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High stakes, big money dominate this key Colorado board of education race

Democrat Rebecca McClellan, left, and  incumbent Republican Debora Scheffel.
Democrat Rebecca McClellan, left, and incumbent Republican Debora Scheffel.
Nicholas Garcia

With the balance of power on the State Board of Education at stake, two vastly different candidates are vying to represent a closely contested suburban Denver district in the most expensive campaign for a state board seat in more than a decade.

Rebecca McClellan of Centennial, an establishment Democrat backed by some of the state’s most influential education groups, is challenging Debora Scheffel, an incumbent Republican with a strong education background and a staunch supporter of student data privacy.

The winner will represent the state’s 6th Congressional District, which includes portions of Douglas, Arapahoe and Adams counties. This is the first time the seat has been in play since the district’s boundaries were redrawn in 2010, and the nearly even split of Democrats, Republicans and unaffiliated voters has Democrats hopeful.

The board is now controlled 4-3 by Republicans, although votes frequently do not fall along party lines. Two other seats are in play this election, though observers believe the outcomes are foregone conclusions.

Among the critical issues the board faces in the coming months: writing a federally required plan that outlines how the state plans to use federal funds for its most at-risk students, reviewing the state’s academic standards, and addressing chronically failing schools.

Colorado Votes 2016 | For more coverage on issues and races this election click here.The money flowing in the McClellan-Scheffel race is one indication of its importance. Combined, the two candidates have raised more than $77,000 for their campaigns. That’s more than double the cost of 2014’s most expensive state board race. The last time the seat was open, in 2010, Scheffel and her opponent raised just $775 between them, records show.

Outside groups are also investing significant resources into efforts not formally tied to the campaigns. Democrats for Education Reform is pouring thousands of dollars into efforts to support McClellan, for example.

McClellan told Chalkbeat she sees the election as a chance to reset the state board, which she said has been in the headlines more for squabbles over diet soda and health surveys than for debates over education policy.

“Politics should not override what’s best for students,” said McClellan, who has repeatedly emphasized on the campaign trail that if elected she would be the only parent of public school students on the board.

Scheffel acknowledged the board’s sometimes “intense” debates that often end in split votes, but has a decidedly more optimistic opinion.

“We have good robust conversations in the eye of the public,” she said. “We’re supposed to. I don’t see a lack of respect. I feel the board is quite functional and has come to some good decisions.”

Scheffel, the dean of the education school at Colorado Christian University, has played a role in many of the board’s recent controversial decisions and discussions.

Getting to know you | Debora Scheffel and Rebecca McClellan answer specific questions about issues facing the state board here.In 2015, Scheffel was one of four board members who supported not releasing results for the state’s social studies standardized tests. At the time, Scheffel said the scores, which were extremely low, created a “narrative of failure” she didn’t believe was accurate.

In an interview with Chalkbeat, she said she now regrets that vote.

Scheffel was also in favor of requiring the state’s youngest students learning English as a second language to be tested twice, once in English and once in Spanish, to identify reading deficiencies. Officials from school districts with large English-learning populations objected.

Scheffel said it would be a disservice to not test students in English, especially both classroom instruction and standardized tests in later grades are in English.

“Both data points are really important for teachers to know how so they can get the student on track to be on grade to grade level by third grade,” Scheffel said.

Scheffel also led the board’s charge for tighter restrictions around student data privacy at the Colorado Department of Education. Earlier this year, she served as the board’s liaison to the General Assembly as lawmakers unanimously passed a bill that rewrote the state’s rules on technology in the classroom and the use of data by schools and its vendors.

Her concern for data privacy stems from a worry that schools have become too reliant on data and teaching is being “dehumanized.”

Scheffel has suggested that student data could be used to pigeonhole a student into low-level courses, or worse kill opportunities for jobs later in life.

Other State board races |
State board chairman Steve Durham, a Republican from Colorado Springs, is being challenged by Democrat Jeffrey Walker, also from Colorado Springs, to represent the 5th Congressional District. And incumbent Joyce Rankin, a Republican from Carbondale, is being challenged by Christine Pacheco-Koveleski, a Democrat from Pueblo, to represent the 3rd Congressional District. Both of those districts are reliably Republican strongholds.“That’s the last thing we want,” she said.

McClellan, a small business owner, cut her teeth on education policy through her role as a City Council member in Centennial. She served on the council from 2006 to 2014 and was the liaison to local schools. She also served on the Cherry Creek School District committee that promotes awareness of legislative issues.

“I’m not coming in with a rigid agenda,” she said. “I think that’s important.”

Scheffel and McClellan agree the state board’s work in the coming months is both daunting and pivotal.

“I don’t think we do this work casually,” Scheffel said of the state’s upcoming review of academic standards.

Scheffel has long been a critic of the Common Core State Standards, a national effort to spell out clearly what students should know by the end of each grade. But her criticism is more political than educational. She said she objects to the way the Obama administration incentivized states with federal dollars to adopt the standards.

“It was federal overreach,” she said.

As the state education department begins to review the standards, and potentially adopt new ones, Scheffel said she isn’t ready to toss everything out. But she does hope for a “good and robust statewide conversation” on which standards work and which need improvement.

McClellan said she’s agnostic about the Common Core and is prepared to take the recommendations of teachers.

Both women agreed the most sensitive work before the board is the state’s chronically low-performing schools. Beginning in 2017, the state board will begin sanctioning schools that have been flagged for low test scores on the state’s standardized tests for more than five years.

“I’ll keep an open mind and heart to the testimony we’ll hear” from the department and local school officials, McClellan said.

Scheffel said the board must strike the right balance between allowing local districts to chart their own path and holding them accountable for results.

“We all want the same thing,” she said. “Great educational experiences for students.”

Both also see the board playing a crucial role in the development of a statewide plan that will detail how Colorado plans to spend federal money to improve schools, boost teacher quality and serve the state’s most at-risk students.

To help write that plan, the state has convened numerous committees of educators, advocates and lawmakers.

The state board must ultimately sign off on the plan before sending it to Washington for approval.

The candidates’ starkest policy differences are around charter schools, which are funded by tax dollars but run independently of local school districts.

The state board has the authority to compel local school districts to grant charters, even if the district has previously rejected a charter application.

Scheffel, like most of her Republican and Democratic colleagues on the state board, has regularly side with charter schools when they appeal to the state board. But McClellan said she’s more likely to side with the local school board.

“To go against the unanimous vote of a local school board, I would need a very good reason to do that,” McClellan said.

Scheffel said she weighs the charter’s application, the reasons why the school board rejected the charter and whether there is interest from parents to enroll their students in the charter.

“It’s a balancing act,” she said. “It’s not that one trumps the other. I think hey all feed into a decision.”

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