Who Is In Charge

Board pushes ahead on grad guidelines

The State Board of Education Wednesday unanimously adopted guidelines for high school graduation requirements, but that doesn’t mean current high school students will have to change their class schedules in order to get their diplomas.

Colorado Department of Education
Colorado Department of Education

The guidelines have a long implementation timeline, and the document is expected to be changed more than once over the next two years. That makes its impact on future students hard to predict.

The overall goal of the guidelines is to make high school diplomas represent what students actually know and can do – “competency” in education jargon. Most district graduation requirements now are based on completion of a certain number of classes over a certain number of years. (Education jargon for that is “seat time.”)

The document is “an intentional statement that we are moving from seat time … to proof of competency,” said Scott Stump, a community college system administrator who was a member of the 19-person committee that developed the guidelines for SBE.

The report from the Graduation Guidelines Council sets out another key goal: “A high school diploma should guarantee that students are: 1) prepared to enter credit-bearing courses in postsecondary education institutions; 2) prepared academically to enter military officer training; and 3) prepared to be productive entry-level employees in the
workforce.”

But the details of the document have drawn a lot of questions and some opposition from a variety of education interest groups. Even Lt. Gov. Joe Garcia, the Hickenlooper administration’s point man on education issues, told the board he was “neutral” on the guidelines.

Graduation guidelines are a complicated issue for a lot of reasons.

First, the state constitution’s local control provision gives school boards substantial autonomy in curriculum and instruction. So, neither the legislature nor the Department of Education can impose uniform graduation requirements for all students, as is the case in some other states. Rather, the guidelines would set a basic standards that districts would have to “meet or exceed” in setting their own graduation requirements.

Second, the guidelines would have a long rollout period, and the first group of students directly affected by new district requirements will those who graduate from high school in 2021.

Third, and perhaps most important, minimum scores and standards for several of the tests and other measurements suggested in the guidelines haven’t been set. So, students, parents and districts don’t yet know the full menu of choices that can be used to set district requirements. (See below for the full list of suggested measures and cut scores.)

The guidelines also would require districts to include successful student completion of individual career and academic plans (ICAPs) in their graduation requirements and to advise students and families about graduation requirements starting in the 6th grade.

Nearly a dozen witnesses testified during the board’s two-hour hearing on the guidelines.

Jane Urschel, deputy executive director of the Colorado Association of School Boards, was critical, saying, “The council’s proposal leaves little room for local discretion … the guidelines are more like rules.”

Because of that, she suggested to board go through the formal rule-making process, which has specific requirements for public comment. (The board didn’t take up that suggestion – it had a deadline to adopt the guidelines this month.)

Bret Miles, superintendent of the eastern plains district of Holyoke and also representing the Colorado Rural Schools Caucus, sounded a similar note. “We feel like this … oversteps the local boards of education.”

Randy DeHoff, a former SBE member who was representing the Colorado Cyberschool Association, seconded the concerns of the rural caucus.

On the other side, representatives of Stand for Children, the Colorado Children’s Campaign, Colorado Succeeds, A+ Denver and Democrats for Education Reform supported the guidelines. “They’re a huge step in the right direction,” said Van Schoales, speaking for A+ Denver and DFER.

Garcia, who spoke to the board earlier in the day before the hearing, said of the rules, “We’re not just quite there yet” adding it “would be best” if the board waiting to act until after his Department of Higher Education completes work on new admissions and remediation policies later this year.

Some board members were sympathetic to the critics. Deb Scheffel, a Republican who represents the 6th District, wondered, “Why wouldn’t the state board engage in rule making if it’s going to be this detailed?”

Chair Paul Lundeen, a Republican from the 5th District, suggested that the grid of tests and cut scores be relegated to an appendix of the guidelines.

But both voted for the guidelines in the end, partly because of the fact that the document will be tweaked in the future.

“This is the beginning of a process,” noted education Commissioner Robert Hammond.

“These guidelines are not static,” said Stump. “At each step of the process there are going to be new tools for measuring student performance.”

It’s a moving target – new science and social studies coming spring of 2014, PARCC tests spring of 2015 and updated higher ed “no remediation” standards fall of 2013.

