Making the Grades

For the most part, the mood at the Colorado State Board of Education's last work session of 2000 is polite, collegial, even chummy. Until the end, that is.

The change takes place with the final item on the December 13 agenda, a typically offbeat resolution proposal by Patti Johnson, whose six-year run with the board will end next week. Johnson likes to put forward such declarations, even though they attract criticism from finger-waggers who think the boardmembers have more important things to do than debate non-binding decrees that represent nothing more than their opinions -- stuff they just want to get off their collective chest.

And why not? Board chair Clair Orr has no problem with them. He has even offered one of his own -- a document urging Colorado public schools to post the phrase "In God we trust" -- that garnered plenty of attention.

Besides, Johnson believes that her 1999 resolution regarding "psychiatric drugs" such as Ritalin, which she charged some teachers and administrators with pushing as a solution for behavior problems when non-pharmacological methods are readily available, was worth each and every one of the attacks made upon her by educators and health-care pros. In her mind, the subsequent nationwide debate over the prescription (many would say "over-prescription") of Ritalin might not have taken place without her efforts. So viva la resolution!

This time around, Johnson has her sights trained on programs of the sort funded by the School to Work Opportunity Act of 1994, a piece of federal legislation that provides grants for vocational curricula directing students toward in-demand careers. It sounds benign, but Johnson sees the courses the act spawned as insidious, robbing Our Nation's Kids of the freedom to do whatever their hearts desire. This kind of thing might fly in Germany, whose efforts helped inspire the bill here, or maybe the late, unlamented Soviet Union, but not in America -- which is why she's raising her voice in objection to it. Never mind that the program is on its last legs: It's set to expire this October, and since it was one of Bill Clinton's pet projects, the odds that George W. Bush will embrace anything like it are about the same as his appointing Jesse Jackson to the Supreme Court.

But Johnson's not deterred. As she tells the rest of the board, she's already obtained informal endorsements from a bevy of legislators: Colorado representatives Tom Tancredo, Joel Hefley and Bob Schaffer and Senator Wayne Allard, conservatives all. Now she just needs the votes of her fellow boardmembers to start a fire that, with luck, will burn all the way from this conference room in the Department of Education building, across Colfax from the State Capitol, to Washington, D.C.

Not that she's so blinded by passion that she's incapable of compromise. The board's Randy DeHoff, among others, previously recommended that Johnson trim some of the more controversial portions of the resolution's text ("lightning rods," he calls them), and she did -- hacked the thing in half and slapped a headline on it ("Commitment to a Strong Academic Education") that nobody could find objectionable. Likewise, the School to Work Opportunity Act isn't identified by name, and the language -- "Whereas, children are not a resource for the state"; "Vocational directions shall be exclusively the free choice of individual students" -- is awfully vague.

Yet Johnson was able to retain ideological asides such as "Whereas, government controlled economies have historically failed and free market economies have flourished" and "Be it further resolved that the Colorado State Board of Education uphold the American Free Enterprise System." Bet those are gonna stick in the craws of all the communists out there.

It's clear, though, that most of Johnson's peers have no problems with her offering. "I know we've taken some flak over our resolutions," chairman Orr acknowledges, "and maybe I don't put as much weight on these as I should. But it's just a statement that doesn't carry the weight of rule or regulation."

That falls far short of placating Gully Stanford, the sole Democrat on this seven-member board. Stanford's otherness doesn't bother him: A native of Dublin, Ireland, he's accustomed to being an outsider, and he's got an unforced sense of humor about, among other things, his occasional inability to get the board to so much as debate topics he raises. ("Some people tell me my epitaph should be 'He died for want of a second,'" he says in an accent that remains pronounced despite the more than three decades he's lived outside his homeland.) But just because he's outnumbered doesn't mean he's willing to withhold his views about Johnson's resolution.

"Is your purpose to discourage school-to-career programs?" he asks.

"My purpose," Johnson replies icily, "is to address some of the things coming down from federal programs."

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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts