State Board elections

Testing issue follows candidates on campaign trail

Ask candidates running for the State Board of Education this year what voters want to talk about and you generally get a quick answer – testing.

The four candidates for two contested seats all expect that the question of how much and what kind of standardized tests should be given will be a major issue for the new board and legislature that take office in 2015. The candidates have differing but nuanced views on the issue, but most of them are open to considering changes in the state’s assessment system.

Chalkbeat Colorado interviewed each of the four about testing and other key education issues. See summaries of their responses below, but first here’s a brief look at who’s running.

The candidates

District 3 – Republican incumbent Marcia Neal of Grand Junction faces Democrat Henry Roman of Pueblo in this sprawling district that covers most of western Colorado and stretches east to Pueblo.

Neal is a former social studies teacher and Mesa 51 school board member who sometimes is a swing vote on the state board. She’s been a strong advocate of increasing the size of the school trust lands permanent fund, which earns revenues from state lands. Roman is a former Pueblo 60 superintendent, has worked recently as a charter school consultant and is making his first run for elected office.

District 7 – Democratic incumbent Jane Goff of Arvada is a former Jefferson County foreign language teacher and administrator who also served as president of the Jefferson County Education Association. She’s being challenged by Republican Laura Boggs of Lakewood, a former Jeffco school board member who was a one-woman conservative minority before the board changed hands in the 2013 election.

Issues in District 3


Marcia Neal
Marcia Neal

“I think there are a lot of concerns around the PARCC tests,” Neal said. “It’s sort of this gigantic issue.” She says Colorado faces “a real dilemma” in what to do about its testing system.

“So far I don’t think we’ve done a very good job of balancing” testing and classroom instruction, she said She hopes the task force that’s studying the issue can suggest and good balance on testing changes.

Roman said, “Right now I think we need to stay with” current plans for full PARCC testing next spring. He likes online testing because it promises quicker results for teachers to use. And he said he’s open to considering changes such as sampling, where every student is not tested every year, and reducing state tests to federal minimums. “We’ve burdened our teachers with too much testing.”

Academic standards

Neal voted against Colorado adoption of the Common Core State Standards in 2010 but said, “I’m very supportive of high academic standards.”

Roman said the state should stick with the current Colorado Academic Standards, which include the Common Core for language arts and math. “These happen to be the ones that are in place, and I support them” but is open to changes in the future.

School finance

Henry Roman
Henry Roman

“I know we need more money,” Neal said, but she believes there isn’t a direct relationship between funding levels and student achievement. She’s opposed to raising school funding without detailed plans for how more money would be used.

“I think we need to address the negative factor,” Roman said, referring to the formula used by the legislature to set total district funding every year. “We need to find a way to get back the funding schools should have been receiving.”

School choice

“I’m very much in favor of choice,” Neal said, but she doubts tuition tax credits or vouchers are in the state’s future, saying, “I don’t think that’s something the courts are ready to do.”

“I’m not in support of vouchers,” Roman said. “I think our current school choice options are excellent,” adding that he feel’s it’s important that charters “accept all students and that their performance is as good or better” than traditional schools.

What voters are saying

Neal said, “90 percent of the time it’s, ‘Where do you stand on Common Core?’ It dominates the conversation.”

Roman said, “What I’m hearing a lot of is there’s too much testing, and for the most part there’s too much emphasis on the core academic subjects to the exclusion of other subjects.” He added, “I’m also hearing about lack of equitable funding.”

The State Board’s role

Asked about the board’s role relative to the governor and the legislature, Neal said, “It does have a role to play, but it doesn’t make policy decisions, and it probably shouldn’t. … People tend to ignore us and then when something happens they want us to fix it, and we can’t.”

Roman said, “I see it as a body that takes what the legislature has passed and puts it into policy and procedure.”

Both candidates are concerned about the volume of education legislation – “There’s no limit to what the state legislature passes,” Roman said. “I’ve gotten to that I sort of dread the legislative session,” Neal commented.

The Jeffco controversy

Neal said the situation has “gotten pretty muddled” with the combination of two issues, curriculum review and teacher-board differences over salaries. She said, “I understand the history concern” about AP U.S. History and said that as a teacher “I always tried to go down the middle.”

“A class should reflect history as objectively as possible,” Roman said, adding that he supports the new AP class.

