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State Board divisions pop to the surface

Simmering philosophical differences on the State Board of Education bubbled up Wednesday as members tried to work through a list of priorities for the 2013 legislative session.

At the peak of the discussion, member Elaine Gantz Berman got up from the board table and left the room. She returned a few minutes later but sat in the audience section for a time and then left the meeting for good before it concluded.

Before she left the board table, Berman said, “Let’s cut this off. This is such an unproductive conversation. We’re embarrassing ourselves. … I’m ashamed of this board. Nobody cares what this board thinks. … Why have legislative priorities? We’re completely ideologically opposed to each other. … I’m taking a break. I’m getting out of here.”

When Berman exited, the board was about 45 minutes into a discussion of its proposed priorities for next year’s legislative session. Most of the time was spent on goals related to school finance and teacher quality, issues on which board members have disagreed before.

The board has four Republican and three Democratic members, but member differences aren’t necessarily partisan. Rather, differing philosophies about education are what divide the group.

Berman and fellow Democrats Angelika Schroeder and Jane Goff are generally supportive of increased school funding and of education reforms such as the new educator evaluation system. They also support the greater state regulatory role that’s been created by recent reform legislation.

Three Republican members, Debora Scheffel, Paul Lundeen and chair Bob Schaffer, are by no means defenders of the educational status quo but are skeptical about whether more money and more state regulation are the way to improve schools. All three are strong advocates of parent choice as a free-market way to improve schools. The three also are skeptical about the active federal role in education under the Democratic Obama administration.

The board’s fourth Republican, Marcia Neal, often takes something of a middle ground.

All of the members are a bit sensitive about their role in education policymaking. Most of Colorado’s major education initiatives in recent years have come from the governor’s office or key legislators.

Board differences were on display last month during a discussion of teacher licensing. A report presented to the board recommended that license renewal be tied to teacher evaluation results. (See story.)

Wednesday, Lundeen talked extensively about school finance, saying that funding needs to be tied to schools’ ability to improve student achievement: “Money needs to follow success.”

Lundeen also referred to “shopworn language in the education space about more resources. … I don’t want to just keep talking about more resources.” He also indicated his preference for funneling money through parents – the word “vouchers” wasn’t used – rather than to schools.

When the conversation turned to educator quality, last month’s discussion about licensing picked back up, and Berman left during the middle of it. After she left, Schaffer said, “I frankly want a high bar” to entering teaching. “I prefer that it be at the hiring end … rather than at the state bureaucracy level.”

Despite their philosophical differences, state board members generally are cordial and at ease with each other during meetings, and discussions remain civil.

Berman returned to the room within five minutes, but she pointedly sat in the audience and didn’t participate. A few minutes after that, Scheffel asked, “Might we invite Elaine back to the table?” Berman didn’t move.

A short time later, after Schaffer called a break, Berman returned to the board table and began packing up her laptop. Scheffel came over to her, and the two talked for a moment before embracing. Then Berman left for good.

The board made some minor tweaks to the draft of the legislative priorities but left the rest of the discussion, and a vote, to its Nov. 14 meeting.

At the very end of the meeting, long after Berman had left, Scheffel raised another touchy subject – the Common Core Standards in English and math that the board adopted on a split vote in 2010. Scheffel, noting growing discussion in parts of the education world about whether those standards are a good thing, asked if the state board should have a full-blown discussion of the issue before the end of the year.

Members casually kicked the issue around for a while but made no decision.

Although the Common Core Standards were not developed by the federal government, the U.S. Department of Education has made state adoption of Common Core a requirement for waivers from the No Child Left Behind law. But some conservatives see the Common Core as one more example of federal intrusion into education.

About the State Board of Education

Board members are elected on a partisan basis from the state’s congressional districts. Here’s a list of member districts:

  • Elaine Gantz Berman – 1st District – Denver
  • Angelika Schroeder – 2nd District – Northern Colorado, centered on Boulder
  • Marcia Neal – 3rd District – Western Colorado plus Pueblo
  • Bob Schaffer – 4th District – Eastern Colorado plus Fort Collins area
  • Paul Lundeen – 5th District – Colorado Springs area
  • Debora Scheffel – 6th District – Southern Metro area
  • Jane Goff – 7th District – Northern, Western Metro area

Changing district lines

  • District lines are changing with the Nov. 6 election. Schroeder is running for reelection in a 2nd District that now includes Fort Collins. Schaffer is not running, and Republican Pamela Mazanec of Douglas County is unopposed in the new 4th District. So the state board will continue to have a GOP majority even if Schroeder is reelected.

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