In the shadow of the State Capitol, at the intersection of Sherman Street and Colfax Avenue, sits a handsome limestone edifice with brass doors and tall Corinthian columns, home to the Colorado Department of Education. Inside the heavy doors, a hushed great hall beckons. A peaceful place, its cool marble floors, high ceilings and low lighting hark back to genteel days gone by.
Just off the hall is a door to the State Board of Education chambers, an inelegant room with a lower ceiling and brighter lights. A long raised dais runs along the back of the room, and shades of blue are everywhere — in the carpet, in the gallery chairs, and in the box-pleated curtain suspended behind the dais. Here an elected body of seven members meets once a month. Forget the calm elegance of the great hall beyond the door. Slip in here on a meeting day, and you’ll be snapped back to the present, where extreme ideologies rule and compromise is a fool’s game.
It used to be that the State Board of Education accomplished its mostly regulatory work — approving the Colorado Department of Education’s plans and programs and implementing the state’s education laws — with little noise or notice. Always a mix of conservatives and liberals, Republicans and Democrats, the board used to take a pragmatic approach to getting things done in the interest of Colorado’s public-school kids.
In the era of the Tea Party and Donald Trump, those days are gone.
The past 22 months have been a wild ride for the State Board of Education, for the CDE employees who serve the board, and for those most affected by the board’s decisions: the 178 local school districts across the state and their teachers, students and parents. The arrival in January 2015 of two members — one hell-bent on pushing a conservative, anti-government agenda — set the stage for micromanagement, dysfunction, rough treatment of CDE staff and political grandstanding. And it led to board actions that seriously weakened the state’s still-young system of academic standards, testing and accountability.
Local school districts, unsure of their marching orders, were left in limbo for weeks. The board’s chair quit in disgust, and the state’s well-respected commissioner of education left. A sense grew across the state and nation that Colorado was no longer a leader in innovation as some boardmembers — and legislators — continued to chip away at a state education plan on which well-intentioned educators and policy-makers had once pinned so much hope.
Even if most Coloradans have heard of the State Board of Education, it’s a good bet they don’t know what the board does or who is on it. As a regulatory body, it can impact every public K-12 school and charter school in the state, but it mostly flies under the radar.
The board is a creature of the Colorado Constitution, which gives it the rather vague power to “oversee public education” in the state. Over the years, state lawmakers have defined the board’s powers and duties through legislation: The board hires and fires the state’s commissioner of education and supervises the Colorado Department of Education, accredits public schools and school districts, reviews the state’s academic standards, and distributes billions of dollars in local, state and federal money to school districts.
But because the Colorado Constitution favors local control over power concentrated in the state government, the board’s authority is limited. Many important decisions pertaining to public education — like curriculum choice, what textbooks to use and contracts with teachers’ unions — are the exclusive domain of local school boards. Nevertheless, it is up to the CDE and the State Board of Education to make sure that local decisions about education line up with the state’s academic standards and goal of educating all students to graduate ready for college or the workforce.
The board’s seven members are elected on a partisan basis from their respective congressional districts, and it’s a part-time, volunteer position; boardmembers serve without pay. As volunteer gigs go, State Board of Education membership requires commitment, as terms are for six years. Most of the current boardmembers have education backgrounds, but there’s no rule that says they must.
Public education for Colorado’s K-12 students is a $10.5 billion enterprise annually, with more than 90 percent of the money coming from state and local tax sources. K-12 education eats up almost half of the state’s entire budget, yet the CDE and its board are strangely unaccountable, thanks to its governance structure. Other state agencies that spend far less — transportation, public safety, natural resources and corrections among them — have department heads appointed by the governor who are members of the governor’s cabinet. Even the Colorado Department of Higher Education, which oversees most of the state’s
public colleges and universities, reports to the state executive.
But because the State Board of Education is elected and has the sole power to appoint the department chief, the CDE is accountable only to the board, and the board’s individual members are accountable only to the voters in their districts. If they don’t do their jobs, or do them poorly, they might be voted out of office if the electorate is paying attention — but that’s a big “if.” The down-ballot State Board of Education races generally attract little attention. And because the terms are for six years and not all seats are up for grabs in the same year, half of the boardmember elections fall in the low-turnout “off” years between presidential elections.
Colorado’s system is an anomaly; in most other states, the governor appoints the board, or the chief state school officer, or both. Even among the ten states with elected boards, five are nonpartisan, and even the five partisan boards have some tie with their state’s governor — by giving the governor a vote, a seat on the board, or the power to appoint the commissioner.
“It’s relatively rare for a state to have an elected board that then appoints the commissioner without the governor being involved in any way, shape or form,” says Paul Teske, dean of the School of Public Affairs at the University of Colorado Denver, who has studied various states’ models. Only Kansas and Colorado have partisan-elected boards and commissioners chosen by that board. That model, Teske says, historically makes for a “very politicized board.”
Republicans have controlled the board, if only by a slim margin, since 2008, yet until recently, much of the board’s work was accomplished in a collaborative, bipartisan manner. The 2014 election changed all that.