Issues in District 7


Jane Goff
Jane Goff

“I think it’s a dilemma for everybody,” Goff says of K-12 testing. “I’m not hearing very much at all of let’s throw the whole thing out,” and said she’s willing to look at changes in the system, including reducing state tests back to federal minimums. But, she added, “Accountability is the hard part, the sticky wicket.” She supports current plans to use the PARCC tests.

Boggs discusses testing in the context of her strong support for local control, criticizing what she calls “a one-size-fits-all system” and saying “districts need to have flexibility” in testing – “while absolutely still holding the system accountable.”

Academic standards

Goff said she “absolutely” supports the current Colorado Academic Standards, thinks changing them now would be disruptive for districts. “The challenge is getting people to understand what it’s all about.”

Boggs thinks “We need a robust conversation about what the actual standards need to be. … Parents and community members need confidence in our standards, and there’s clearly not that now.”

School finance

Laura Boggs
Laura Boggs

Goff said, “I’m not a tax fan” and that voters need better explanation of how new revenues would be spent. Referring to Amendment 66, the defeated 2013 K-12 tax increase, she said, “I don’t think people really understood how that could benefit their school district and the state as a whole.” While she supports reduction of the negative factor, she added, “I can’t see any great benefit in restoring more money to schools is that hurts, say, health programs.”

Boggs faults legislators for not spending more money on K-12 during the 2014 session, given a large balance in the State Education Fund. She sees general voter support for local school tax measures (as opposed to defeat on A66) as evidence that citizens “want local control back.”

School choice

Goff said she’s comfortable with the quality of state charter school law and feels progress has been made with online schools but that continued work is needed to improve student achievement at online schools and some charters. She said she generally opposes vouchers and tuition tax credits but would be willing to consider such mechanisms for some special education students.

Boggs calls herself “a huge supporter” of choice and charter schools but has concerns about vouchers and tax credits. “A great public education system is a great equalizer, so I’m not really wild about proposals that take money out of the public school system.” She also said a statewide tax credit law could be “a little dicey because you are infringing on local control.”

What the voters are saying

“Number 1 right now is testing. That’s hot, it’s very hot,” Goff said. “It’s probably right up there with what’s going on in Jeffco.”

Boggs said, “The voters are telling me that our child are over-tested … the teachers are telling me that they don’t have the flexibility. … a one-size-fits-all education system is not something they’re interested in.”

The State Board’s role

Goff acknowledges that the board often is subordinate to the governor and legislature but thinks SBE members should take a more visible role on education issues and should show “more leadership.”

Boggs said the board should “get more energized in the conversation” about largely flat student achievement levels but stressed again “my passion is for the local control piece” of education.

The Jeffco controversy

Jefferson County is a big part of the 7th District, and both Goff and Boggs have close personal tied to the district.

Chalkbeat asked the candidates how controversies over the board could affect their race.

“Right now education is so hot and people are so passionate about it,” Goff said, adding that it’s hard to tell how that might translate into the state board race. “I think it’s still early to tell.”

Boggs was critical of the new AP U.S. history program but also of the original wording of the Jeffco board’s curriculum review resolution. She said the impact in the broader electorate is hard judge. “I’m probably not the best person to ask about that,” she added, given that primarily talks to people who are involved with education.

Board campaigns are quiet

State Board candidates usually campaign in the shadow of statewide and congressional candidates, with their big television ad budgets, and of the better-funded legislative hopefuls, who can blanket their districts with yard signs, literature drops and phone calls.

The 3rd District has 29 counties – many mountainous and thinly populated – and is especially challenging for SBE candidates.

“It’s very difficult,” said Neal. “I have not traveled as much as I’d like to.” She sends literature and yard signs to county GOP offices for distribution, and she’s planning newspaper and maybe radio ads in Pueblo and Durango, two population centers where she’s not as well known as in the Grand Valley. “I do what I have with the money I have and the time I’ve got.”

Roman said he’s been traveling extensively on the Western Slope in order to raise his profile there, attending candidate forums, coffees, Democratic events and “a lot of parades.”

Neal has raised about $11,500, while Roman’s campaign war chest was nearly $17,000 at the end of September.

In the 7th District Goff has been attending candidate forums and Democratic events, getting yard signs placed and literature distributed and is sending postcards to targeted Adams and Jefferson county neighborhoods. She’s also advertising in weekly community newspapers.

Boggs said, “I’m going to everything I’m invited to,” but that mailings aren’t planned “unless there’s a whole lot of money coming in that I don’t know about.”

