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 …..

AV#134 - School Choice in Denver - much good news, but is it too difficult?

Aug. 12, 2015

School Choice in Denver – much good news, but is it too difficult?

Given so much good news about the SchoolChoice process in Denver—and I am a fan – it may seem uncharitable to focus on a trouble spot. But if low-income and minority families find the process too difficult or somehow unfair, it is no small issue.  And—I fear this was implied in some criticisms last year—if this leads inner city families to say: it is too onerous – to figure all this out and make the best choice for our child—so let’s go back to the old way where we had no choice … and our boy or girl went to the school they are told to attend… well—I hope we can agree, that would be tragic.

School Choice
   “Half the nation's largest 100 school districts allowed some kind of school choice in 2014, a report from the Brookings Institution says. But policymakers need to improve access to quality schools, the report says. Specifically, parents need better tools to make good choices, it says, and they need good schools to choose from.
   “… the Brookings index ranks districts based on how many school choice options and supports families can access. New Orleans' state-run Recovery School District got top marks ….”
Education Week, Report Round Up, 8/4/15, p. 5.
We want parents whose kids have not been well-served by the public education system to buy-in to this new opportunity—and yes, responsibility.  We want them to be more excited than overwhelmed by the chance to choose the right school setting for their child. So it is critical that we address the concerns and complaints about the process being too arduous or opaque.                                               
First, let’s not deny there is good news on how Denver has developed its choice process.  When outside groups compare how we are doing with other cities, it is reassuring to hear we seem to be on the right track.  And yet even these studies will say: Pay attention! The process is not yet serving low-income families in an equitable way.

Brookings Institution

On one national study of 107 school districts by the Brookings Institution (see box and ranking), it is impressive to see Denver rated #6 in the country. (Bold mine.)

From “The 2014 Education Choice and Competition Index” – on school choice in 100+ school districts:

Rank District
School District

As others around the country look to DPS as a district rolling out choice quite effectively, we have a responsibility to do our best to get this right. Which involves hearing constructive criticism, such as found in this report:

We believe, and evidence suggests, that access to choice and a decent supply of good schools are necessary but not sufficient conditions to obtain some of the goals of the choice movement, most certainly including equity. Education is a very complex service for which to shop, with limited opportunities to repair bad decisions. …
In addition to these general constraints on parents’ ability to shop for schools, there is substantial evidence that low-income parents shop differently than other parents when there is an open enrollment process for public schools….
These facts suggest that more attention needs to be given to mechanisms that help parents and students make good choices when they have the opportunity to shop for schools. Currently there is no public school search site that deploys the suggestions and product placements that we all are used to on internet shopping sites such as Amazon. Were such sites in existence that would probably increase the likelihood that parents using open-enrollment systems would pick better schools.   (Bold mine)

Center for Reinventing Public Education – part 1 - Denver study

Last winter, on Jan. 22, Denver Public Schools and A Plus Denver hosted a discussion on the Center for Reinventing Education’s report on choice in DPS, part of an eight-city study[1]. CRPE’s findings, “An Evaluation of Denver’s SchoolChoice Process, 2012-14,” were largely positive (see Addendum A – Summary and good news, for a few excerpts).  But CRPE also revealed disturbing gaps that spoke again to this question of equity in the choice process (see Addendum B – Concerns.) “… lingering gaps remain in terms of participation and families’ reasonable access to higher-performing schools. White students participate at far higher rates than minority students.  Low-income students and special education students participate at lower rates than their counterparts” (see box).

Level of participation
in school choice – 2014
White – 85%
Mixed-race – 75%
Hispanic – 71%
Black – 66%
DPS leaders Brian Eschbacher, Director of Planning and Analysis, and school board chair Happy Haynes were present at this session.  No doubt they took note as parents and community members voiced concerns about the challenge of knowing how to choose, how to make the most of school visits, how hard it is to understand “the kind of learning environment where their kids will thrive”—and how difficult it can be to get sufficient and honest information about the individual schools (more on that in AV#135).  

