Friday, January 30, 2015

AV#124-Governance of K-12 Public Education in Colorado 01/2015

Another View #124                                                                                                               Peter Huidekoper, Jr.
Jan. 13, 2015

Governance of K-12 Public Education in Colorado
What’s wrong with this picture?

In The Smartest Kids in the World, Amanda Ripley praises “the clarity of purpose” for education in Finland, Korea, and Poland. “In many U.S. schools, however, the priorities were muddled beyond recognition.”

Mark your calendar!  April 9—4:30-6:00 PM
UC-D’s School of Public Affairs
Education Policy Networking Series: TOPIC: Governance in K-12 education (state board, commissioner, governor, etc.)
As the coordinator of the Colorado Education Policy Fellowship Program the past three years, I have enjoyed the chance to explore some basic questions.  Such as: who      
is the leading voice on K-12 education in our state?  What individual or organization provides leadership for Colorado and gives us clarity on our purpose and where we are headed?

No obvious answers these days, agreed?  No governors like Roy Romer or Bill Owens, no commissioners like William Maloney or Dwight Jones, using the bully pulpit of their office, taking a clear stand.

Yes, thank God, we do not live in North Korea.  We know our “messy democracy” asks us to hear and respond to many voices, multiple views about good schools and effective laws and policies.   Checks and balances—yes, we know the benefits. Still, clarity matters.  Not that we must all be “on the same page,” but it does help to unite around a larger vision of what we want for students in our K-12 schools.

On seeing the headline on education in a neighboring state this fall, “Rudderless in Oklahoma” (, I emailed it to a friend and asked if the term didn’t apply to Colorado as well.  His response – he spoke of “a huge problem now with all the bickering and no state leaders stepping up”–assured me I was not alone. (See p.4 for other comments on K-12 governance in our state.)

The question might be: if we lack a clear direction, is it due to the individuals in leadership roles today—their leadership styles (hesitant to be out front, eager “to have that conversation,” skillful at working quietly and negotiating differences)?  Or is it due, to some degree, to the structures we have in place in Colorado, structures that inhibit leadership, that frustrate efforts for some kind of shared understanding  of our top priorities, that even foster conflict among the main institutions governing K-12 schools?

Let me ask: does this ring true? We elect a governor who may (Romer, Owens) or may not (Ritter, Hickenlooper) make K-12 education a top priority.  The governor might be fortunate to have a lieutenant governor who carries the ball on K-12 education (Barbara O’Brien, Joe Garcia), but his/her voice lacks the clout of a governor, so on key education issues, leadership is ill-defined.  Our governor does not appoint and voters do not elect the Commissioner of Education, who reports to the state board, which is entirely independent of the governor’s office. (Only 8 states give the governor such a modest role; see 50-State Analysis, p. 5.) We vote for the board member in our congressional district, then the board—especially when voting 4-3—gives the Colorado Department of Education one message, while our legislators (we vote for them too) passes laws that tell the state and districts something else. (Need a recent example? Look no further than last week:

If fair, and if this is a cause of an absence of clear leadership, is it not time to re-examine and revise?
The following page is flawed and incomplete, but I hope accurate enough to invite useful questions.  Is this arrangement the best we can do?  Does it invite a lack of alignment?  Does it prevent Colorado from pulling together around a clear purpose and set of objectives for K-12 education?  Are there structures in other states (see six examples, pages 6-8) worth considering?  I don’t know. I’m just asking.   

Governance of K-12 Public Education in Colorado: What’s wrong with this picture?

Governor/ Lt. Gov.

(House & Senate)
esp. influential – Budget Committee and Education Committee


State board
Mission: “to provide all of Colorado’s children equal access to quality, thorough, uniform, well-rounded educational opportunities in a safe and civil learning environment.”
“charged by the Colorado Constitution with the general supervision of the public schools”
Pass laws

Hires, appoints

Laws that impact state department of education, 178 school districts, 1,800 schools

Local school board

the chief state school officer and executive officer of the department of education" in Colorado

Hires, appoints


District superintendent

Colorado Department of Education
Mission: “to ensure that all students are prepared for success in society, work, and life by providing excellent leadership, service, and support to schools, districts, and communities across the state.
“As the administrative arm of the State Board of Education, CDE is responsible for implementing state and federal education laws, disbursing state and federal funds, holding schools and districts accountable for performance, licensing all educators, and providing public transparency of performance and financial data.”


school district

school leaders


End of era of reform? A national snapshot – our story too?
Last month Andy Smarick of Bellwether Education Partners presented an ominous look at three recent trends across the country, “Homeostasis and the end of today’s era of reform?”

