Scheffel, McClellan, vying for seat on State Board of Education, share where they stand on the issues

Partisan control of the State Board of Education is in play this November. And the race to represent the 6th Congressional District on the board is the main event.

(Courtesy of Chalkbeat)
(Courtesy of Chalkbeat)
(Courtesy of Chalkbeat)

By Nicholas GarciaChalkbeat 

Partisan control of the State Board of Education is in play this November. And the race to represent the 6th Congressional District on the board is the main event.

Incumbent Republican Debora Scheffel and Democratic challenger Rebecca McClellan took time to answer a few questions from Chalkbeat about the issues facing the state board in the coming month.

Their responses, lightly edited, follow. And for a closer look at the race and what’s at stake, read this article.

Debora Scheffel, Republican incumbent

Please share a brief bio:
I started my career as a teacher and have worked in education for three decades, teaching, teaching teachers and now running a school of education. I have seven nieces and nephews so for me public education is very personal. I am invested in both making sure every student has access to a great public education and that the teachers in classrooms have the tools and flexibility they need to teach their students. I approach each decision not as a politician seeking approval, but as a teacher passionate about making sure students have great experiences.

What is the greatest issue facing Colorado schools today and how do you hope to address it as a member of the state board? 

State Board of Education member Deb Scheffel meets with participants at an education forum in Aurora.
State Board of Education member Deb Scheffel meets with participants at an education forum in Aurora. (Nicholas Garcia/Chalkbeat)

The greatest issue is the diversity of issues facing schools; solutions must therefore be diverse. Solutions must be developed at the local level with an engaged community that comes together, hears all voices and makes great decisions for students. I will continue to work hard to support local solutions that work for students, families, and staff.

The common issues I will work to resolve include increasing flexibility in how we measure success, reducing testing and federal overreach and allocating enough resources to make sure there is a high-quality teacher in each classroom and an exceptional leader in each school.

What role should the State Board of Education serve in shaping state education law and policy?
As the elected body with oversight of the state’s education system, we should provide feedback to legislators and advocate for laws that reduce the burden on districts so resources can be focused on students. We have oversight of statewide policy which guides the standards and the accountability system. Listening to all stakeholders we make decisions to help assure each student has access to great public education. This takes a commitment to listening to teachers, staff, students, parents and community members, reading materials and asking questions to make sure we have all the information necessary to make quality decisions.

What sort of relationship should the Colorado Department of Education have with local school districts and other education association and advocacy groups such as the Colorado Education Association and the Colorado Association of School Executives?
The Colorado Department of Education, or CDE, should work with local districts as requested to provide resources and break down barriers to help them succeed. They should work collaboratively with local districts helping to create opportunities for students and staff. CDE should also take input from local districts and advocacy groups seeking input on policy development and implementation. All stakeholders should have a seat at the table as CDE develops standards, resources, accountability rules and policies.


Colorado Votes 2016 | For more coverage on issues and races this election click here.

Colorado needs a new education commissioner. What qualifications would you want in the ideal candidate?
The ideal Commissioner is a lifelong learner, a strong leader, and great manager. He/she should keep students at the core of all decisions. He/she will bring years of experience in instructional practices and respect the teaching profession, will inspire others to action and have a track record of success. He/she will solicit and listen to input, and collaborate with all stakeholders and will lead the employees at CDE so they provide top notch support to districts. He/she will know how to work with a board and partner with the legislature to make sure laws are passed supporting success.

New federal law is supposed to grant states flexibility over issues like school accountability and teacher quality. What do you hope to see changed under the new Every Student Succeeds Act? 
As Colorado implements ESSA I hope we provide additional measures defining student success and additional flexibly to schools and districts in how they both provide for student’s needs and proof of success. I hope we honor the requests of stakeholders not to make changes too quickly and gather input from around the state. We must understand that given the diversity of students in our Colorado schools, we can’t implement a one-size- fits- all education system. We need a system that allows small, large, rural and urban districts the flexibility they need. I hope we develop a system with more rewards and supports and less punishments.