Enter the “Prince of Darkness,” Steven J. Durham.
Steven Durham’s hair may be thinning, but Donald Trump would never accuse him of having low energy. At 69, Durham is a coiled spring. Standing, his body language suggests he might march off at any moment. Sitting at the great wooden dais in the state board’s chambers, he leans impatiently on his forearms. He’s a scowler, but not without a sense of humor, and he’s adept at grandstanding. He scorns special-interest groups (except the ones he represents as a lobbyist).
A Colorado Springs Republican elected from the state’s 5th Congressional District, Durham has been darkening the halls of the Colorado Capitol complex for decades. His friends and enemies alike say he is powerful and influential; he has also been described as a bully. He earned the “Prince of Darkness” nickname during his tenure in the General Assembly, and in the ’70s and ’80s, he was also known as one of the “House Crazies” — the hardline conservatives then in power. He cut a Senate term short to serve as a Reagan appointee to the EPA, then returned to the Senate for one term before turning to lobbying full-time.
His lobbying firm, Colorado Winning Edge, represents clients like CenturyLink, the Distilled Spirits Council and the Colorado Gaming Association. Durham has also represented many clients on education issues. He fought for a school voucher program in 2003, and more recently lobbied for the Colorado High School Activities Association. Durham stopped being the lobbyist of record for that client sometime after he ascended to the state education board, to avoid the appearance of a conflict of interest — but he’s not totally out of the loop. According to filings with the Colorado Secretary of State’s Office, the new lobbyist for the CHSAA is Durham’s Winning Edge partner, J. Andrew Green.
Until recently, Durham was the longtime executive director of the Colorado Association of Career Colleges and Schools, a trade group that represents for-profit career-training schools. Winning Edge’s website brags that Durham was able to get an industry governing board established for the career schools, replacing an “arbitrary regulatory control structure.” Apparently the self-policing didn’t work out so well for two of the schools in Durham’s trade group: The U.S. Department of Education recently shut down ITT Technical Institute, which then declared bankruptcy, and the Federal Trade Commission has sued another school, DeVry, for deceptive marketing claims. Three CACCS schools — Everest College, DeVry and the Art Institute of Colorado — made the list of the Top 25 Worst For-Profit Colleges compiled by the website Nonprofit Colleges Online.
Because he joined the state board mid-term, in January 2015, Durham is on the November ballot for the very red 5th District, but he has little to worry about. His Democrat opponent, Jeffery Walker Sr., has been low-key to the point of invisibility.
Never one to hunker in the trenches, Durham got into office and put his agenda front and center immediately: Pull out of the multi-state testing consortium known as PARCC, and kill the state’s Common Core academic standards.
Conservatives in Colorado and across the country decry both the testing and the standards as liberal-leaning big-government incursions on states’ rights and local control, and Durham was ready for war.
So at his first official board meeting, in January 2015, Durham pulled the pin and rolled a metaphorical hand grenade into the boardroom.
Ever since President Lyndon Johnson signed into law a landmark 1965 education bill as part of his War on Poverty, many presidents after him have championed public-education “reforms.” After all, what better legacy to leave than a well-educated populace?
Johnson could not have foreseen the political firestorm that would erupt almost fifty years later.
Johnson’s Elementary and Secondary Education Act was, at its heart, civil-rights legislation. It came in response to a growing awareness that public education had an achievement gap — a disparity between whites and minorities, and between middle-class and low-income kids — that was reflected in grades, test scores and dropout rates. Thus were created the Title I grant programs still seen in schools today, which provide support to students of color, low-income students, disabled students and, most recently, English-language learners.
The original law was reauthorized by President George W. Bush in 2001 (the No Child Left Behind Act) and by President Barack Obama in 2015 (the Every Student Succeeds Act) with increasing focus on higher standards for learning as well as accountability — tracking and reporting student performance over time and comparing the results, particularly for the historically underperforming kids from the “wrong” zip codes. With data gathered year after year, educators could better identify the students on the wrong ends of the gaps and target them with extra help and special programs, paid for by federal dollars. Participation by states has always been voluntary, but the money makes it hard to say no.
Meanwhile, the Common Core academic standards for math and English language arts were being developed in 2009 at the behest of a coalition of governors and education commissioners from 48 states, on the theory that a more mobile population would be better served if academic standards did not vary widely from state to state. A student who scored well on Missouri state tests, for example, might find himself unable to keep up if his family moved to Connecticut. A single set of standards — things that a student should know and skills that a student should have at every grade level — would fix that, and if the standards were high enough, American kids would come out of school ready for college, without need for remedial classes, or at least ready for a job.
Colorado by then had already gone well down the reform path under governors Owens and Ritter, in response to worrisome statistics coming out of the state’s K-12 schools in 2006. Minority students were falling further behind, more and more high-school graduates were having to take remedial courses to get through their first years of college, and the high-school dropout rate was hitting a peak — 8.2 percent for Hispanic students. The result was the passage in 2008 of Colorado’s Achievement Plan for Kids, which laid the foundation for the CDE to develop higher academic standards for all grades and subject areas, and tests based on those standards, so that kids would be career- or college-ready upon graduation.