Center for Reinventing Public Education – part 2 – National study

In January, CPRE hosted a meeting of district and charter leaders from 30 cities, including Denver, titled:  “Good Options and Choices for All Families.”  Christine Campbell offered these thoughts on choice (bold mine) as central to the “portfolio strategy”:

“Our survey suggests that a significant number of parents struggle with different aspects of the process. One in three parents reported trouble understanding which schools their child was eligible for, while one in four struggled to get information on their options and find transportation. Parents with less education and those with a special-needs child were significantly more likely to report trouble.
“Perhaps the most important finding in our survey was that parents said the lack of quality schools was the single largest barrier to choice. Nearly half of parents said that they had no other good option besides their current school, and 42 percent struggled to find a school that provided a good fit.”

Two news stories that raised the same red flag: an “unfair burden” for low-income families?

Last winter we saw this headline on a front page article in Education Week:
Consultants Steer Parents Through Maze of School Choice
Below that – the photo of an attentive Denver couple sitting on a sofa in their home, with papers or notepads in their hands—listening to their guest.  The caption explained:
Laura Barr, founder and owner of e.Merging Educational Consulting in Denver, advises Liz and Justin Wasserman on the school choices available for their 4-year-old daughter. Ms. Barr’s services are popular with middle-income parents in the high-choice city. 
The article itself opened with this subheading,
As public K-12 options expand, parents pay for guidance (by Arianna Prothero)
and began this way:
Article ToolsThe rapid expansion of charter schools and other public school options is fueling growth in another industry: education consulting.
Education consultants, once used primarily by families to help them select and get into elite private schools, are now being hired by parents in New York City, Denver, and Washington to help them navigate a plethora of public school options. (Bold mine)

Also last winter, another Education Week headline read:
Parents Confront Obstacles as School Choice Expands (by Arianna Prothero)
In New Orleans, Denver, and the District of Columbia, it's the season when families must choose schools for next fall. But in those cities and others where traditional school boundaries are fluid and more charters and tuition-voucher programs have entered the mix of K-12 options, selecting a school is an increasingly complex endeavor.
Research shows that an abundance of school choice doesn't guarantee access, and many parents in high-choice cities struggle to find adequate information, transportation, and, ultimately, the right school for their children.

“A maze.”  “Increasingly complex.”  “Many parents … struggle.”  The answer: paying consultants? 

Responsibility – we can do this

In a representative government, we accept that many issues are too complex for the average citizen.  Exhibit A for me these days: though I feel reasonably well-informed on the nuclear arms agreement with Iran, I am unable to grasp the details.  I believe people far more knowledgeable should make this call.

But no citizen—no parent—in choosing a good school for his or her child, should find the process forbidding. Hard? Yes. Time-consuming? OK. Caring parents will devote the time. But not overwhelming. 

Kudos to Denver Public Schools for being viewed as a leader on school choice nationally (even if most metro-area districts operate much as they did 20 years ago. Parental choice? What’s that?). This makes it even more critical that DPS, individual schools, advocates, critics, parents—all of us—try to get this right.  For the idea that if we fail and revert to the “good-old days” where the district – not families – determined which school the kids would attend, regardless of its quality, its mission, its values …. 

No, we don’t want that, do we?

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 – Summary and Good News from CRPE Report
An Evaluation of Denver’s SchoolChoice Process, 2012-2014 –
Is the School Enrollment System Working for Families?

An Evaluation of Denver's SchoolChoice Process,  2012-2014

Is the School Enrollment System Working for Families? Friends:
One of the fundamental reasons that Denver Public Schools moved from a 62 application system to a single application system was because school choice had not yet fully evolved from a laudable ideal to practice. The idea was this: if families could easily pick the schools they wanted their kids to attend, we would have a more even (though imperfect) distribution of White, Black, Hispanic, Asian, low-income, and non-low income at the best charter and district schools.

Three years ago, A+ and a committee of principals, foundation leaders, and others set out to a.) ensure the school enrollment tool was working as its designers and the district had said it would; b.) discover whether the new system was actually improving the quality of schools that families were able to send their children to. 