“At the very moment reform-weary states elect governors unwed to Race to the Top-era reforms and replace bold state chiefs with traditional chiefs, we’re about to change federal policy such that reform is fully dependent on the reform convictions of state leaders.  Prior to this period of reform, the K–12 equilibrium was marked by establishment-oriented chiefs, an insufficient focus on student outcomes, state-level insularity, and no federal accountability. Homeostasis may be bringing this heady era of reform disequilibrium to an end.”

(See also last week’s Wall Street Journal: “New York’s Partnership for the Education Status Quo,” 1/8/15)

Lt. Gov. Joe Garcia spoke of a similar concern here in his speech last month to the Colorado Association of School Boards.  He urged us to “stay the course” on key components of the reform path we have committed to—with a fair degree of consistency, I would add, over the past 20 years.

“Garcia: Colorado ‘can’t back down’ on education reform” (Chalkbeat, Todd Engdahl, Dec. 5, 2014)

Truckin’, like the do-dah man
Once told me “You got to play your hand
Sometimes the cards ain’t worth a damn
If you don’t lay’em down
     Lt. Gov. Joe Garcia told an audience of school board members and administrators Friday that they should
double down on the state’s slate of education reforms.                
    “We know we can’t stray from the path of high standards,
rigorous assessments and educator effectiveness,” Garcia said. “We need to agree to stay the course,” he added. “We know we’re making dramatic changes; we know it’s hard. If we back off now we risk, quite frankly, creating vast ripples of inequality and inequity in our education system.”
     … He reminded the audience of nearly 1,000 that “We came together as a state in 2008” to pass the Colorado Achievement Plan for Kids. “That didn’t come from the feds, that came from all of us.” Known as CAP4K, the legislation set in motion new standards and tests plus other requirements. “It’s scary, it’s tough, but we can’t back down six years later,” Garcia said. “We know we can’t stray from the path of high standards, rigorous assessments and educator effectiveness. … We can come up with practical solutions to these conflicts. We have to, we must.”

A state leader puts his cards on the table! How refreshing!  And yet the uneasy feeling remains: is this what the Governor believes? Is this what the Commissioner of Education—or our state board of education—would say?  Given the frustration around the state, I have to wonder if Garcia’s audience applauded.

Some will say it is a fool’s errand to seek “clarity of purpose” for K-12 education.  In a democratic, diverse society—on a matter that feels so personal, what we want of our public schools—don’t even try; it will only lead to a muddled vision that excites and motivates no one.  Better, they would say, to affirm choice and let a hundred flowers bloom.  (Or die. Over 220 charters have opened in Colorado; roughly 30 have closed.) 

Wasn’t that my point, you ask, in AV#123, placing authority at the school-level, rather than in a “local board” (in quotes!) which “shall have control ...” over 150 schools serving 86,000 students?

No, it wasn’t.  Yes, I would like to see every public school in Colorado develop its own mission and have a clear statement of purpose that is NOT muddled, one that attracts and motivates the families and teachers and community that takes ownership for their school.  Meaningful local control.  But I do not believe that greater autonomy and freedom, for 1,800 schools, should prevent us from having, as a state, a clear vision of our essential goals and where we are headed.  

And right now, I do not see our structures and our current leadership providing those clear goals.


Another View, a newsletter by Peter Huidekoper, represents his own opinion and is not intended to represent the
view of any organization he is associated with.  Comments are welcome. 303-757-1225 /

Comments from several folks who have given this issue considerable thought
(I shared an early draft and asked for comments; here are excerpts from what I heard back. Thank you!)

… I'd suggest that changing governance structures, while possibly helpful, won't solve the crisis we have in educating all of Colorado's children.
What you did identify that resonates with me is the lack of leadership and vision we have for improving education in our state.  We've had it at times (as you suggest, Romer, Owens) - regardless of governance structure - but don't have it presently.  There are many of us trying to improve the current system, but without a unifying strategy or theory of action that is more universally held. This is somewhat the fallout from the structure as you suggest, but is also built into our state persona - the rugged individualists Coloradans are.
(I suggest) a competing alternative to the system we currently have (that) would be a more grassroots (students, parents, educators) movement than one led trying to corral everyone (I.e., political leadership) into one unified vision that might or might not lead to improving education.
. . . but the complaints I hear in Colorado about the flaws of (elected state board appointing commissioner) our system are to some extent just different words inside the parentheses.  Everybody seems to complain about their arrangement for one reason or another.  I do not see any absolute, always successful, no brainer formula that fosters educational leadership and continuity, and is adequately removed from politics (when desirable) but still able to influence policy when needed. 
Structurally we might change the Lt. Governor’s office to assume leadership for P-20 education on behalf of the Governor’s office and use the Children cabinet* as an administrative board. This was a structure we used for ECE when Barbara (O’Brien) was LG but it never got legislated so lost any power it might have had.
*… other Governors use a children cabinet to coordinate across agencies all children's services including the commissioner of ed. I think the closest thing Hickenlooper has is the Colorado Education Leadership Council housed in the L.G. office. It is a common practice in many states to have children cabinets.