The Obama administration announced its Race to the Top program the following year, a competition among states for billions of dollars in additional grants. It came with strings attached: States were strongly encouraged to qualify by adopting common academic standards, implementing high-stakes standardized tests and embracing accountability systems to hold schools, districts and teachers accountable for kids’ academic progress — or lack thereof. Colorado, with an economy still unsteady from the Great Recession, found the prospect of a federal infusion hard to ignore. The CDE commissioned a study comparing the Common Core standards with those that the state had already developed, and found them to be very similar. The State Board of Education voted to adopt the Common Core standards for math, reading, writing and communicating in 2010. Despite a Republican majority on the board, the motion carried 4-3.
Public opinion of Common Core was favorable at first, and many Republican lawmakers endorsed the standards. But in the wake of states’ fevered efforts to score Race to the Top money, a sentiment grew that the federal government was trampling on states’ rights and, worse, using the standards to inject public education with leftist ideology. Fed by the Tea Party, ultra-conservative Christian leaders, Fox News, activist organizations funded by the Koch Brothers and driven by hatred for All Things Obama, the backlash grew legs. What was lost in the noise was the understanding that the Common Core is a set of academic standards and nothing more.
“Standards are really just agreeing on what it is that kids should know at the end of a particular grade,” says CDE Executive Director for Achievement and Strategy Melissa Colsman. “How you get there, what you do, whether they’re doing it through projects or a traditional textbook, is completely up to teachers and the districts.”
Nevertheless, Common Core was widely misunderstood by friends and foes alike to include curriculum and teaching materials. It was soon dubbed “ObamaCore” by right-wing detractors, and rumors spread through the airwaves and social media: It was a plot by the U.S. Department of Education to create devil-worshipers; it was a plot by Bill Gates and the United Nations to globalize education; it taught Sharia Law; it actively promoted homosexuality. Hysteria ensued, and GOP leaders who once promoted it denounced it — including, eventually, more than half of the 2016 GOP presidential-primary field.
As the unrest over Common Core grew, the state’s Republican lawmakers struggled to reverse course. The legislature in 2012 tried to authorize development of Colorado-grown standards in English language arts and math, but eventually balked at the $26 million price tag. Meanwhile, Colorado’s local school boards were getting an earful from the anti-Common Core protest groups that had sprung up in the states’ more conservative areas — think Colorado Springs, Cherry Creek and Pueblo.
For all the furor over standards, nothing upset Colorado’s school communities more than the new battery of tests that the CDE rolled out in the 2014-15 school year.
Standardized tests have been a flagpole on the educational landscape for decades. (Who doesn’t remember clutching a No. 2 pencil to fill in the little circles on the Iowa Test of Basic Skills?) Colorado schools had been administering standardized tests for years, but in 2014, the CDE introduced the current Colorado Measures of Academic Success (CMAS) tests aligned to the Common Core standards in science and social studies. And in order to compete for Race to the Top money, the education department joined one of two testing consortia — groups of states that agreed to administer the same tests. The CDE signed up with PARCC, the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, for its math and English assessments, which became known as the CMAS/PARCC tests.
The outcry began even before a single test was officially administered. Because they were aligned to higher standards, the new CMAS assessments were harder, and the scores predictably lower. They also took longer, and that was time away from classroom instruction. Mostly taken online, they required technology that some schools didn’t have. And they were to be given more frequently, so that any one child would take at least seventeen standardized tests over the course of his or her K-12 education.
Some of the loudest protests came from teachers and their unions, because educators would now be evaluated and promoted — or not — based in part on their students’ test results, thanks to Colorado’s 2010 Teacher Effectiveness Law.
“Some parents are screaming that there’s too much testing,” says state-board member Angelika Schroeder, the 2nd District Democrat from Boulder and a former accounting professor. “Are they screaming because they think that, or that’s what they’re hearing from teachers? You have to consider what is driving it. It’s frustrating: Some teachers put the fear of God into these kids. They’ll tell them, ‘If you don’t do a good job, I will lose my job.’ That kid goes home and says he doesn’t want to take the test.”
And there was the political baggage: Republicans saw Obama’s Race to the Top program as coercive and a classic example of federal meddling in states’ affairs. Rumor swirled about the amount and type of data that test vendor Pearson would be collecting about Colorado’s schoolkids, and how the data would be used and by whom.
The CDE field-tested the assessments in schools during the 2013-14 school year, but immediately faced push-back from parents — mostly white, mostly from wealthier and more conservative school districts — who organized to protest, write letters and complain to their local school boards, legislators and the State Board of Education. Some even opted to keep their kids home on test day.
The first “official” CMAS assessments — in science and social studies — were slated for November 2014. Thousands of high-school seniors in Boulder, Douglas County and Cherry Creek stayed home, walked out, or otherwise refused to take the tests.
