on the record

Colorado’s new education commissioner on the urban-rural divide, turnaround schools and the teacher shortage

Katy Anthes (photo by Nic Garcia).

Katy Anthes is known as a consensus builder and a steady hand.

As Anthes begins her tenure as Colorado education commissioner, those traits will be put to the test. There are no shortage of divides over education policy, and the state has plenty on the agenda.

Anthes was serving as the education department’s chief of staff eight months ago when she put in her notice of resignation — part of a period of upheaval at the department that saw a wave of resignations.

She changed her mind and stayed to become interim commissioner after Rich Crandall’s abrupt resignation. (Anthes has declined to discuss what prompted her to want to leave).

In her first interview with Chalkbeat since dropping the “interim” from her title, Anthes discussed her approach to understanding the nation’s new education law, how she plans to work with the state’s lowest performing schools to boost learning and what equity in education means to her.

This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

Congratulations. It’s been quite the year for you. First you resigned as chief-of-staff and eight months later, you’re the commissioner of education. Walk me through what it’s been like for you the last few months. How did you get from there to here — personally?

Situations change, circumstances change. I’ve always been really committed to the state of Colorado and education issues in Colorado. So no matter where my path was going to take me, I’d still be working on those issues and committed to those issues. It was a bit of a surprise, too, after giving my resignation, to step in. But sometimes opportunities present themselves and you have to think deeply about those opportunities and I did.

It was announced earlier this year that you had planned to stay through May. And then just weeks later, it was announced you got the job permanently. What changed?

It was an ongoing process and discussion. We were working well together with the board and it was really a board decision. It was up to them. I can’t speak to their internal process. But when that discussion arose around, “Do you want to be permanent?”’ I was excited to take the opportunity.

You’re the first woman to lead the department since 1951. What does that mean to you?

I was surprised to hear that. It’s exciting. I’m honored to be in that role for sure. I also know I work with a lot of incredibly talented amazing women leaders, so it doesn’t feel that different or unique to me. I hope I do it well.

The urban and rural split is Colorado’s education community is sharp these days. You see it in the funding debate, the testing debate, the accountability debate, the teacher shortage. What steps is the department taking to really think through these different issues and positions?

That’s definitely a real tension and a real issue. I think it’s something we’ve always grappled with, too. Our role as the department is to implement the law the legislature passes with integrity and fidelity, and also implement the regulations the State Board of Education passes with integrity.

We definitely, and I as the leader of the department, always want to have the conversation, “What do those policies and those implementation practices look like for either a rural district or an urban district?” They certainly are different contexts.

What we’ve done so far in the last seven months, and when I was chief of staff and in other roles here, is look at those practices and see where can we support rural districts a little more, knowing that they don’t have all that personnel to submit their data reports. They don’t have a long line of teachers waiting to take all the hard-to-staff jobs. I think we’ve been investigating that in terms of data reporting — how do we streamline it, make it easier for rural districts.

Let’s talk about the new federal education law, the Every Student Succeeds Act. Your predecessor, Rich Crandall, had this idea of using ESSA to completely reshape or reimagine Colorado’s education landscape. Under your leadership, it’s been a much more tempered approach. You’ve repeatedly said the Colorado is in compliance and there probably isn’t a need for new legislation. Why this approach?

I think some of it was around understanding ESSA. For all the good intentions of going big and rethinking the landscape, we had a landscape here.

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

I think it was important that we do some education. We actually had a waiver from (the previous federal education law), No Child Left Behind. If you went from what are the rules and regulations under No Child Left Behind to what are the rules under ESSA, that would be a big shift.

But Colorado already did a big shift. We weren’t operating under the same kind of constraints that No Child Left Behind outlined. (The state received waivers from certain aspects of the law). So the shift you’ve seen, and the more tempered approach you’ve seen, is because we have a context. We got those waivers early on.

And we have a state legislative framework we’re already working under. It’s not necessarily the federal law that we have to pay a lot of attention to. We have our own state laws that talk a lot about those same things.

If we wanted to go bigger within ESSA, most of those changes would have to be taken up by our legislators. We wouldn’t be able to take that up as a department because we have to follow the law of our state.

You’ve said we probably don’t need new legislation to comply with ESSA. Do you think the state’s lawmakers are going to listen to you?

(Laughs.) That’s a question for them. But you know, I think we’ve been in ongoing dialogue with them. And we’re learning, too. It’s a long law. And the regulations are now coming out in pieces and parts. We’re making sure everything matches up. I don’t think we need any major changes (to be in compliance).