Creation of the guidelines was required by a 2007. The guidelines council issued an initial report in 2008 but then was dormant until it was revived last year. The guidelines law was overshadowed by a far more comprehensive 2008 education reform law, the Colorado Achievement Plan for Kids. That set requirements for new state content standards, tests and alignment of K-12 outcome with college admissions standards.

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listening tour

We asked six Colorado school board members what they want from the state’s next governor. Here’s what they said.

Democratic gubernatorial candidates Donna Lynne, Noel Ginsburg and Cary Kennedy at a candidate forum hosted by the Colorado Association of School Boards. (Photo by Nic Garcia)

Late last week, nine candidates for Colorado governor came together to talk education, addressing an annual fall conference of school board members.

Now, we’re giving some of those audience members a chance to speak up.

Before the gubernatorial hopefuls took the stage, Chalkbeat recorded interviews with a half-dozen school board members who represent districts across the state. Our question to them: What are the big education questions you hope the next governor will take on?

Not surprisingly, funding challenges came up time and again.

One school board member asked for a more predictable budget. Another asked for schools to get their fair share of annual increases in new tax dollars. One went so far as to say the next governor would be a chicken if he or she didn’t take on reforming the state’s tax code.

We also heard a desire for leadership on solving teacher shortages, expanding vocational training and rethinking the state’s school accountability system.

Here are the six gubernatorial wishes we heard from Colorado’s school board members:

Reform TABOR to send more money to schools

Wendy Pottorff, Limon Public Schools

Since the Great Recession, Colorado schools have lost hundreds of thousands of dollars. And while the state legislature has tried to close its education funding shortfall, lawmakers haven’t been able to keep up. Getting in the way, Pottorff says, is the state’s Taxpayer Bill of Rights, or TABOR.

Change the conversation about public schools


Paul Reich, Telluride School District

Reich says public schools are under attack under the false premise that they’re failing — and that isn’t helping the state recruit bright young teachers. He said the next governor must change the conversation about schools to make teaching a more desirable profession.

Provide a clear budget forecast

Anne Guettler, Garfield School District

Approving a school district’s budget is one of the many responsibilities of a Colorado school board. That’s a tall challenge when the state’s budget is constantly in flux, Guettler says. She hopes the next governor can help provide a clearer economic forecast for schools.

Rethink school accountability to include students and parents

Greg Piotraschke, Brighton 27J

Colorado schools are subject to annual quality reviews by the state’s education department. And it’s time for the state to rethink what defines a high-quality school, Piotraschke said. He suggested the governor could help rethink everything from how the state uses standardized tests to how to incorporate parents and students into the review process.

Give schools more resources to train the state’s high-tech workforce

Nora Brown, Colorado Springs District 11

In light of Colorado growing tech sector, several gubernatorial candidates have come out in support of more technical training for Colorado students. But that costs money, Brown says. The Colorado Springs school board member said promising better job training for high school students without more resources is empty.

Remember there’s a difference between urban and rural schools

Mark Hillman, Burlington School District

Crafting statewide policy is an onerous task in Colorado, given the diversity of the state’s 178 school districts. Hillman said the next governor must remember that any legislation he or she signs will play out 178 different ways, so they must be careful to not put more undue pressure on the state’s smallest school districts.

Colorado Votes 2018

Five things we learned when Colorado’s gubernatorial candidates got on the same stage to talk about education

Colorado Republicans running for governor addressed some of the state's school board members at a forum hosted by the state's association of school boards. From left are George Brauchler, Steve Barlock, Greg Lopez, Victor Mitchell and Doug Robinson. (Photo by Nic Garcia/Chalkbeat)

Nine Republicans and Democrats hoping to become Colorado’s next governor offered contrasting views Friday of the state’s public schools to an audience of more than 100 local school board members.

Most of the five Republicans told the crowd of locally elected officials — who are charged by the state’s constitution with governing Colorado’s public schools — that their programs were in need of improvement and innovation, and that they were there to help.

The four Democrats hoping to succeed fellow Democrat Gov. John Hickenlooper, who is term-limited, pledged to reform the state’s tax code to send more money to schools.