It was against that backdrop that Durham took his new seat in the state board chambers in January 2015, and he wasted no time in upending protocol. Raising the issue of testing during a finance briefing — a procedural no-no — Durham said he’d gotten complaints from charter schools in his district that didn’t want to administer the upcoming portion of the PARCC math and English test scheduled for March. He then cross-examined CDE Executive Director of Assessment Joyce Zurkowski as to whether the first part of the PARCC needed to be given at all. On the CDE audiotape of the meeting, Durham sounds gruff, impatient, and determined to get his way.
Zurkowski explained several times that it was one test but given in two parts, and that failure to take the first part would invalidate the entire test, but Durham was unimpressed. He made a motion to direct the chief executive of the CDE, education commissioner Robert Hammond, to let school districts skip the first part of the test, if they requested a waiver.
The board’s attorney told Durham that, as a matter of state law, the board had no power to grant testing waivers to districts.
Hammond himself questioned the legality of the move, and told Durham, “No.”
“You do what you need to do,” Hammond said, “but I’m just telling you I will not do that. I can’t be ordered to do something that’s against the law.”
In theory, Hammond was correct; the board couldn’t legally force him to execute the motion. But it could still bring it up and vote on it, perhaps to make a point.
The board’s chair, Marcia Neal, was aghast. Neal, a retired social-studies teacher and Republican from Grand Junction, liked to run a tight ship, and this one was running aground fast. She made a plea to reason before she called for a vote.
“We are out of order. If we pass this motion, it will cause chaos in the state, in the school districts,” Neal said. “On the very first meeting, we’re going to make headlines? This is a terrible motion, and we need to defeat it.”
Nonetheless, Durham prevailed, and the motion passed 4-3, but the votes didn’t fall strictly along party lines. Neal voted no with two of the Democrats, Schroeder and Jane Goff, 66, from Arvada, in District 7.
Siding with Durham were two Republicans, Debora Scheffel, 62, and Pam Mazanec, 55. The remaining yes vote came from a seemingly unlikely ally: Denver Democrat and fellow newcomer Valentina Flores.
The Gang of Four came to be.
Val Flores, 69, is a retired teacher who, with the backing of the teachers’ unions, soundly defeated her 2014 Democratic primary opponent, even though she was heavily outspent. Characteristic of her metro-Denver district, there was no Republican challenger in the general election.
Flores is the same age as Durham, but unlike him, she looks small and sometimes lost behind the big dais. She is given to occasional random interjections — off-topic, ill-timed and sometimes rambling speeches.
She does not always get her facts straight, such as when she asserted that the PARCC tests should be done away with because, in part, Denver Public Schools does not teach keyboarding. She returns again and again to the same topics: the state’s teacher shortage, pencil-and-paper tests, and the failings of DPS — even though she taught for the district for nine years.
Like Durham, Flores opposes PARCC, but for different reasons. She predictably sides with the teachers’ unions that oppose pinning educator evaluations on test results. She mistrusts testing companies (she used to work for one), particularly the PARCC contractor, Pearson. She has suggested more than once that the state should look into going back to the Iowa Test of Basic Skills, which has largely been replaced by more comprehensive, PARCC-like exams, such as the Iowa Assessment.
At a July 2016 board meeting for a briefing on new federal school legislation, Flores wondered aloud about the cost of PARCC testing and the rest of the accountability, and asked, in all seriousness, whether it wouldn’t be better for Colorado to “just say no” to federal funding: “That would still be saving us a lot of money. If we don’t do the big accountability and let the feds do the one that they do every three of four years or so? We would still be saving a lot of money.”
“Except we would lose our Title I money, so I’m not so sure that’s real helpful,” boardmember Schroeder said.
Flores was unconvinced. “Yeah, we’d lose it, but we wouldn’t have to do the evaluation.”
Such statements rankle education advocates like Leslie Colwell, vice president of K-12 Education Initiatives at the Colorado Children’s Campaign.
“It would be a huge disaster. We’re taking about potentially $150 million dollars plus in Title I money,” Colwell says. “It feels irresponsible to even make that suggestion. It speaks to not a great understanding of what that money is for and why those resources are important to Colorado students.”
With the State Board of Education probing for weak spots to take down Colorado’s version of “ObamaCore” and PARCC, Paul Lundeen, the Board of Education chair before Neal, was attempting a frontal assault in the legislature. The newly elected state representative — like Durham, Lundeen is from Colorado Springs — introduced a bill to end Common Core and pull the state out of the PARCC consortium, and the state board voted 5-2 to support the measure. It ultimately died in committee, but not before ultra-right Breitbart News noticed the state board’s endorsement and touted it as “bipartisan support,” because one of the “yes” votes was Flores’s.
In February 2015, with the first part of the PARCC test just weeks away, some twenty school districts across the state submitted waiver requests to the CDE just as the state attorney general’s office weighed in on the legality of the waivers. The conclusion: The board has no authority to grant testing waivers.
