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Colorado Education Commissioner Katy Anthes stepping down next summer

A woman with shoulder-length hair, wearing a floral print dress, leans against a cafeteria table talking to students while they eat lunch.

Education Commissioner Katy Anthes, left, talks with students at Elkhart Elementary School in Aurora earlier this fall.

Courtesy of the Colorado Department of Education

Colorado Education Commissioner Katy Anthes plans to resign in July.

Anthes, who has led the Colorado Department of Education for six years, announced Tuesday her plan to step aside. Her decision comes as an expanded, nine-member State Board of Education is set to take office in January and as Colorado schools settle into long-term pandemic recovery after more than two years of severely disrupted learning. 

Advocates, superintendents, and State Board members praised Anthes as someone who listened to all sides and strove for consensus on politically contentious issues.

“She was pretty exceptional at managing really disparate views and threading the needle to implement policy,” said Van Schoales, senior policy director at the Keystone Policy Center.

Anthes said in a press release that she was proud of the work the department has done during her tenure.

“Through all the challenges, I’ve always been committed to listening to diverse perspectives, and aiming for the productive middle ground on issues that could have divided us — with a clear focus on students,” she said. “I’m proud to have helped build a culture of responsiveness, transparency, and pride in providing excellent customer service at CDE.”

Anthes, 48, acknowledged in an interview that the pandemic took a toll — ”I don’t have all the 110% energy that I did before” — and said the arrival of new State Board members makes now a good time for leadership transition. 

“We have new board energy, new board leadership,” she said. “I just think it’s time for someone with fresh ideas and that a fresh look on things at the state would be good.”

Unlike other cabinet-level department heads who are appointed by the governor, Colorado’s education commissioner is hired by the independently elected State Board of Education to run the state Education Department. 

While on the job, Anthes could have stayed in her silo, said Jen Walmer, state director of Democrats for Education Reform. Instead, she worked closely with the governor’s office and other state departments, including with the Colorado Department of Higher Education on ways to improve the quality of teacher instruction and open more pathways for aspiring educators, Walmer said. 

Anthes first was hired as an interim commissioner by a Republican-majority board in May 2016 but largely served under a Democratic majority that took office in January 2017. During her tenure, Colorado implemented a school accountability system that allows state intervention in struggling school districts, adopted new academic standards, and stepped up efforts to improve reading instruction in the early grades and career learning opportunities for high school students. 

And she led the department through the pandemic, which saw many students in remote learning for extended periods of time and schools experimenting with new instructional models.

“She got Colorado through one of the most disruptive times with the pandemic,” Walmer said. “She was a consistent leader who always put students first. I have no doubt that it took a tremendous toll on her personally to lead through that time.”

Rob Stein, who retired earlier this year as superintendent of the Roaring Fork school district, said he could call Anthes and vent during some of the most difficult decisions around school reopening, when state guidance was limited and inconsistent. She would always hear him out.

“Through COVID, there was a lot of conflict, and she put her head down and tried to find solutions,” he said. “She was a real servant-leader.”  

Colorado’s system of local control gives school districts broad autonomy and constrains the role of state government. 

Board Chairwoman Angelika Schroeder said in a press release that Anthes created a positive foundation for challenging school improvement work. In Colorado, schools and districts with persistently low test scores qualify for extra help but schools that still don’t improve can lose autonomy. Under Anthes’ leadership, the Colorado education department often has endorsed district-developed improvement plans.

“Many of the districts that came before the board are now seeing positive trends, and I credit Katy for these outcomes because she understands that we can go farther when we listen to each other and work together respectfully to support students,” Schroeder said.

A notable exception has been the Adams 14 school district, whose superintendent ousted a state-mandated external manager and unsuccessfully took the state to court to fight a State Board order that the district be reorganized after more than a decade of low test scores. 

But after district officials testified in court about how the largely symbolic loss of accreditation had hurt the district’s ability to hire bilingual teachers, Anthes recommended that accreditation be restored while reorganization efforts proceed.

Aurora Public Schools has several schools under state orders to improve student achievement. Superintendent Rico Munn frequently has disagreed with the state approach, but he said he always found Anthes willing to listen and consider alternatives.

“I appreciated that because we always had a lot of alternative ideas for how things should work,” Munn said. 

And as a former State Board member, Munn said he appreciates the tightrope that the commissioner walks, serving students, district leaders, educators, and the State Board of Education.

Anthes served a board that was deeply divided on key issues, such as the adoption of new social studies standards that included perspectives from diverse racial and ethnic groups and LGBTQ people. But many State Board decisions have been unanimous or nearly so, and there has been broad consensus on new approaches to reading instruction and workforce training.

Vice Chair Steve Durham, a Colorado Springs Republican, said Anthes always has respected different perspectives while keeping a focus on student achievement. 

“We’ve been able to make great strides in several key areas under her leadership — especially the expansion of work-based learning opportunities for our high school students and the meaningful implementation of the READ Act to ensure all students are reading at grade level,” Durham said in the press release.

The State Board is expected to discuss the replacement process in early 2023, after the new board takes office and chooses a chair. Anthes said she gave six months’ notice because she wants the new board to have some time to work together before making a decision and to avoid the disruption of an interim commissioner.

Anthes replaced Rich Crandall, who abruptly resigned in 2016 after only four months on the job, during a time of turnover and turmoil at the state Education Department. She was hired as commissioner after serving as interim for seven months.

She first joined the department in 2011 to oversee the state’s rollout of a landmark teacher evaluation law. She later served as the department’s chief of staff, earning a reputation for being a consensus builder amid often tumultuous policy debates, before becoming commissioner.

Anthes’ career with the state spans a period during which a broad bipartisan consensus around certain education reform policies has frayed. 

Anthes said she has never stopped believing in the power of data to shed light on problems in education and drive solutions. She also worries that the accountability system is seen as punitive, when it should be seen as a source of help.

“It takes strong leadership and a strong culture in the organization to counter that natural tendency” to reduce schools and teachers to ratings, she said. “You have to say, ‘No, this is about improvement. This is about serving our students. This is about understanding where we are so we can get better and so we know what to hone in on.’”

Stein said that Anthes’ focus on finding a middle ground didn’t necessarily move Colorado closer to real resolution of policy differences. 

“Under her tenure, there were some important questions that remained in stalemate,” he said. “I don’t know that she could have driven that to more consensus or closure. I don’t know if a stronger hand might have broken the logjam or just led to more conflict.”

Anthes said she wishes she could have done more to offer leadership training for principals, who hold some of the hardest and most important jobs in the education system. 

She said some of her most rewarding times as commissioner were announcing Teacher of the Year awards and recognizing Blue Ribbon schools.

“You see how important teachers are in the lives of students and in the lives of their colleagues,” she said. “I just think there are a lot of really creative, innovative things going on in schools.”

Bureau Chief Erica Meltzer covers education policy and politics and oversees Chalkbeat Colorado’s education coverage. Contact Erica at emeltzer@chalkbeat.org.

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