But legislators would have to make that decision if they want to make any changes to the state framework.

The state board has raised concerns about waivers to state law, especially around the law that governs how districts measure if Colorado’s youngest students are ready for school. Talk to me about the department’s concerns and what kind of legislative fixes you hope to see.

I’ll follow the lead from the board. It’s the governing entity that decides if it wants to take any stances on policy. I am in conversations about that. I think they have a balanced concern when they say, “Yeah, we want to provide some flexibility when it makes sense and when we can learn from it. But we also want to know that we have some timeframes for the districts to come back and report on progress. What are the district’s learning?” I think that’s what I’ve heard from the board so far and that’s what they’re interested in.

The teacher shortage: The department really doesn’t have a lot of authority to help in this issue. But can we expect to see anything in the coming year out of the department to help address this issue?

It’s definitely something high on my radar screen. It’s a concern I’m hearing from rural districts and from some on the Front Range, too. It’s something I want to explore and talk to the board about and see how we could be helpful. My personal approach to those types of things is being a convener — to have a discussion and collaborate with folks about different ideas.

You’ve been visiting with the state’s lowest performing schools and districts as they approach the end of the state’s accountability timeline. I know from talking with some of your staff that you want to find solutions to boost learning in collaboration with these districts. But are you also prepared to make recommendations to the state board that might go against the districts’ wishes?

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Aurora Central High students discuss the school’s future in a leadership class. The high school is one of the state’s lowest-performing schools.

If the situation calls for it — absolutely. Our north star is around supporting student achievement and increasing student achievement. So we want to work in collaboration with school districts. Each situation will be different. Each context will be different. The trajectory of each district will be different. So I, along with the staff and others, are taking all of that into consideration. No two recommendations will be alike.

What are you hearing when you talk to these schools and districts?

I’m hearing that they have a sense of urgency, that there is a lot of hard work being put into their efforts, and in some cases there is some success. But turnaround is not fast work. There is no silver bullet that fixes it all. So I’m hearing they have to approach this work from multiple perspectives. Sometimes there are starts and stops. You try something and it doesn’t work. It’s hard, complicated work. But I’m hearing they are committed to doing whatever they can.

The list of schools facing possible sanctions includes a mix of urban and rural. Is there a common denominator?

I don’t think there is a common denominator. You know, education is harder than rocket science. It’s complex. It’s humans and human behavior, and it’s emotion and learning and brain development. It’s about additional risk factors. It’s about all of these things. And these things present themselves differently in different communities. So I don’t think there is a common denominator. It’s really contextual. And I think the support and the recommendations have to be contextual.

Do you believe all Colorado students have access to a quality education?

I think we are all striving for that. I think there are probably differences in context and communities. And I think that truly is our north star — that quality is happening. I think that is something that the legislature and the board and me and others across the state are striving for. There are probably places where it’s not all the same, and the opportunities are not all the same. And that’s part of the crux of the conversation moving forward.

I think having the conversation is important. I do think that raising issues of equity, and what equity means, what does equal access mean — that will be an important thing for me to do, and to have that open dialogue to get those different perspectives.

What does equity mean to you?

That’s a tough question. I think equity does mean that every student, no matter where they live, no matter what district they’re in, what ZIP code they’re in, has the opportunity to reach their potential and the opportunity to go wherever they want to go in their future: a career, college, their family business. And that they had an opportunity during their schooling to explore their different passions and enhance those passions.

Any predictions for how the education landscape may change in 2017?

I’m not a prediction person. We know every year we have somewhere between 50 and 100 education bills that come across. So I’m sure the education landscape will continue to shift. And I think we’re up to the challenge as it shifts, and up to the task to make sure all the different perspectives are heard.

Budget woes

In budget address, Illinois governor J.B. Pritzker proposes modest education increases

J.B. Pritzker speaks during a round table discussion with high school students at a creative workspace for women on October 1, 2018 in Chicago, Illinois.

Even while calling his proposed budget “austere” and speaking plainly about the yawning deficit he inherited, Illinois’ new governor, J.B. Pritzker, struck an optimistic chord when describing how he plans to plow more money into schools.

His fiscal year 2020 budget would allocate a total of $7.2 billion for K-12 funding, including an extra $25 million in addition to the mandated $350 million annual minimum increase under the state’s funding formula.