Goff has a wide fund-raising edge with about $23,000 compared to Boggs’ $3,800.

Other districts, other members

Valentina Flores
Valentina Flores

The board’s 1st District seat, which primarily covers Denver, is also on the ballot this election. Retired educator Valentina Flores, who defeated a reform candidate in the June Democratic primary, is the only candidate on the ballot. (Learn more about her background and views in this earlier Chalkbeat Colorado story.) Flores will replace Democrat Elaine Gantz Berman, who chose not to run again.

Board chair Paul Lundeen, a Republican from Monument, is running unopposed for a seat in the state House. Once he’s elected a GOP vacancy committee will choose a replacement for his District 5 board seat.

Three board members are in the middle of terms and not on the ballot: Republican Pam Mazanec of Larkspur (4th District), Republican Debora Scheffel of Parker (6th) and Democrat Angelika Schroeder of Boulder (2nd).

About the State Board of Education

Here are key facts about the board:

  • Seven members elected on a partisan basis
  • Board districts are the same as congressional districts
  • Term limits: Two six-year terms
  • Current board is four Republicans, three Democrats
  • Members are unpaid
  • Board generally meets monthly
  • Constitutional duty: “General supervision of the public schools”
  • Specific duties: Hiring education commissioner, issuing regulations to implement state education laws; revoking teacher licenses; granting waivers to education laws; approving teacher prep programs; adjudicating district-charter disputes; certifying multi-district online programs; overseeing reports, task forces and various other groups; adoption of state content standards and tests; deciding conversion plans for failed schools and districts; distribution of grants, among others
  • Board website


Colorado schools are getting a major bump in the state’s 2018-19 budget

Students waiting to enter their sixth-grade classroom at Kearney Middle School in Commerce City. (Photo by Craig Walker, The Denver Post)

Colorado’s strong economy has opened the door for state lawmakers to send a major cash infusion to the state’s public schools.

As they finalized the recommended budget for 2018-19, the Joint Budget Committee set aside $150 million, an additional $50 million beyond what Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper had asked for, to increase funding to schools.

“We believe this is the most significant reduction in what used to be called the negative factor since it was born,” said state Rep. Millie Hamner, the Dillon Democrat who chairs the Joint Budget Committee.

Colorado’s constitution calls for per pupil spending to increase at least by inflation every year, but the state hasn’t been able to meet that obligation since the Great Recession. The amount by which schools get shorted, officially called the budget stabilization factor, is $822 million in 2017-18. Under state law, this number isn’t supposed to get bigger from one year to the next, but in recent years, it hasn’t gotten much smaller either. 

But a booming economy coupled with more capacity in the state budget created by a historic compromise on hospital funding last year means Colorado has a lot more money to spend this year. In their March forecast, legislative economists told lawmakers they have an extra $1.3 billion to spend or save in 2018-19.

The recommended shortfall for next year is now just $672.4 million. That would bring average per-pupil spending above $8,100, compared to $7,662 this year.

Total program spending on K-12 education, after the budget stabilization factor is deducted, should be a little more than $7 billion, with the state picking up about $4.5 billion and the rest coming from local property taxes.

The budget debate this year has featured Republicans pressing for more ongoing money for transportation and Democrats resisting in the interest of spreading more money around to other needs. The positive March forecast reduced much of that tension, as a $500 million allocation for transportation allowed a compromise on roads funding in the Republican-controlled Senate. That compromise still needs the approval of the Democratic-controlled House, but suddenly a lot of things are seeming possible.

“We knew we were going to have more revenue than we’ve ever had to work with,” Hamner said of the status at the beginning of the session. But that presented its own challenges, as so many interest groups and constituencies sought to address long-standing needs.

“The fact that we’ve been able to reach such incredible compromises on transportation and K-12 funding, I think most members will be very pleased with this outcome,” Hamner said. “Where we ended up is a pretty good place.”

The big outstanding issue is proposed reforms to the Public Employees Retirement Association or PERA fund to address unfunded liabilities. A bill that is likely to see significant changes in the House is wending its way through the process. The Joint Budget Committee has set aside $225 million to deal with costs associated with that fix, which has major implications for teachers and school districts budgets.

The Joint Budget Committee has also set aside $30 million for rural schools, $10 million for programs to address teacher shortages, and $7 million for school safety grants.