I think that our statewide governance clearly sets up the potential disjointed strategy.  Sometimes that is good, and sometimes that is bad.  I just think it depends greatly on the quality of the leadership.  Maybe that is the problem: should our education system depend upon electing leaders who will stick their necks out politically for K-12 transformation?
Thankfully we have had fairly moderate Governors, but they have so little control over education in this state, that I do think more direct responsibility and accountability for education under their helm could provide some positive results for students in the long run.   I do think we need more "systems" reform for education from the local school board level, and certainly at the state level.
Yes, all the approaches have pluses and minuses. …  The bigger issue, it seems to me, is how under exploited state boards are as a lever for reform. They're a wasteland right now.  Also, your state, like some others around the country, is especially complicated because of the constitutional prerogatives afforded to school districts that allow them to veto a lot of reform. Those are a huge barrier to cohesion.

Governors’ role in Governance – 50-State Analysis

First 16 …. (bold mine)
Alabama -  The governor does not appoint any of the voting members of the state board of education nor the chief state school officer.
Alaska - The governor appoints all of the voting members of the state board of education with the legislature's confirmation.
Arizona - The governor appoints 8 of the 9 voting members of the state board of education.
Arkansas -  The governor appoints all of the voting members of the state board of education with the senate's confirmation, and confirms the state board of education's appointment of the commissioner of education.
California - The governor appoints all of the voting members of the state board of education with 2/3 of the senate's consent.
Colorado - The governor does not appoint any of the voting members of the state board of education nor the chief state school officer.
Connecticut - The governor appoints all of the voting members of the state board of education with the legislature's consent.
Delaware - The governor appoints all of the voting members of the state board of education with the senate's confirmation, and appoints the secretary of education with the advice and consent of the senate.
District of Columbia - The mayor appoints the state superintendent of education.
Florida  - The governor appoints all of the voting members of the state board of education.
Georgia               - The governor appoints all of the voting members of the state board of education with the senate's confirmation.
Hawaii   - The governor appoints all of the voting members of the state board of education.
Idaho - The governor appoints 7 of the 8 voting members of the state board of education.
Illinois - The governor appoints all of the voting members of the state board of education.
Indiana - The governor appoints 10 of the 11 voting members of the state board of education.
Iowa - The governor appoints all of the voting members of the state board of education and the director of the department of education.

(“What is the level of the governor’s influence?” In 39 states the governor appoints all or some of the voting members of state board. In several other states—MN, NM, Texas—the governor appoints the commissioner/superintendent of schools. From ECS 50-State K-12 Governance Structures Database:

Six states: Arkansas, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Jersey, Tennessee, and Vermont

Arkansas Commissioner of Education
The Arkansas Commissioner of Education is a state executive position in the Arkansas state government. The commissioner is a cabinet-level executive official that oversees the operations of the state Department of Education, which runs Arkansas's public school system. He or she serves under the purview of the Arkansas Board of Education, which appoints the commissioner subject to the approval of the governor.
“Charlie Baker Picks James Peyser as Secretary of Education” (Dec. 23, 2014)
“Baker filled three more positions today, naming a Secretary of Education as well as commissioners of the state’s public health and agricultural resources departments. Two positions in Baker’s cabinet are yet to be filled—those of Secretary of Transportation and Secretary of Public Safety.
“James A. Peyser, former chairman of the Massachusetts Board of Education, has been named Secretary of Education. A former education advisor to Governors Weld and Romney, Peyser is currently Executive Director of the Baker-Polito Transition Team. He recently worked at NewSchools Venture Fund, described on its website as ‘a nonprofit venture philanthropy firm working to transform public education for low-income children.’
“‘I am proud to have Jim join our bipartisan team of experienced professionals,’ Baker said in a statement. ‘I saw firsthand Jim’s experience and leadership improving public education throughout his career and during our time together on the state Board of Education.’”
“In the same statement, Peyser said, ‘I am committed to advancing the Governor-elect’s ambitious priorities by producing more great schools throughout the Commonwealth, expanding and strengthening career-technical education programs, developing new partnerships with local school districts and communities, and making higher education more affordable and responsive to the needs of our diverse regions.’”
From the Office of the Commissioner (who is appointed by the Governor)
MDE Mission: "Leading for educational excellence and equity. Every day for every one."
MDE Vision: The Minnesota Department of Education provides an excellent education for Minnesota students by implementing Governor Mark Dayton’s 7-Point Plan for Better Schools for a Better Minnesota. We strive for excellence, equity and opportunity by focusing on closing the achievement gap, supporting high-quality teaching, using innovative strategies to improve educational outcomes, and ensuring all students graduate from high school well-prepared for college, career and life.