“There’s a focus here on trying to not only rebuild from the damage that was done over the last four years but also to set us up for growing the economy, which happens in part because of our investments in education,” Pritzker said, nodding to a nearly two-year budget stalemate under his predecessor, Republican Bruce Rauner, that left the state with billions in unpaid bills.

During Wednesday’s speech, the governor said the long-term solution to the state’s budget deficits  was a progressive income tax that would take more money from Illinois’ wealthiest residents.

In the shorter term, though, Pritzker’s budget proposal includes an additional $25 million for Illinois schools, an increase of $21 million in special education grants, and a $5 million boost for career and technical education programs for high school students.

Also in the proposal: $50 million in need-based college grants, another $35 million in university scholarships, and $2 million to cover waived fees for low-income students taking Advanced Placement tests.

Pritzker’s budget would allocate an additional $100 million to the Early Childhood Block Grant. That would bring the state investment in early childhood education to $594 million next year.

The governor Wednesday also proposed freezing a tax credit for businesses and individuals who contributed scholarships for private schools. Critics argued the program cut into state income taxes that would otherwise help fund public schools. Supporters, including Rauner, said it was one of the few ways struggling families could afford private schools.

Pritzker noted that given Illinois’ economic reality, there is a limit to how much cost-cutting alone could do. Instead, he promised to pass a budget that would include an increase in funding across the board as a way to invest in the state’s future, with a particular focus on education.

“We must stop slashing programs that build future prosperity,” Pritzker said in his budget address. “Over the long term, we must make investments in education, livable wages, innovative human service programs and job training.”

In unveiling his budget, the governor spoke plainly about the state’s dire fiscal situation: a $3.2 billion budget deficit and $15 billion in debt from unpaid bills — an amount that is equal to funding “free four-year university tuition for more than 12,000 students,” he said.

Nearly two years without a state budget under the previous governor prompted a massive backlog of funding in the K-12 education budget that the state is still struggling to fill, on top of an $8.1 billion backlog of unpaid bills across state agencies.

A 2017 overhaul in the formula Illinois uses to fund schools put the state on a 10-year path to closing the more than $6.8 billion gap between what it spends on K-12 public schools and the projected cost of adequate school funding. In January, the state board of education asked for $15 billion in public schools funding.

“It’s a very teensy step and better an increase than not,” Wendy Katten with Raise Your Hand Action, a parent group advocating for public education, said of the increased funding for K-12 schools. “But that’s nowhere near the $7 billion that’s needed for basic adequacy, let alone the $2 billion needed for [Chicago Public Schools].”   

Pritzker’s proposed additions are modest, to be sure, but unions representing teachers in Chicago and statewide, as well as disability advocates, said any additional investment in education is most welcome.

“It’s clear that he understands the importance of great public schools and higher education and is committed to fulfilling the state’s responsibility to invest in them,” the president of the Illinois Federation of Teachers, Dan Montgomery, said.

And the Chicago Teachers Union asked that Chicago Public Schools to use any extra state funding to lower class sizes and increase special education staffing.

“The increase in evidence-based funding over the statutory minimum recognizes that Illinois’ challenges with education funding equity are fundamentally rooted in the need to drive more resources to students, like those in CPS, who have suffered from decades of insufficient and unequal school funding,” Jesse Sharkey, president of the union, said.

Chris Yun, the education policy analyst with Access Living, which advocates for people with disabilities, said she was heartened to see a bump for special education funding, noting: “Students with disabilities are often forgotten because the number is much less than general education students. We have a long way to go, but this is just step one.”

Pritzker told Chalkbeat in October that contributing more money to education would require solving the state’s longstanding budget woes. At that time, Illinois was expected to enter fiscal year 2019 with a budget deficit of more than $1 billion. That figure has now more than tripled.

Its problems are compounded significantly by its pension responsibilities, making it increasingly difficult to allocate money to other needs, said Ralph Martire, director of the Center for Tax and Budget Accountability.

“The payments are jumping at levels our system can’t afford,” Martire said.

Pritzker on Wednesday said he would “smooth the pension ramp by modestly extending it,” which hints at a plan to push payments off further.

While Pritzker’s progressive taxation plan has a steady thrum of support from Democratic lawmakers, the measure has not yet passed the state legislature.

Pritzker acknowledged that his 2020 budget was built on a tax structure that he still considered regressive and said he hoped to change that going forward.  

“Not only is our tax system unfair, it’s also inadequate to solve our long-term financial challenges,” he said. “Make no bones about it, I choose to stand up for working families and will lead the charge to finally enact a fair tax system in Illinois.”