The answer to the first question, as perceived by statisticians and families, is yes. The lottery system seems - by all accounts - to be doing what it promises to do, even if few parents actually understand how it works. The answer to the second question is also a hopeful yes, yet progress is incremental. The supply of highly rated schools is still insufficient, and there is still widespread resentment because there are too few high quality seats or they are too far away to access.

Still, according to the third in a series of reports by the University of Colorado, Denver, and The University of Washington Center on Reinventing Public Education, this more fluid and transparent system is benefitting families. Researchers found that across all segments of the city families are demanding and attending higher performing schools, and opportunities are improving (there are now 20% more openings at the city's best schools than in 2012 - mainly due to school ratings improving). 

Overall, the report points to both positive trends and areas of concern in Denver’s choice process.

Good News – Excerpts from CRPE Report
Encouragingly, however, the number of openings at schools rated as “distinguished” or “meeting expectations” increased since 2012 at the elementary school level by 15.3 percent, at the middle school level by 17.3 percent and at the high school level by 41.8 percent, as can be seen in Figure 6. 6 Across all grades, the number of projected seats in these top two SPF categories has increased by 20.9 percent from 2012 to 2014. Roughly 70 percent of this increase is due to existing schools receiving higher rating and 30 percent is due to increased capacity in consistently highly-rated schools.  (page 7)

Not only is a consistent set of schools represented among the top ten most-requested schools across the three years of SchoolChoice implementation, but Table 1 also shows that families demand relatively highly-rated schools. Seven out of the ten most-requested schools for both 6th and 9th graders, and eight out of the ten most-requested schools for kindergartners, were rated as either “distinguished” or “meets expectations.” This desire to send their children to the city’s highest-rated schools cuts across all neighborhoods and student groups.  (page 9)

…most students are matched to their first choice. As Figure 10 illustrates, between 74 and 81 percent of students entering kindergarten, between 74 and 77 percent of students entering the 6th grade, and between 75 and 77 percent of students entering the 9th grade were matched to their first choice over the three years that SchoolChoice has been implemented. (page 13)

Looking first at how student traits and family priorities are related to whether students are matched to their first choice, we find that black students, Hispanic students, and those in “other” racial groups are no more or less likely than white students to be matched to their first-choice school. Students who qualify for free or reduced price lunch have roughly 19 percent higher odds of getting their first choice than non-FRL students …. (page 14) (Bold mine)

Addendum B – Concerns from CRPE Report

We found significant variation among racial groups and among regions. When both race and region are jointly considered, both factors have a statistically significant relationship with the number of choices made by a family (controlling for other student demographics). In this way, it appears that the race and region “effects” on how many choices families make are distinct. Specifically, families of black students and students identifying with “other” racial groups list more choices than families of white students, while families of Hispanic students list either fewer or about the same number of choices as white students’ families, when we take into account where families live in the city. (pages 4-5)

Students eligible for FRL, ELL, and special education all chose a highly rated school as their first choice at lower rates than their non-eligible counterparts. Whereas 58 percent of FRL students preferenced a highly rated school, 66 percent of non-FRL students did. Similarly, 59 percent of ELL students chose a highly rated school as their first choice compared to 64 percent of non-ELL students, and 56 percent of students in special education chose a highly-rated school compared to 63 percent of students in general education. Finally, in terms of race/ethnicity, only 55 percent of Hispanic students listed a highly rated school as their first choice, as compared to 73 percent of white students. About 64 percent of black students and 66 percent of students belonging to other racial groups listed highly rated schools as their first choice. (page 10)

Families living in regions with schools that have higher average SPF ratings tend to request more highly rated schools in both their first and second choices. … In short, whether a family prefers a “good” school reflects at least in part whether there are “good” schools around them.
We also found that, controlling for regional quality, minority students tend to choose schools with lower ratings as both their first and second choices than white students. Similarly, students eligible for FRL or in special education choose schools with lower ratings than students not receiving FRL or special education.  (page 12) (Bold mine)

[1] Baltimore, Cleveland, Denver, Detroit, Indianapolis, New Orleans, Philadelphia, and Washington, D.C., all cities with “high degrees of school choice.” See “Making School Choice Work,”