Hammond, trying to quell the unease in the field, sent a letter to district superintendents to remind them that they still needed to make “a good faith effort to test all students.”
“Usually after every state board meeting, I’ll get a call from a superintendent or a principal who will say, ‘Are you kidding me? Right when we thought we knew what the landscape is, they change it again,’” says Senator Mike Johnston, a Democrat who has logged many hours on the Senate Education Committee. “I think there is more and more frustration.”
Since Durham, Scheffel, Mazanec and Flores were so far failing to get rid of PARCC altogether or get districts out of testing, the team tried another tack: Remove any penalties to districts if kids skipped the test.
Federal regulations require districts to have a 95 percent participation rate on the state assessments to stay eligible for federal funds — anything less and school districts can face a harsh penalty: The CDE can drop their accreditation rating by one point. Some boardmembers sensed that this risk pushed schools to coercion tactics, like threatening suspension for students who didn’t take the test. The solution? End the accreditation penalty for districts that came up short simply because parents held their kids out. Motion passed, Gang of Four for the win.
Some observers were dismayed to see the board blatantly sanctioning walkouts, a practice that threatened collection of as complete a data set as possible and was fundamentally at odds with the goal of assessments in the first place.
The following month, March, with some schools already taking tests, the board again delayed a decision on the waivers. Durham and Scheffel wanted to keep people talking about it. Schroeder and Neal warned that they were sending the wrong message to the schools.
“Making a political point is one thing; I understand that,” said an increasingly frustrated Neal. “But we need to support our local schools whenever we can, and creating confusion and pandemonium is no way to support our local schools.”
Jack Daly was fuming. The forty-year-old social-sciences teacher from Hi-Plains School had just been insulted by the chairman of the state school board. But Daly pushed it down because he still had work to do, or so he thought. He had driven the 140 miles from Seibert to Denver at the CDE’s request in case boardmembers had questions, but all he’d heard so far was abuse.
It was March 2015, and the board had still not set the so-called “cut scores” for the CMAS science and social-studies tests that seniors had taken almost five months earlier. The cut scores are the reference points that sort a student’s test performance into one of several categories — “did not meet expectations,” “met expectations” or “exceeded expectations” — and without them, the seniors, their parents and their teachers had no clue how they had done on the tests.
Although state law required the board to set the cut scores, Durham and boardmember Scheffel were resistant: The proposed cut scores were too high, Durham said; they were unfair and would lead to too many failures. Scheffel called them “arbitrary.” Durham called them “arbitrary and capricious” and “invalid.”
Those words stung. Daly had been on the committee of 28 educators and other experts in science and social studies who had worked for months to develop the proposed cut scores.
Then Durham dropped another insult.
“I’d rather have the first 100 people in the Denver phone book set the cut scores than these 28 people,” he said. “I’m not going to vote for them now, and I’m not going to vote for them in six months.”
The roll was called, and once again the unlikely Gang of Four prevailed — Durham, Scheffel, Mazanec and Flores, the Democrat.
“They basically politicized it and threw out a test that would have helped drive a focus to social studies, which would have helped create a more educated and involved citizenry,” Daly says. “The part that really bugs me: My students who took the tests never found out how they did. We wasted time on it, and because of the state school board, there was no impact from that test. We wasted a significant amount of money and time that the state school board threw away.
“It was embarrassing. I wouldn’t have let my student-council group act the way they did. It was embarrassing to watch a state leadership board act that way in public,” Daly says.
According to his biography on the CDE website, Robert Hammond is known for his ability to “implement transformational improvements” in organizations. That’s a long way of saying that Commissioner Hammond was a change agent for public K-12 education in Colorado, and few would disagree.
He came to the Colorado Department of Education in 2010, just as the legislature was laying down the statutory foundation for big changes: higher academic standards, high-stakes assessments, and the accountability systems that held teachers, schools and districts responsible for student outcomes. By 2012, he was in charge of the department, and he recruited a crack executive team to coax those big changes into being while managing the mistrust and fear that remained in many of the districts.
People took notice. Colorado was viewed as a model among the states for education innovation.
Hammond and his staff cultivated a culture of mutual respect and trust with both the districts and the feds. The Obama administration’s education chief, Arne Duncan, went out of his way on a visit to Denver to drop by the commissioner’s office and give him and his staff high praise.
“The prior board had done such great work in laying groundwork on things like re-creating and improving the Colorado state standards,” says Bruce Hoyt, a former member of the DPS school board who has held positions on several education-focused non-profits. “To have a new board come in who didn’t respect that work and politicized that work, then tried to change some basic aspects of that without any real basis — that was highly problematic to a lot of people.”
By January 2015, it all started falling apart. When the board stepped beyond the scope of its authority to try to excuse entire districts from state assessments, it knocked the first block out of the Jenga tower.
On April 24, 2015, Hammond announced his retirement, citing health issues. A devastated CDE staff mourned. That same day, the U.S. Department of Education notified the CDE that it could face sanctions due to high rates of opt-outs to PARCC testing and the board’s waiver machinations. Not holding the districts accountable, the letter said, “will hinder efforts to improve schools and reduce inequalities.”