Cassie Creswell, a board member of public education advocacy group Raise Your Hand Action, said the budget address was a positive indicator of Pritzker’s support for revamping taxation, but feared “the rates that will be proposed to make it politically palatable won’t make it the rate we need to fund stuff in the state.”

interview time

Four candidates left make their case before commission for open Shelby County Schools board seat

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Interim school board candidate Aubrey Howard presents before the Shelby County Commission.

Four remaining candidates for a vacated Memphis school board seat had their chance to tell the Shelby County Commission why they are the right person for the job on Wednesday afternoon.

They were the remaining viable candidates after six applicants were disqualified for living outside of District 2, the area the interim board member will represent in Shelby County Schools. Chalkbeat reported on Monday that six of the candidates live outside of the district. The appointee will fill the seat Teresa Jones vacated following her recent appointment as a municipal court judge, and will serve until the term expires in August 2020.

The four applicants are (We’ve linked to their full applications.):

  • Erskine Gillespie, an account manager at the Lifeblood Mid-South Regional Blood Bank.
  • Althea Greene, a retired Memphis educator and pastor of Real Life Ministries.
  • Aubrey Howard, the executive director of governmental and legislative affairs in the Shelby County Trustee’s Office.
  • Charles McKinney, the Neville Frierson Bryan Chair of Africana Studies and associate professor of history at Rhodes College.

The interim member will join the school board at a crucial time, amid the search for a new superintendent to replace Dorsey Hopson, who left the district in December. Currently, Joris Ray is serving as interim superintendent.

Commissioners peppered the candidates with questions on big issues facing the district, including school choice, the budget process, managing the district’s aging buildings and underenrollment, and how they could improve the relationship between the district and the county commission, the funding body for schools.

In their pitches to commissioners, applicants touted their previous experiences with K-12 education, such as work with nonprofits and curriculum development, and their ties to Memphis schools. “I’m a product of Memphis schools,” was a phrase said again and again.

Most applicants expressed general support for charter schools, which have grown significantly in recent years in Memphis, but Gillespie said he believed “the influx of our charter school program is an issue that must be addressed.” McKinney sits on the board of a charter high school, and Greene and Howard said they had no issues with charter schools as a way to serve individual needs of students.

On the relationship with the county commission, Greene said: “I think it’s important that as a school board member, I’m at county commission meetings. And work as a bridge to educate children and give them the best education we can, and we know that costs money.”

Gillespie was asked by Commissioner Willie Brooks what he thinks of alternative schools, which serve students who have been expelled or suspended from traditional schools for behavioral reasons. There are several alternative schools in District 2.

“I think alternative schools are truly something necessary,” Gillespie said. “They can provide a trauma-informed response for our students.”

The questionnaire given to each candidate asked about TNReady, the state’s embattled testing system. Commissioner Michael Whaley, who chairs the education committee, asked Howard to expand on his answer that the test “didn’t work.”

“Those decisions about testing and teacher evaluations would be better met if they were local and not state controlled,” Howard replied. “For sure, the state wasted a huge amount of money with the companies they hired that failed us.”

Gillespie and McKinney described aging and often near-empty school buildings as a large issue facing the district. The interim board member would help analyze a massive district plan left by former superintendent Hopson that would consolidate 28 Memphis schools into 10 new buildings.

McKinney said the school board should be having regular conversations with the commission and the neighborhoods it serves on how demographic shifts have impacted the county, creating underenrollment in some schools.

“For the school board, those conversations need to be ongoing, so when it comes time to make a decision about whether or not to close a school, it’s not coming as a surprise,” McKinney said.

Three people from Memphis Lift, a parent advocacy group, spoke in support of McKinney. The group’s leader, Sarah Carpenter, said he’s been a consistent figure in her neighborhood of North Memphis.

Shelby County Commission
PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Commissioner Willie Brooks (left) asked candidates about how they would work with the county commission.

“I’m tired of people coming to our community when they want a seat and we don’t see them anymore,” Carpenter said. “Our children’s lives are on the line.”

Commissioner Edmund Ford, himself a former teacher, said after the interviews he would like to see an educator on the board.

“There were a lot of things I saw as a teacher, when I would go to the school board to ask for their assistance, that I would not receive,” Ford said. “Personally, I would like to see someone who has been there and done that.”

After hearing from the candidates, the commission voted to move the item to its Monday meeting, where commissioners will vote on a successor.

For more details, see our Twitter thread from the hearing.