game plan

Does Colorado’s state education plan fall flat? Some who helped write it think so.

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Students line up in the hallway at the Cole Arts and Science Academy in Denver.

While Colorado’s federally required education plan is being celebrated by national observers for changes to the state’s school accountability system and an extensive community engagement process, some advocates who helped shape the document say it falls short of pushing schools forward.

After more than a year of work, the state education department later this month is expected to submit the 145-page document detailing how it will spend federal dollars to better student learning, increase graduation rates and improve teacher quality.

Colorado will be one of the first states to submit such a plan, which also will provide new details on how the state will adhere to requirements under the new federal education law, the Every Student Succeeds Act. Signed into law by President Barack Obama in 2015, the law was designed to give states more authority. Many education officials in Colorado felt the law didn’t fulfill that promise.

Because Colorado was already operating under a waiver from the previous federal law, Colorado classrooms probably won’t notice much change. Many of the state’s reform efforts since 2008 already comply with the new law.

However, the department and State Board of Education are pushing back against one provision of the federal law that requires 95 percent of students take an annual standardized test in English and math.

Colorado law allows parents to opt their students out of those tests. The state board directed the department to inform federal officials that the state could not guarantee that it would be able to comply with that requirement.

It’s unclear how the department will respond. Observers expect the U.S. education department of Secretary Betsy DeVos to give states more leeway than the department during the Obama administration.

A coalition of Colorado education reform and civil rights groups is not happy that the department isn’t holding schools accountable to the testing requirement.

In a letter to the state education department, the coalition said it fears a lax approach to testing will incentivize schools to encourage some students who might not perform well on the tests to skip them.

“The 95 percent participation provision of federal law originated to protect students with the most barriers to success, specifically students with disabilities, by ensuring their inclusion in statewide testing,” the coalition wrote. “As such, we recommend the state count every student in participation rate calculations, including all nonparticipants to increase transparency and demonstrate a concerted effort to assess and report meaningful data about every child.”

That state law provides parents the right to opt out — something the state department doesn’t have authority to change — isn’t justification for the coalition.

“We believe that part of the department’s role is to elevate that conversation and to push on the importance of the 95 participation rate,” said Leslie Colwell, vice president of education initiatives for the Colorado Children’s Campaign.

The coalition is also concerned about changes to how the state measures how many students are at grade level, and how well students are learning English as a second language.

Starting last year, the state began measuring school quality by the average of student scores on the math and English test instead of how many students met or exceeded expectations. That practice is going to continue.

“We’re saying that as long as you’re not doing far worse than everyone else, you’re good,” said Van Schoales, CEO of A-Plus Colorado, a nonprofit education reform group. “We’ve lowered the bar.”

Schoales said using the mean score could be beneficial, but it should be accompanied by how many students are meeting the state’s expectations.

Colorado’s plan lacks long-term goals for English language learners. That’s because the standards for English proficiency and the tests that measure how well students are learning the language are changing.

Those goals are expected to be established in the next year or two.

Going forward, schools will be required to test kids in core content areas who’ve been in the U.S. less than a year if they know English well enough. If they don’t know enough English, they won’t be tested in English or math. Right now, that decisions is left to school districts. ESSA requires practice to be consistent, thus it was part of the plan development.

That, however, could lead schools to test students who aren’t ready in the hope they’ll show greater academic growth the second year they test.

“The process of going through a high-stakes test can be challenging and frustrating for a student,” said Luis Poza, a board member of the Colorado Association of Bilingual Education. “It can be fairly harmful to their self-esteem.”

One of the more robust debates during the formation of the plan was how the state should spend federal money to improve schools. The committee that helped draft the plan was split on whether the funds should be handed out on a formula basis or through a competitive grant process.

The education department, searching for a compromise, developed a new application that is designed to match a school’s need with the appropriate support — which could be monetary or not.

Ross Izard, senior education policy analyst at the Independence Institute, a libertarian think tank, said the hybrid approach is a step in the right direction but the state could have gone further.

“We had an opportunity to take that money and really place big bets on strategies that can really work,” he said.

Pat Chapman, executive director of federal programs for the state education department, said the department received nearly 500 comments on the state plan and 21 letters from a variety of interest groups. He said the department updated the plan where it could, but said some suggestions were either outside the scope of the department’s authority or weren’t allowed under the new federal law.

“I know not everyone is going to be thrilled,” Chapman said. “But I do think it’s a good plan. And we’re considering it a living, breathing document. We plan to keep working with folks to develop the details.”

The department expects to file the plan to Washington after it receives feedback from the governor’s office and the state board takes a formal vote on the plan at its April meeting.

Correction: This article has been updated to reflect that school districts have discretion over how English language learners are tested.

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.