Over the next few months, most of the Hammond executive team exited the department, a “churn at the top” that superintendents like Eagle County’s Jason E. Glass says was “disruptive and troubling.”
As the board set about trying to find a replacement for Hammond, the waiver issue took another month to die. The board finally voted in May to deny the districts’ waiver requests, which by that time were moot anyway — the CMAS/PARCC testing had long been completed, and predictably, the participation rate statewide fell far short of 95 percent. Details released later in the year revealed that 47,000 students opted out of the tests, resulting in a statewide participation rate of 82 percent for the English language-arts assessment and 85 percent for the math test.
Meanwhile, the state legislature got done what the State Board of Education could not: It reduced the testing burden and settled the opt-out issue. Governor John Hickenlooper signed House Bill 15-1323 into law on May 20, 2015. It cut the number of state assessments to be given over the course of a child’s K-12 career, and substituted shorter standardized exams for the tenth-grade PARCC tests.
It also gave parents the right to opt their children out of state assessments with no fear of reprisals from the school or district. An additional provision barred schools from discouraging kids from taking the tests or encouraging parents to opt out, but this was likely slight comfort to the policy-makers and advocates who had worked to put the Common Core standards and the aligned tests in place.
If there was any doubt that this new board was more ideologically driven than prior boards, the hand-wringing over the Healthy Kids Colorado Survey laid those doubts to rest. A project of the Colorado Department of Health and Environment, the survey of middle- and high-school students had already been around for twenty years. Boardmembers spent four months trying to kill it.
The questionnaire, distributed every two years to randomly selected schools, sought information about students’ attitudes, health, nutrition and exercise habits, but also asked sometimes intimate questions that probed for risky and unhealthy behaviors — smoking, alcohol and drug use, bullying, suicide and, for high-schoolers, sexual activity. It was all too much for boardmembers Mazanec and Scheffel.
Larkspur Republican Pam Mazanec represents Colorado’s 4th Congressional District — most of the eastern plains. A partner in her husband’s sod business, she is also on the board of Great Choice Douglas County, an organization that pushes for school choice in all its varieties, including vouchers for religious schools.
Possibly more than any of the other Republicans on the board, Mazanec is a staunch social conservative.
She made national news a couple of years ago when she lamented on Facebook about the “overly negative view of history” in the new AP History curriculum. “Yes, we practiced slavery. But we also ended it voluntarily, at great sacrifice,” she wrote. “This is part of the argument that America is exceptional.”
Mazanec also seems to have some strong views on sex, having once remarked in a public meeting that school guidance counselors just “took girls to have abortions.”
But it’s likely that no boardmember saw more political potential in an alliance with Durham than Debora Scheffel, the District 6 Republican from Parker.
With a conservative ideology to match Durham’s, Scheffel plays the micromanager to Durham’s more big-picture role. And after serving with the more pragmatic and rule-bound board chair, Neal, Scheffel must have been grateful to have an even louder voice in the room to tout her causes: local control, school choice, parents’ rights and limited federal involvement.
Scheffel, 62, is the Dean of Education at Colorado Christian University in Denver; before that, she held deanships at the University of the Rockies and Jones International University. Politics runs in the family; her brother is Mark Scheffel, Colorado Senate Majority Leader. She shares Durham’s mistrust of bureaucrats, including the CDE staff. Current and former insiders say she is difficult to work with. She is prone to demanding every last detail surrounding an issue: At the August 2016 board meeting, she ordered staff to copy forty pounds of documents for her.
Up for re-election in November, Scheffel might have some competition from Democrat Rebecca McClellan, thanks to redistricting in 2012 that not only swapped out GOP strongholds in Douglas and Elbert counties for the more Democrat-friendly Aurora, but also forced Scheffel to move in with her parents to stay qualified for the seat.
Mazanec and Scheffel put the Healthy Kids Colorado Survey on the table in February 2015 after hearing complaints from a few parents in their conservative districts. The parents were apparently taken by surprise and upset to learn of the survey only after it had been given. But Mazanec and Scheffel’s objections went beyond the issue of parental notification.
“How did this come to be?” Scheffel asked. “In the last two surveys, were the surveys this intrusive in their questioning? Who put it together? It strikes me as exploitative of children.”
“The content of the survey changed dramatically over the years,” Scheffel said. “Dramatically.”
“It’s inappropriate to ask schoolchildren these questions, to collect data about activities of children and families through the school system,” said Mazanec. “It’s repulsive to me.”
“Clearly objectionable,” Scheffel said.
What they apparently didn’t know about the longtime survey was that it was voluntary, anonymous, and only sent to a random, representative sampling of schools and districts, which could decline to participate.
And so could the kids, or their parents. Districts and schools determined what degree of parental permission they wanted — their prerogative in a local-control state. Some districts required parents to actively give permission — or “opt in” — to the survey; others asked parents to opt out if they did not want their child to participate.