New Jersey
State Department of Education - David C. Hespe - Commissioner
The Commissioner of Education is the chief executive school officer of New Jersey and supervises all public schools. He or she is also a member of the Governor's cabinet, appointed by the Governor with the advice and consent of the New Jersey Senate. As education leader of the state, the Commissioner recommends legislative initiatives and changes, suggests rules and regulations for state board consideration, produces educational research, conducts initiatives to meet the state's educational needs, and serves as liaison between the local school districts and the federal government. (bold mine)
State law grants the Commissioner a broad range of powers and responsibilities, such as deciding legal controversies and disputes that arise under school law or state board regulations. The Commissioner's decisions have the force of law.
The Commissioner also has the following responsibilities:
•     serves as secretary to the State Board of Education;
•     develops code proposals for state board discussion and consideration;
•     apportions state aid to local districts;
•     administers regulations for classifying students with disabilities;
•     ensures that local districts adhere to all legal and state board requirements relating to school district operation; and
•     conducts statewide tests.

The Commissioner appoints members to and serves as chairman of the New Jersey State Board of Examiners, a 14-member group of educators that issues, suspends or revokes state certificates of elementary and secondary teachers and other professionals. The board also determines whether alternative experiences meet course of study requirements for certification and recommends certification standards and requirements to the State Board of Education.
Candice McQueen named new Tennessee education commissioner (Dec. 17, 2014)
“Lipscomb University Senior Vice President Candice McQueen is named the new Tennessee education commissioner at a news conference at the Capitol. Lipscomb University Senior Vice President Candice McQueen is Gov. Bill Haslam's pick to fill Tennessee's high-profile education commissioner position at a time when public schools have never been more debated in the state.
“The selection, made Wednesday, was met with widespread enthusiasm from leaders in education reform who had backed Kevin Huffman, the polarizing education chief she will replace. Many of Huffman's harshest critics, meanwhile, praised the pick as well.
“In her role as dean of Lipscomb's College of Education, she emerged as an authority on Tennessee's two most-contested education policies — the state's shift to more rigorous Common Core academic standards and a teacher evaluation system that takes into account student test scores.”

 Gov. Peter Shumlin signs H.440. Photo by Taylor Dobbs
“Gov. Peter Shumlin signed a bill on Thursday that moves the education system directly under the governor’s control. The bill, H. 440, created a new cabinet position for the secretary of Education who will report to the governor. Under previous law, the commissioner answered to the State Board of Education which also set policy for the state agency. (bold mine)
“Similar bills have come up before, but never made it through the legislative process, despite support from both parties. Former Gov. Jim Douglas testified in favor of the bill last year. Shumlin said the legislation gives governors a stake in the state’s education system, which is essentially run by local school boards.

“‘I have long felt, as have many governors before me – both Republican and Democrat – that it’s very difficult as a governor to ultimately have a single voice that implements a vision for quality education when the governor does not have direct intervention or input on who the commissioner or secretary of Education might be.’ (bold mine)

“Critics of the bill said the State Board of Education served as a buffer for the political whims of elected officials. The bill reduces board member terms from six years to three. Members are selected by the governor. Shumlin said the new process would allow for more effective educational policy and hold governors accountable for that he said was the ‘most important obligation in a democratic society’ – education. (bold mine) ‘There was tremendous skepticism, tremendous fear that we were somehow politicizing a process that shouldn’t be politicized,’ Shumlin said. ‘I say what we’re doing today is ensuring that we have accountability from the governor and the ability for the elected governor to care about educational quality by having a secretary, a full member of the cabinet, to ensure that that vision is being carried out.’

“Stefan Morse, chair of the state board, said he is not worried about the politicization of the education system because the board retains its authority on education policy under the new law. Commissioner of Education Armando Vilaseca said the bill would be good for Vermont’s schools. ‘This is a wonderful opportunity to have the governor have a very, very strong voice in education, speaking with one voice,’ he said. ‘I think in the past, with a state board of education and a commissioner that was not working under the governor may have led to some issues that may not have been unified.’ (bold mine)

“Lisa Ventriss, executive director of Vermont Business Roundtable, has been a proponent of quality early childhood education. Her organization produced a report in 2007 that showed the state needed strong leadership with a vision for education. ‘This has been a long time coming,’ Ventriss said.”

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