to choose the best school for their children. But that choice, they said, should not come at the expense of traditional, district-run schools.

“I’m concerned that we’d build a system where the success of some schools is coming at the expense of other schools,” Kennedy said.

Republicans strongly supported charter schools, and in some cases, vouchers that use taxpayer dollars to pay for private schools. Robinson called on creating new ways to authorize charter schools. Mitchell said he wanted to repeal a provision in the state’s constitution that has been used to rebuff private school vouchers.

There’s no party line over rural schools.

Republicans and Democrats alike said the state needed to step up to help its rural schools, which are typically underfunded compared to schools along the Front Range. They need more teachers, better infrastructure and fewer regulations, the candidates said.

“We need to get rural areas into the modern age,” Robinson said.