This prompted the board to seek an informal legal opinion from its attorney, who agreed that parents had to give prior written consent, in line with state and federal privacy laws relating to data collection by schools.
When Colorado’s public-health organizations and youth advocates got wind of the board’s plans to gut the survey, they rallied. The information gathered, they said, was critical to driving intervention programs for young people, and if the board discouraged participation by requiring parents to opt in, participation would drop, undercutting the validity and value of the survey.
Mazanec was undeterred.
“It strikes me that a lot of adults seem to depend on this survey information for their own livelihood or their own programs, all of which may be well-intentioned,” Mazanec said. “But my bottom line is no child should have to answer these questions if parents have not actively consented they do that.”
The state’s public-health department requested an attorney general’s opinion of its own, and this time the formal opinion concluded that the board had no authority to require parents to opt in, because the state and federal school-data privacy laws didn’t apply to voluntary surveys conducted by an agency outside the Department of Education.
The crusade that began in February finally ended unceremoniously in mid-May, when the board voted to table it indefinitely.
Three weeks later, Neal resigned. Her letter of resignation was a thinly veiled slap at her cohorts for their ideological squabbles, willful disregard of protocol and “seemingly destructive behavior.”
It was time, she says. She was having health issues, Hammond and key staff had fled, and she had just had enough of the dysfunction, the politicization of education, and the disrespect that some members showed to staff.
Durham stepped up to the chairman’s seat, and observers soon noticed a change in his tone: The bully seemed to have left the building. But the hijinks weren’t over.
One of the State Board of Education’s duties is a quasi-judicial one — hearing appeals by charter schools that fail to have their charters approved or renewed by local school boards.
Like a regular court of appeals, the board may consider only the briefs and evidence filed by the parties and the arguments made by their representatives at the hearing. State law requires the board to uphold the local school board’s decision unless it was “contrary to the best interests of the pupils, parents, community or school district.”
From January 2015 to August 2016, the board heard eight appeals, and only twice did it side with the district. Critics say the Republican-dominated board places a higher premium on school choice than it does on quality education, and they point to one of the board’s most recent decisions as evidence.
HOPE Online Learning Academy is a struggling charter-school operator with locations around the state. About 400 students attend its five “learning centers” in Aurora. HOPE Online serves mostly low-income elementary- and middle-school students, who receive instruction online while under the supervision of “mentors.” The charter operator was the subject of a 2006 state audit, which found it employed too few teachers for the number of students enrolled and failed to do criminal background checks on its mentors.
In Aurora, a district with a number of poor-performing schools, HOPE’s are the lowest-rated. For the last five years, HOPE Online’s low graduation rate and students’ poor standardized-test scores have kept it on the CDE’s watch list, which means that HOPE’s time to show improvement is running out.
In July, Aurora’s school board voted unanimously not to renew HOPE Online’s contract with that district because of poor performance and lack of accountability.
HOPE appealed to the State Board of Education, which reversed the Aurora board’s decision 7-0. The board made no findings other than that the APS Board had acted “contrary to the best interests of pupils, parents, school district and the community.”
Aurora Public Schools Superintendent Rico Munn says the ruling is worrisome on a larger level. “I don’t know that we have clarity about under what circumstances they would uphold a district’s position.” Munn says his board thought carefully about whether HOPE was an environment that was “doing the right things for kids,” and given its dismal rating, decided unanimously that it was not.
Van Schoales, the executive director of A+ Colorado, a group dedicated to excellence in the Denver Public Schools, says that many of the state board’s members think their primary role is providing parents with a choice of schools, but that rationale breaks down when there are only poor schools to choose from.
“If the kids in that school aren’t reading or writing,” he says, “it’s sort of pointless.”
Other critics see the irony in such a ruling coming from a board that holds the concept of local control so dear.
“You can’t say you’re in favor of local control and then repeatedly overrule decisions at the local level that were rational and well thought through on things like these charter-school decisions,” says Eagle County Schools’ Glass.
After the state board’s decision, Munn learned that some boardmembers had toured HOPE’s facilities at the charter’s invitation before the appeal hearing, and that Durham had taken a phone call from Hope Online before the appeal was filed. Munn said the attorney general’s office looked into the contacts and found them to be an “error” on the boardmembers’ part rather than ethics violations.
For a board that has been so vocal about too much testing, its recent decision on early literacy testing is puzzling.
Colorado’s READ Act provides funding to school districts for early literacy testing and intervention: If a child is found to have a significant reading deficiency in kindergarten up through third grade, public schools have programs to help identify the problem and turn it around. Until recently, the law required literacy assessments to be given in English, but some school districts tested young English learners in Spanish as well.
That led to concerns that some students were being subject to double testing, so the General Assembly amended the READ Act in 2014 to give districts more leeway to test their bilingual students in Spanish. The change was supported at the time by an opinion from the Colorado attorney general, affirming that the focus of the READ Act is on the skill of reading, “not the language in which it is employed.”
