Closely watching new board

The results of the 2016 election brought seismic and unexpected shifts to the political landscape. One lesser known but educationally important change was with the Colorado State Board of Education, which shifted partisan control from Republicans to Democrats for the first time in nearly 50 years.

The State Board serves an important role in approving regulations at the state level and also approving state plans for how Colorado interacts with federal laws. In addition, the State Board holds the governance role over the Colorado Department of Education and appoints the state Commissioner of Education.

Control of the State Board swung on the results of Colorado’s 6th district, mirroring the Congressional district covering much of Arapahoe County, as well as parts of Adams and Douglas counties on the Front Range.

In that race, Democratic challenger Rebecca McClellan eked out a win (by less than 1,300 votes in the latest counts) over Republican incumbent Deborah Scheffel. McClellen is a former city council member from Centennial, has some experience as an advocate for public education, and is a parent. Scheffel is a career educator and is the dean of education at Colorado Christian University.

Colorado’s State Board of Education has come under a great deal of criticism lately for issues ranging from rubber stamping charter school applications and (arguably) exceeding the scope of their authority, to rolling through four state education commissioners in a year and a half.

Those working in education, either in practitioner or policy roles, will be closely watching this new State Board to see how decisions may change with a Democratic majority. One might leap to the conclusion that most educators would celebrate a Democratic victory and control of the State Board, but not so fast. Politics when it comes to education are murky, at best, and predicting decisions based on one party or the other may be difficult.

Republican Steve Durham, the current State Board chair, recently spoke out against education reform groups in the state, criticizing them for manufacturing a crisis related to public education using test scores to paint an inaccurate performance picture of Colorado’s public schools. Durham (and other Republican members of the board) have been critical of the state’s testing system.

Normally, these policy positions would be music to most educators’ ears — but it’s not so easy. Durham is also an avid school voucher proponent and has repeatedly backed charter schools in disputes with their authorizers. Outgoing board member Scheffel has held firm on many of these same positions.

Democratic winner McLellan earned the endorsement of the state’s largest teachers’ union, the Colorado Education Association. At the same time, a political action committee connected to the group Democrats for Education Reform also provided $150,000 in support of McClellan’s run.

Again, on the surface one might assume that the Colorado Education Association and any group with the word “Democrats” in its name would be pretty cozy. Not so. The Democrats for Education Reform agenda runs heavy on things like testing, school rating systems, using test scores to fire people, and expanding school choice (primarily charter schools). The Colorado Education Association and Democrats for Education Reform getting together behind McClellan is going to make for some strange political bedfellows when both these groups show up to cash in their post-election chits for supporting the ultimate winning candidate.

Democrats for Education Reform’s interest in this race focused on preserving the policy victories their agenda achieved over the past few years. Specifically, they support the adoption of the common core and accompanying testing systems, test-based accountability, and school choice. Now, their “reform” agenda will be to make sure that nothing changes.

Interestingly, Republicans on the State Board had begun to question the test-based accountability agenda, which is what drew them into the gun sights of groups like Democrats for Education Reform.

For her part, McClellan isn’t tipping her hand — at least not publicly. She has said she doesn’t have a rigid agenda and has expressed a desire to stand up for public schools. We will have to wait and see what this means in terms of her policy positions.

Timing is important here, too. The state is in the middle of navigating a new federal policy framework and will also be figuring out how it will interact with the Trump administration. Also, eyes now shift toward Interim Commissioner of Education Katy Anthes and her future plans. Anthes has been seen as a competent, fair, and steadying force for Colorado’s schools these past few months. Although she was appointed by a Republican controlled-board, this new Democratic majority could do a lot worse and shouldn’t overlook the card in their hand with Anthes. Consistency and competence are good things to have in the political toolbox these days.