Standards Showdown

Supporters, opponents of bill that would delay standards ready for Senate hearing, spin

PHOTO: Alan Petersime
A Colorado Senate committee will hear testimony Thursday on a bill that would delay the full implementation of the Colorado Academic Standards, which are, in part, based on the Common Core Standards. Some Colorado school districts are already using workbooks and curriculum aligned to the new standards.

The growing nationwide public backlash against the implementation of the Common Core Standards has largely skipped over Colorado — but that’s about to change during the next 48 hours.

A bill that would delay the full implementation of the standards, establish a commission to study the issue and postpone the implementation of new tests aligned to the standards will be heard at 1:30 p.m., Thursday before the Colorado Senate Education Committee.

But even before lawmakers can get to work hearing official testimony on the bill, supporters and opponents will be out in full force Wednesday. Both sides of the debate are expected to lay out their position at the Capitol and Colorado Department of Education, where the State Board of Education will hold its regularly scheduled monthly meeting for two days.

The bill is sponsored by Fort Collins Republican Vicki Marble.

While observers believe the bill is likely to be killed by the Democratic-controlled education committee, the debate adds Colorado to a list of more a dozen states that has re-evaluated the adoption of the Common Core Standards. Since last year, several states, mostly Republican-controlled, have either slowed or delayed the implementation of the standards, at the request of a groundswell of parents and educators. Last month, New York’s teachers union passed a vote of no confidence in the standards and how the Empire State has implemented them.

While there has been a consistent, albeit limited, opposition against the new standards present at the Colorado State Board of Education, which officially adopted the standards in 2009 and incorporated the Common Core in 2010, supporters of the bill have been working overtime in sharing their concerns and recruiting more parents to join their cause.

The spin, now in overdrive, begins at 7:30 a.m., Wednesday, when a coalition of advocacy groups supportive of the standards is holding an information session for lawmakers about the standards, known here as the Colorado Academic Standards. The panel discussion includes Lt. Gov. Joe Garcia, teacher Jessica Cuthbertson, businessman Scott Fast, an educator from the San Luis Valley Gilbert Apodaca, and a former Department of Education and Colorado Legacy Foundation executive Nina Lopez.

The panel is sponsored by the Colorado Children’s Campaign, Colorado Succeeds, Stand for Children Colorado and the Rose Community Foundation.

At 10 a.m. supporters of the bill will gather outside the Capitol to protest the standards. They believe the standards are — among other things — a dumbed-down list of empty skills that also represent a top-down one-size-does-not-fit-all education reform effort robbing school boards of constitutionally-guaranteed local control.

Supporters of bill, from Fort Collins to Pueblo, and districts as disparate as Grand Junction and Cherry Creek, will then hold a press conference at 11 a.m. and take their concerns to the state board at 4 p.m.

“There are so many troubling aspects with Common Core, it’s hard to pick [just one],” said Cheri Kiesecker, a Fort Collins mother who helped author Senate Bill 14-136.

Standards and testing supporters are also expected to testify during the state board’s monthly public comment period. Similarly, their opposition to the bill at Thursday afternoon’s committee hearing is expected to be a well-orchestrated affair.

Opponents of the bill have been coordinating witnesses, perhaps more than a dozen, to speak against the bill. The four organizations sponsoring Wednesday’s information meeting are also working together and coordinating with the Colorado Education Association and Colorado Association of School Executives.

Their message will be that Colorado students can’t wait and that the state’s schedule for implementation of standards, testing and other reforms must move ahead, said one organizer.

A similar organizing effort is underway to coordinate next Monday’s currently scheduled House Education Committee hearing on HB 14-1202, which would require the State Board of Education to grant a district a waiver from statewide testing requirements if the district submits its own testing system that meets certain standards.

Lobbyists for the four groups also have been meeting with individual lawmakers in an attempt to build opposition to the bills.

While there is no shortage of national organizations opposed to the Common Core Standards including the Heritage Organization and American Principles Project, supporters of SB 14-136, or what the authors are calling the “Colorado Mom’s Bill,” said their fight is entirely grassroots.

“We have nobody backing us, we’re just concerned moms,” Kiesecker said.

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.