Democrats have won control of the State Board of Education. So now what?

Rebecca McClellan, a candidate for the State Board of Education, greets a participant at a forum in Aurora. (Nicholas Garcia/Chalkbeat)

By Nicholas GarciaChalkbeat 

When Rebecca McClellan joins the State Board of Education in January, Democrats will have partisan control of the board for the first time in nearly 50 years.

But what that means is uncertain given that the party is far from united on education issues.

While the Democrats share a desire for fewer culture war battles and a greater emphasis on the needs of Colorado’s most vulnerable students, they differ on issues such as the viability of Colorado’s existing academic standards and the role of charter schools in public education.

And it’s unclear where McClellan, a former city councilwoman from Centennial, fits into the mix. McClellan won the support from two distinct camps inside the education community that don’t always see eye-to-eye: the state’s largest teachers union and Democrats for Education Reform.

Chalkbeat interviewed the Democratic members of the state board and observers to get a sense of how things might change with the balance of power flipped. Here’s what we learned.

It’s unclear who will lead the board.

Conventional wisdom would suggest that Angelika Schroeder, a Democrat from Boulder, would take over as chairwoman since she currently serves as the board’s vice chair.

Schroeder, who is recovering from heart surgery, declined to comment on whether she wants the job. Meanwhile, two of her Democratic colleagues, Val Flores of Denver and Jane Goff of Lakewood, say they are considering a bid to be chair.

“I believe I’d be a good contender for that position,” Flores said.

“I’m thinking about where I could be the most effective,” Goff said. “Maybe it’s being chair, maybe it’s not.”

Goff said she hopes that regardless of which Democrat is elected chair, a Republican can serve as vice chair. Before the most recent setup, Republicans filled both the chair and vice chair positions while their party held power.

“I think things have gone smoothly,” she said of the board’s current leadership structure. “Maybe more so than we expected with a Democrat and Republican.”

Current board chairman Steve Durham, a Colorado Springs Republican lobbyist and former lawmaker, did not respond to requests for comment.

A shift in control likely won’t change the board’s plans for the state’s lowest-performing schools or the state’s education plan. But the review of Colorado’s academic standards could get interesting.

The state board is working on three major priorities: figuring out what to do about the state’s lowest performing schools, developing the state’s federally required education plan and launching a review of the state’s academic standards.

The board has been working with state education department officials for months to create a process to address the state’s lowest-performing schools that have not improved enough under a five-year timeline. Now the board must begin handing out sanctions, which could include shutting down schools or turning them over to charter operators.

That process, which will include public hearings and recommendations from department officials, is likely to stay in place.

McClellan said she’s planning to weigh heavily what the schools have to say.

“My goal is to really give heavy weight to local input,” she said.

The education department is also far along in crafting a plan to comply with the nation’s new education law, the Every Student Succeeds Act. The department is overseeing a variety of committees that include teachers, school leaders and activists in writing the plan addressing issues such as the state’s poorest schools and teacher training.

“ESSA is the most fundamental thing the state board is going to deal with in the next five years,” said Jen Walmer, the Colorado state director for Democrats for Education Reform, who backed McClellan.

The state is already in compliance with most of the new federal law and much of the plan is based on what’s already in place. If the state did want to dramatically alter course, that would need to come from the legislature, not the state board.

The state’s review of the academic standards could be a very different story, however. A clear process has not been articulated yet. Both parties have divisions when it comes to the standards, which include the Common Core State Standards.

Dumping the Common Core has been a rallying cry for some Republicans and Democrats, for different reasons. However, classrooms across the state have been teaching the standards for more than five years and many in the field hope the state does not do an about-face.

Flores has been an outspoken critic of the standards, while Schroeder has defended them. McClellan has not taken a position on the standards, only saying that she’ll follow the advice of those in the field.

“Val is a real wild card,” said Kerrie Dallman, president of the Colorado Education Association, the teachers union. “We’re very likely to see agreement between Angelika and Jane. I think it’s too early to tell where Rebecca will fall.”

Some Democrats want to “improve” the image of the board by staying focused on the big issues.

During the last two years, the state board has made more headlines over issues such as whether to allow high schools to sell diet soda and whether students should take surveys that ask them about their health decisions than academic matters.

Goff hopes Democratic control will change that.

“The challenge for all of us is to focus,” she said. “I’m hoping we can veer around some of these surprise issues that pop up that may or may not be relevant.”

The board in recent years has been hard-pressed to identify any sort of measurable goals or initiatives, in part because board members have resigned or were forced out by term-limits. And the department has had three education commissioners in two years.

The only major accomplishment the board has under its belt is advocating a student data privacy bill that won unanimous support from the state legislature.

“Will the board lead?” asked Van Schoales, CEO of A+ Colorado, an education reform advocacy group. “The board hasn’t led on improving Colorado schools. There has been no leadership on improving schools since this board has been in control and in the last two commissioners.”

Goff said the board should meet to articulate its goals and vision.

Will Katy Anthes stay in her role as education chief? A lot of people hope she will.

Praise for interim education commissioner Katy Anthes is nearly universal and bipartisan. Regardless of the election result, observers were hoping Anthes, who stepped into the role in May, would stay well beyond the end of the 2017 legislative session as she’s promised.

Since 2015, the department has suffered a string of high-profile resignations, including two commissioners. Anthes was appointed interim in part to stop the exodus of education department staff.

Chalkbeat is a nonprofit news site covering educational change in public schools.