Saturday, August 22, 2015

AV#133 - Colorado’s Commissioner of Education – an untenable position?

July 29, 2015

It gets a few laughs—that we have 18, 19, 20 … and counting!— candidates for the Presidency of the United States.  We chuckle, amazed, and ask how any sane person could actually want the job—or believe they are up to the task!

It is not a joke when I ask: who actually wants the job—to be the Commissioner of Education in Colorado?

A fair question, is it not?, when, not long after the Commissioner of Education resigns, the chair of the Colorado Board of Education resigns as well—offering a “stinging rebuke” in her letter explaining why: “Sadly, our current board has become dysfunctional.”  A sample of recent headlines suggests she is not alone. (Neal’s letter:

A risky move by State Board of Education on school testing (2/18/15)
(First sentence: “The Colorado State Board of Education is on a tear of late,
using its scant power to cause as much trouble as possible.”)
Pointless antics by state board (5/15/15)
After ‘chaos,’ State board denies testing waivers (5/13/15)

Marcia Neal’s honesty and disappointment speaks volumes about the current situation.  As she is held is such high regard, her words will cause those interested in the Commissioner’s position to wonder if they will be walking into a lion’s den.  My fear: unless we find another Daniel, they haven’t got a prayer.
To me, the dysfunction is due in no small part to Colorado’s governance structure for K-12 education. If true, it is not merely partisan politics or personalities, or a lack of courtesy, that we need to address. 

More important than naming a new Commissioner of Education in our state, we need to re-examine the job. As currently circumscribed, a commissioner’s role in Colorado is too dependent on a supportive board, but too independent of the Governor, to have the authority to lead.  He or she is put in an untenable position.  So before we spend months seeking strong candidates, first things first: acknowledge that our current structure does not work, and change it.

Then and only then will we be able to welcome first-rate applicants who do indeed hope to take on a major leadership role in our state.

Reason #1 – from the Commissioner’s point of view
It is unclear if we want our Commissioner to be a leader, or a manager.   “To lead” does not appear in the Colorado state law (22-2-112 to 113) defining our Commissioner’s duties and powers (see Addendum A).  The individual serves “at the pleasure of at the (state) board,” and it is the board, we read, which “provides educational leadership for the state.”  Its members “are elected on a partisan basis” representing the Congressional districts that vote them in. (Their qualifications?  An open question.)  They bring a range of convictions, which has led this year (see Neal’s letter) to acrimonious division and ambiguous guidance for the Commissioner and the Department of Education.  The passions of our board members—and their 4-3 votes—nudge the Commissioner and CDE in one direction, while the state legislature passes bills that lead the state down a different path, even as the Governor might lobby for altogether different priorities.

Caught in the crossfire, compelled to spend hours “managing the board,” a would–be leader is reduced to the demeaning role of the board’s clerk.  A sympathetic observer wonders if Robert Hammond decided: Enough! I am out of here.  Courteous as always, he refused to vent any frustrations he must have felt. 

Have we created a job in Colorado that will attract and allow anyone to be a leader for K-12 education?  Why not ask our two living former Commissioners: William Moloney (1997-2007) and Dwight Jones (2007-2010)?  Begin with them.  Then invite other key players to this conversation: Roy, Bill, ….

Reason #2 – from the Governor’s point of view

Colorado State & Local 2015 Spending by Function
Education - 28%
Remainder – 27%
Health Care – 18%
                Pensions – 10%
Protection - 9%
Transportation – 9%
                Welfare - 4%

Former Governor Bill Ritter is direct about it.  This past April, on a panel looking at school governance in Colorado, Ritter stressed that–if we were to devise an effective structure for state leadership on education—we would not continue with the current model.  Unlike most governors in the country, the chief executive in Colorado has no say in selecting who serves on the state board, or who becomes the state Commissioner (see Addendum B, from two national summaries of the governance models in the 50 states). Furthermore, Ritter noted, in Colorado, at present, the Governor           
has no obligation to include the Commissioner in his or her Cabinet. State and local spending in Colorado totals $51.6 billion, education is the #1 item: $14.3 billion (see box)—and yet our Governor has no say in who serves as our Commissioner or as members of our state board? Really?

Again, let’s go to those who know best: joining the former Commissioners, let’s ask Ritter, Roy Romer, and Bill Owens about the governance structure within which they operated.  Let me stress: this is not a partisan issue. It has to do with what is effective, what best serves public education in the state.

Is this just “the messiness of democracy”?

Those reluctant for a change that enhances the Commissioner’s status and clout, those who believe state board members have a right to assume extraordinary authority—nuts to the law, in some cases (see—will argue that the gridlock or confusion we have witnessed is, for the most part, beneficial.  For it prevents education policy in Colorado from lurching too far to the right or left.  They point to states where a Governor-appointed Commissioner can create a dangerous degree of “alignment” (see Addendum C, which also might be titled, Be careful what you wish for!).  Would a change in our governance structure only make education policy more, not less, partisan, or merely shift our squabbles from the state board room to the state capital?

Fair enough. A look at other states makes one pause.  A colleague in New York writes:
The NYS governor has no (official) power over the Commissioner of Education or the State Board of Education.  That is supposed to help keep politics out of education, but instead they wreak havoc through legislation. … I would not want the NY governor to hold the reins.
Yes, what we learn from other states makes one doubt there is a best model. But surely we can devise a better governance structure.  My modest proposal is simply that we ask former Governors, Commissioners, and state board members to come together and explore how we might improve the current arrangement.  There may be good reasons 44 other states grant the governor more say in who takes leadership roles in education.  There may be elements from the governance structure in other states we could adopt to ensure our Commissioner’s job is desirable, one attractive to great candidates.