The candidates spoke at the annual fall delegation conference of the state’s association of school boards.It was the first forum of its kind to address education issues exclusively this election election cycle.

Unlike previous elections, Colorado’s public education system has been a key policy debate early in the campaign. Several candidates, especially Democrats, have worked on education issues before.

Here are our five takeaways from the forum:

The Republican candidates didn’t pull any punches when they said the state’s public schools were in need of improvement — and several said that they were the ones to do it.

From District Attorney George Brauchler to businessman Doug Robinson, every Republican candidate said one part or another of the state’s school system needed to do better.

“Education is life itself,” said former state lawmaker Victor Mitchell. “And there is no greater challenge facing our state than 50 percent of our at-risk kids who graduate can’t complete college-level course work.”

Both Mitchell and Robinson pointed to their experience as entrepreneurs as evidence that they could help set the state’s schools free of what they consider unnecessary red tape. Brauchler called for empowering teachers and parents.

Every Democrat and several Republicans agreed that the state’s schools were in a “funding crisis.” But they offered very different paths forward.

It was an easy question for Democrats. Businessman Noel Ginsburg, former state Sen. Michael Johnston, former state treasurer Cary Kennedy and Lt. Gov. Donna Lynne were in lock-step that the state’s schools are in need of more money.

“If we don’t fundamentally solve this crisis, the rest of the issues don’t matter,” Johnston said.

Former state Sen. Michael Johnston and Lt. Gov. Donna Lynne talk after a forum for gubernatorial candidates. Both are Democrats. (Photo by Nic Garcia/Chalkbeat)

Johnston and Kennedy forcefully pledged to take on the state’s Taxpayer Bill of Rights, which limits how much tax revenue the state can collect and requires voter approval to raise taxes.

Lynne was more tempered. While she acknowledged tax reform was needed, she said wanted a legislative committee working on school finance to complete its work before suggesting any overhauls.

Greg Lopez, the former mayor of Parker and a small business owner, was the only GOP candidate who said he would take on the state’s complicated tax laws. If elected, he promised to establish a committee to send a reform proposal to voters.

Robinson and Brauchler acknowledged that schools were in a funding crunch. But they stopped short of saying they’d send more money to schools.

Mitchell said “he wasn’t sure” if there was a funding crisis, but added, “The system should be reformed before it’s fully funded.”

PERA, the state’s employee retirement program, could play a prominent issue in the election — especially for Republicans.

Earlier at the conference, school board members received a briefing on a proposed overhaul to the state’s retirement program, which includes school district employees.

While the situation is not as dire as it was a decade ago, the program’s governing board has become so increasingly worried about unfunded liabilities that it’s asking state lawmakers to pass a reform package to provide more financial stability.

Two Republicans, Brauchler and Steve Barlock, who co-chaired President Trump’s campaign in Colorado, said PERA was in crisis. Barlock warned school board members that their budgets were in jeopardy as lawmakers fiddle with the system.

Neither went into any detail about how they hoped to see the retirement program made more fiscally stable. But watch for this issue to gain greater traction on the campaign trail, especially as Republican state Treasurer Walker Stapleton ramps up his gubernatorial campaign, and as lawmakers begin to wrestle with PERA reforms next year. (Stapleton did not attend the forum.)

Some candidates offered careful responses to a question about school choice. Others, not so much.

Every Democrat and one Republican, Brauchler, said they respected a family’s right to choose the best school for their children. But that choice, they said, should not come at the expense of traditional, district-run schools.

“I’m concerned that we’d build a system where the success of some schools is coming at the expense of other schools,” Kennedy said.

Republicans strongly supported charter schools, and in some cases, vouchers that use taxpayer dollars to pay for private schools. Robinson called on creating new ways to authorize charter schools. Mitchell said he wanted to repeal a provision in the state’s constitution that has been used to rebuff private school vouchers.

There’s no party line over rural schools.

Republicans and Democrats alike said the state needed to step up to help its rural schools, which are typically underfunded compared to schools along the Front Range. They need more teachers, better infrastructure and fewer regulations, the candidates said.

“We need to get rural areas into the modern age,” Robinson said.