Early this year, the State Board of Education took up some minor rule-making pertaining to the READ Act, in response to some legislative tweaks to other provisions. In the course of that business, Scheffel argued that students being tested in Spanish should also be tested in English, as a way to make sure the state was getting its money’s worth out of the program.
Denver Public Schools, bi-literacy teachers and advocates like Bueno Policy Center and the Colorado Association of Bilingual Education decried the move, as did associations representing the state’s school superintendents, school boards and rural districts. Opponents said the rule change was unfair and unwarranted, and that it would amount to an undue burden on some 6,500 Colorado grade-schoolers, yield unreliable data and be a slap in the face to local control.
One of the original sponsors of the READ Act, Senator Mike Johnston, told the board that the intention of the bill was not to assess English proficiency or the ability to read English, but to simply determine whether children are learning how to read and, in the case of English learners, identify reading deficiencies in the language in which the child is fluent.
But Republicans on the board wouldn’t budge, even after hearing from concerned groups for a couple of months. They eventually approved the rule change on a 4-3 vote. Flores, who taught English as a Second Language for DPS, voted no this time.
The decision moved Eagle County Superintendent Glass to pen a harsh column in the Vail Daily, calling the double testing “double jeopardy.” Months later, he is still baffled by the vote.
“There just didn’t seem to be any justification for it,” he says. “In this case, they’re pushing for more testing — double testing, particularly — of kids who are learning English, whereas a few months before they were trying to waive districts out of testing. It’s troubling in that it’s not even internally consistent from an ideological perspective.”
As if the board didn’t have enough to be embarrassed about, the CDE is on its fourth commissioner in twenty months.
After Hammond’s departure, Deputy Commissioner Elliot Asp stepped up to lead what was left of the team until a permanent replacement could be found. That took six months. In January 2016, the board selected Richard Crandall, a former Arizona legislator, as the new commissioner by a rare unanimous vote. He was the only finalist for the job.
Crandall turned out to be the wrong choice. He lacked experience in a job as complex as commissioner, and lacked the temperament. He made some political missteps at the Statehouse and got crosswise with his boss, Durham. And he had a large family back in Arizona and was simultaneously working on an advanced degree. He and the board parted ways after only four months.
An organization like the CDE, with a demanding board for a boss, multiple and varied constituencies, as well as watchful benefactors (one just across the street), demands steady, consistent leadership to keep the main parts moving smoothly. Fortunately, interim commissioner Katy Anthes seems to be getting the job done to the satisfaction and relief of most.
Last year, the old No Child Left Behind initiative was replaced with the Every Student Succeeds Act. As a result, the Colorado Department of Education is hard at work on a new education plan to send to Washington so the federal dollars keep flowing.
To that end, the department pulled together a big committee of representatives from every stakeholder group imaginable — parents, taxpayers, educators, policy makers, advocates, rural districts, school boards, superintendents, the General Assembly and the governor’s office — to figure out exactly what can change
and what must change about the state’s education framework to satisfy the U.S. Department of Education.
As state board chair and vice-chair, Durham and Schroeder have a seat at the committee table, but Durham doesn’t put much faith in the group approach and has said publicly that he would prefer to write the plan himself — with considerable help, no doubt, from Scheffel.
Regardless of who authors the plan, one of the looming conflicts is what to do about PARCC. The CDE’s contract with the consortium and with the testing company that services it — Pearson — is up next year.
The Gang of Four sees a timely opportunity to get out of PARCC at last, but then what? On top of that, the CDE is required by state law to revisit Colorado’s academic standards in 2017. Changes are coming again, but no one knows for sure how big they’ll be.
Many of the folks in the trenches are offering up prayers that the disruption will be minimal. Teachers and school administrators worry that yet another change will cost more time, money and morale, and will run talent — already in short supply — out of the state.
“We’ve had so many changes over the last couple of years,” say’s Aurora’s Munn. “This is the first year in four or five years where we’ve had consistent data from one year to the next because we didn’t have a change in the testing structure. So it’s not a philosophical or political position as it relates to PARCC as much as it would just be nice to have consistency for a couple of years.”
The CDE worries that its assessment data, already weakened by opt-outs, will be rendered worthless if new standards and tests diverge too far from the old ones. And education and civil-rights advocates want to finally see some consistent, comparable data over time, or the fundamental goal that America has chased since 1965 — to provide all children with a “fair, equal, and significant opportunity to obtain a high-quality education” — will move even farther out of reach. As it will if the anti-federal-involvement camp ever gets its way.
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“It’s a civil-rights issue,” says Hammond. “Somebody at the highest level of the government has to say this is not acceptable, for the sake of our children.”
One thing unlikely to change, at least without an amendment to the Colorado Constitution: The State Board of Education will remain a partisan body. Whether it becomes a more harmonious and effective board will rest, as always, with the voters.
As Senator Johnston says, “You’re not really sure what might happen at the next state board meeting. Because it might be anything.”
Editor's note: This story initially mischaracterized Steve Durham's involvement in charter schools' fight for a school voucher program. He didn't represent charter schools directly, however he did advocate for a school voucher program.