As Colorado prepares to adopt a new plan that will set the course for the state’s schools for the foreseeable future, competing priorities have emerged spotlighting familiar divides.
The state’s direction — and points of tension — will become clearer Thursday when Colorado Department of Education officials brief the State Board of Education on decisions it likely faces in developing a blueprint required under the nation’s new federal law.
But Republican board chairman Steve Durham already has made his intentions known.
In a May message to then-Education Commissioner Rich Crandall, the lobbyist and former lawmaker prioritized reversing Colorado’s adoption of Common Core State Standards, getting the state out of the PARCC multi-state testing partnership, “maximizing” local control and more.
Chalkbeat obtained Durham’s list, previously not made public, in an open records request.
The head of the state’s largest teachers union disputed that those topics reflect the public’s wishes. A bipartisan panel of state lawmakers, meanwhile, is pursuing its own path that one key member hopes will preserve much of what the state has been doing instead of blowing it up.
Thursday’s study session comes after department officials spent several months on a statewide “listening tour” meant to gather public input on how Colorado should change course under the new main federal K-12 education law, the Every Student Succeeds Act.
Department staff will share a list of decisions it believes the board needs to make — based on where it has flexibility — and describe conflicts between current state law and the new federal law.
The plan must address how the state will hold schools accountable for student performance, improve teacher quality and educate English language learners, among many other things.
The federal law, signed by President Obama last year, is supposed to grant states more flexibility from policies around academic standards and testing that some believe were too restrictive under its predecessor, No Child Left Behind.
Since ESSA was signed into law, educators, special interest groups and lawmakers have been trying to understand how much freedom the state will be get, all while jockeying for influence.
Commissioner Crandall, who resigned from his post in May after only four months on the job, said Durham handed him his priority list after the board failed at a secret February meeting to provide the commissioner guidance on the direction the state should go.
Steve Durham’s ESSA Wishlist
Read board chairman Steve Durham’s four-bullet proposal here.
“He told me, ‘The Republicans met and these or our priorities,’” Crandall said in an interview.
Durham and other Republican members deny they met separately to draw up the document. But Durham did take credit for drafting the list himself.
“Absolutely, I wrote it,” Durham said.
Most of Durham’s request come as no surprise — including his call to drop the Common Core standards and pull Colorado out of PARCC by 2018. The Colorado Springs Republican long has criticized both, and has championed more local control since he was appointed to the board in 2014.
Durham in the list also calls for urging more districts to adopt the Core Knowledge curriculum, a rigid curriculum with specific grade-level expectations meant to instill “background knowledge” in subjects like math, language arts and geography. The curriculum is popular with charter schools in Colorado suburbs and some rural communities. Durham is a vocal supporter of charter schools.
That Durham privately pushed his agenda to reshape state education policy on Crandall is disturbing, said Kerrie Dallman, president of the Colorado Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union.
”I can tell you from attending the listening tours, those things did not come up,” she said. “Certainly there was talk around flexibility on having an alternative to PARCC, but there was no discussion on dropping Common Core or adopting Core Knowledge.”
Dallman added, “Our expectation would be that Colorado abides by the requirement to meaningfully consult all stakeholders including teachers, parents, students and community in developing its ESSA plan.”
For the plan to be approved by the federal government, the state education department must prove it sought community input, and the State Board, Colorado legislature and the governor all must sign off on the document.
That could prove challenging. The State Board and Senate are Republican-controlled, while Democrats hold the House and governor’s office.
Dallman’s union, as well as the Colorado Association of School Executives and the Colorado Association of School Boards, have taken their own steps in hopes their members will have a say in the plan’s development.
In June, the three organizations hosted a joint meeting in Aurora where teams from school districts across the state gathered to learn about ESSA and weigh in on the state’s direction.
“We saw that as our kick-off to our involvement in developing the plan,” Dallman said, but added she’s skeptical the state’s education landscape could change that much. “There are opportunities for some shifts, but the truth of the matter is, unless we create some flexibility in local state mandates, we’re not going to see a lot of the changes folks want — especially rural districts.”
State lawmakers are also taking up ESSA on their own. A committee of three Republicans and three Democrats will begin meeting later this summer to study the new federal laws and identify areas where local laws need to be adjusted.
State Rep. Brittany Pettersen, a Lakewood Democrat, sponsored the bill that created the committee. She said she hopes the committee will be cautious and not rush to completely reimagine Colorado’s modern education policies, most of which passed between 2008 and 2012 with broad bipartisan support.
“I don’t want to redo everything we’ve done,” she said.
How much influence the State Board should have on the plan has been an ongoing conversation since former-Commissioner Crandall first announced the department’s listening tours that reached a fevered pitch in June.
The ‘Compromise’ memo
Read Durham memo to the State Board outlining the committee selection process here.
While meeting in Pueblo last month, State Board members debated their role in the development of the plan and what role advocacy organizations should play.
Board member Deb Scheffel, a Republican from Parker, was most vocal about the board having an early say in the plan. Durham was critical of what he called “special interest groups.”
“If I were going to put on my cynical hat — and I do often — I can predict what the position of every one of these groups is going to be,” Durham said at the meeting. “They are not our ultimate constituents. Our constituents are the children.”
But vice chair Angelika Schroeder, a Democrat from Boulder, cautioned: “We exclude them at our own peril.”
That discussion led to a “compromise,” Durham wrote in a June 13 email obtained by Chalkbeat, that includes the board appointing a variety of members to a committee that will be responsible for writing the plan. Organizations such as CEA and CASB will also be asked to name representatives.
The committee will work with state department staff through the fall to develop the first draft of the plan, which must be submitted to the federal government by October.
“It’s a way to diversify input,” Durham said in an interview, “so it’s not all driven by districts and interest groups.”
Chalkbeat is a nonprofit news site covering educational change in public schools.