The budget will be introduced in the House on Monday. Many of the school funding elements will appear in a separate school finance bill.

Going forward, there is a question about how sustainable these higher funding levels will be.

“It does put more pressure on the general fund,” Hamner said. “If we see a downturn in the economy, it’s going to be a challenge.”

outside the box

Program to bring back dropout students is one of 10 new ideas Jeffco is investing in

File photo of Wheat Ridge High School students. (Photo by Nic Garcia/Chalkbeat)

Jeffco students who drop out will have another option for completing high school starting this fall, thanks to a program that is being started with money from a district “innovation fund.”

The new program would allow students, particularly those who are older and significantly behind on credits, to get district help to prepare for taking a high school equivalency test, such as the GED, while also taking college courses paid for by the district.

The idea for the program was pitched by Dave Kollar, who has worked for Jeffco Public Schools for almost 20 years, most recently as the district’s director of student engagement.

In part, Kollar’s idea is meant to give students hope and to allow them to see college as a possibility, instead of having to slowly walk back as they recover credits missing in their transcripts.

“For some kids, they look at you, and rightfully so, like ‘I’m going to be filling in holes for a year or two? This doesn’t seem realistic,’” Kollar said. “They’re kind of defeated by that. As a student, I’m constantly looking backwards at my failures. This is about giving kids something like a light at the end of the tunnel.”

Jeffco’s dropout rate has decreased in the last few years, like it has across the state. At 1.7 percent, the rate isn’t high, but still represents 731 students who dropped out last year.

Kollar’s was one of ten winning ideas announced earlier this month in the district’s first run at giving out mini-grants to kick-start innovative ideas. Kollar’s idea received $160,000 to get the program started and to recruit students who have dropped out and are willing to come back to school.

The other ideas that the district gave money to range from school building improvements to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act at Fletcher Miller Special School, from new school health centers to a new district position to help work on safety in schools. One school, Stott Elementary, will create a “tinker lab” where students will have space and supplies to work on projects as part of the school’s project-based learning model.

The Jeffco school board approved $1 million for the awards earlier this year. It was an idea proposed by Superintendent Jason Glass as a way of encouraging innovation in the district. This spring process is meant as a test run. The board will decide whether to continue investing in it once they see how the projects are going later this spring.

Officials say they learned a lot already. Tom McDermott, who oversaw the process, will present findings and recommendations to the board at a meeting next month.

If the board agrees to continue the innovation fund, McDermott wants to find different ways of supporting more of the ideas that educators present, even if there aren’t dollars for all of them.

That’s because in this first process — even though educators had short notice — teachers and other Jeffco staff still completed and submitted more than 100 proposals. Of those, 51 ideas scored high enough to move to the second round of the process in which the applicants were invited to pitch their ideas to a committee made up of Jeffco educators.

“We’re extremely proud of the 10,” McDermott said, but added, “we want to be more supportive of more of the ideas.”

McDermott said he thinks another positive change might be to create tiers so that smaller requests compete with each other in one category, and larger or broader asks compete with one another in a separate category.

This year, the applicants also had a chance to request money over time, but those parts of the awards hang on the board allocating more money.

Kollar’s idea for the GED preparation program for instance, includes a request for $348,800 next year. In total, among the 10 awards already granted, an extra $601,487 would be needed to fund the projects in full over the next two years.

Awards for innovation fund. Provided by Jeffco Public Schools.

The projects are not meant to be sustained by the award in the long-term, and some are one-time asks.

Kollar said that if that second phase of money doesn’t come through for his program, it should still be able to move forward. School districts are funded per student, so by bringing more students back to the district, the program would at least get the district’s student-based budget based on however many students are enrolled.

A similar program started in Greeley this fall is funded with those dollars the state allocates to districts for each student. So far, eight students there already completed a GED certificate, and there are now 102 other students enrolled, according to a spokeswoman for the Greeley-Evans school district.

But, having Jeffco’s innovation money could help Kollar’s program provide additional services to the students, such as a case manager that can help connect students to food or housing resources if needed.

And right now Kollar is working on setting up systems to track data around how many students end up completing the program, earning a high school equivalency certificate, enrolling in a college or trade-school, or getting jobs.

Helping more students on a path toward a career is the gold standard, he said, and what makes the program innovative.

“It’s not just about if the student completes high school,” Kollar said. “It’s are we making sure we are intentionally bridging them into whatever the next pathway is?”