As defined today, I wonder – again – who would want this job?

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 /

Addendum A – Do we ask the Commissioner to lead?
                                                                           Colorado School Laws  (2012)
22-2-112. Commissioner – duties
(1)    Subject to the supervision of the state board, the commissioner has the following duties:
(a)    To advise the state board ….
(b)   To supply the state board ….
(c)    To prepare and submit ….
(d)   To establish and maintain ….
(e)   To cause all policies, rules, and regulations ….
(f)     To serve as state librarian ….
(g)    To visit public schools and communities ….
(h)   To establish and maintain adequate statistical ….
(i)      To cause to be represented ….
(j)     To perform other duties as may be delegated to him by law or by the state board;
(k)    To submit to the governor and the general assembly….
(l)      To prepare a manual ….
(m) To supervise, manage and control the Colorado school for the deaf and blind….
(n)   To enter into an interagency agreement….
(o)   To comply with the duties….

22-2-113.  Commissioner – powers.
(1)    Subject to the supervision of the state board, the commissioner has the following powers:
(a)    To advise the state board ….
(b)   To perform all duties which may be required by law;
(c)    To issue instructions to school districts ….
(d)   To prescribe forms and items ….
(e)   To construe provisions of the school laws ….
(f)     To cause to be prepared ….
(g)    To recover a penalty fee ….
(h)   To recover an interest fee ….
(i)      To cooperate with local boards of education ….
(j)     To issue emergency orders ….

Addendum B – K-12 Governance in the 50 states

From the Education Commission of the States
50-State Reports
1.       Are chief state school officers (CSSOs) elected or appointed?
o    Appointed: 38 states (76%)
§  State boards appoint in 23 states (61%)
§  Governor appoints in 15 states (39%)
o    Elected: 13 states (25%).
2.       Are members of the state board of education elected or appointed?
o    Appointed: 33 states (70%)
o    Elected: 7 states (15%)
o    Mix of appointed and elected: 7 states (15%).
3.       What is the level of the governor’s influence?
o    In 24 states (48%), the governor appoints all of the voting members of the state board
o    In 15 states (30%), the governor appoints some, but not all, of the state board of education members
§  In 9 of the 15 states, the governor appoints 75%-89% of the state board of education members
§  In 6 of the 15 states, the governor appoints 5%-57% of the state board members
o    In 11 states (22%), the governor does not appoint any of the voting members of the state board.
Governor’s role in governance                                      
In just seven states, ECS reports, “The governor does not appoint any of the voting members of the state board of education nor the chief state school officer.”
Alabama, Colorado, Kansas, Michigan, Nebraska, New York, and Utah.
In Wisconsin, there is no state board, and the Governor does not appoint the chief state school officer.
From the National Association of State Boards of Education

NASBE presents four major State Education Governance models. Colorado is one of only six states in “Model II,” with an “Elected state board,” where the “board appoints chief state school officer.”  
 Alabama, Colorado, Kansas, Michigan, Nebraska, Utah.
NASBE’s version puts New York in a category all its own; the NY the legislature appoints the board, and the board appoints the chief school officer.
NASBE’s 2015 State Education Governance Matrix
NOTE:  This matrix also shows that Colorado is one of only five states where state board members are elected on a partisan ballot. The others are Alabama, Kansas, Michigan, and Texas.

Addendum C – The grass is not always greener …
Education Policy Issues Caught in Arizona Crossfire (June 10, 2015)
State chief, other officials tussle as decisions loom  (by Andrew Ujifusa)
Disagreements between Arizona's education chief and other state officials could complicate the state's work on academic standards, school finance, and other issues.  Gov. Doug Ducey and Superintendent of Public Instruction Diane Douglas were both elected last year as Republicans, but their relationship hasn't been particularly smooth. Disputes between Ms. Douglas and the governor, along with other officials including state board President Greg Miller, have included K-12 governance and even the physical location of state board staffers' offices. 

       Tensions Rise as Indiana Schools Chief and Governor Clash Over New Agency  (Dec. 8, 2013)

INDIANAPOLIS — For Glenda Ritz, who took office as Indiana’s top education official this year, the awkward reality of being the lone statewide elected Democrat here did not take long to blossom into all-out combat.  Now her conflict with Gov. Mike Pence, a conservative former congressman, has become one of the most public and combative political fights to face his new administration.

Ms. Ritz has accused the governor of creating a new education agency to undermine her office. Mr. Pence says that was not his aim. But the tension, months in the making, has boiled over at monthly State Board of Education meetings, where Ms. Ritz and board members, who are appointed by the governor, continue to wrestle for control over the state’s education policies.

New York state education chief clashes with Gov. Cuomo over pre-K costs (Jan. 29, 2014)

New York state Education Commissioner John King Jr. said Tuesday that statewide prekindergarten would cost far more than Gov. Cuomo allotted in his budget….          

Achievements, Dissension Marked Tenn. Chief's Tenure (Dec. 3, 2014) 

Tennessee Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman’s decision to leave his position as Gov. Bill Haslam begins his second term in office comes at a time of transition for the state, which has been hailed by some as a role model on K-12 policy and performance, even amid dissension over standards, testing, and other issues.

Education Leaders Clash Over Politically Connected Charter School (July 14, 2014)

When the State Board of Education reconvenes in Austin this week, a few members will have some choice words for Texas Education Commissioner Michael Williams …..

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