Some school districts hope Colorado explores new alternatives to testing for accountability purposes. Should Colorado change its testing system, if so, how?
Colorado will be evaluating its standards; thinking about how to change our testing system in light of that process is vitally important. We should provide flexibility for districts so they can use an assessment system which can be normed to the state system and still provide robust accountability. We need to have a system that works for students, staff and parents. As we evaluate standards we should also be evaluating testing that reduces the number of hours spent testing, provides more immediate feedback, and is helpful for teachers, students and parents in providing actionable data.

Some 12 schools and five school districts are expected to reach the end of the state’s accountability timeline for chronic low performance. The State Board must act. What role do you see the board playing? Would you move to close low-performing schools or turn them over to charters? 
I see the State Board working with local leaders and districts to determine the best paths forward for those at the end of the accountability timeline. We should not take any alternatives off the table as being in this position means that students have not been adequately served for far too long. We know that leaders at these schools and in these districts have been working hard to improve. Some may just need more time, some may need flexibility in showing the success they have achieved and some may need help moving on a different path.

After six years, Colorado is set to begin reviewing its education standards. What do you hope the outcome is? 

It is time for a robust community conversation about what we want our students to know and to update the Colorado Academic Standards. Colorado needs to own our standards and communities must come together to decide what skills we want our students to acquire to be ready for successful futures. I hope we develop consensus about both the standards and the systems we use to measure progress. We know not all children have the same goals and talents so we must provide flexibility in how we measure success. I hope the outcome is collaborating stakeholders focused on student success.

Rebecca McClellan, Democrat challenger

What is the greatest issue facing Colorado schools today and how are you going to address it?
Underfunding is our greatest challenge. Early childhood education, teacher recruitment and retention, access to mental health services, services for English language learners, health and nutrition, and resources for persistently low performing schools, are all impacted by funding concerns. I would advocate for education funding, and also for a reduction in the time and financial resources required for standardized testing. Students deserve a comprehensive, well-rounded education, including subjects and programs not emphasized in high stakes tests, such as the arts and sports. We must also improve access to mental health services in our schools. Funding concerns impact all of these needs.

What role should a State Board of Education Member serve in shaping state education law and policy?

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

The State Board’s role should be to act as an effective and unified governing body that champions policies and laws to serve and support all Colorado public school students. Both in their direct decisions and in their advocacy with legislators, State Board Members should be seen as highly knowledgeable and credible resources on the impact of laws and statewide policies on local districts, schools and communities. That begins with frequent and accurate communications by each Board Member with all constituencies the Board Member represents. State Board of Education Members should not micro-manage teachers.

What sort of relationship should the Colorado Department of Education have with local school districts and other education association and advocacy groups such as the Colorado Education Association and the Colorado Association of School Executives?
One of the Department’s primary objectives is to serve and support local districts. Seeking frequent input from local school districts and statewide advocacy groups is essential in identifying the impact of policy decisions. Open communication with the full range of stakeholders allows the Board to learn of opportunities for improvement, as well as faster discovery of unintended consequences that require attention.

Colorado needs a new Education Commissioner. What qualifications would you want in the ideal candidate?
The ideal candidate should not bring their own agenda, but should take direction from the Board, respecting that their elections reflects the priorities of voters. The candidate should have experience running a large, complex organization, and a track record for successfully supporting public schools in times of lean budgets. Experience balancing the needs of a socioeconomically diverse district or state and experience working with a divided board would be desirable. The ideal candidate should be willing to work with department legal staff to ensure that all proper procedures are followed with respect to transparency in accordance with Colorado law.

New federal law is supposed to grant states flexibility over issues like school accountability and teacher quality. What do you hope to see changed under the new Every Student Succeeds Act?
I would like to see a reduction in standardized testing to reduce the time lost to testing, as well as the financial cost. I would like to see Colorado take a less punitive approach, in favor of identifying the need for resources to help schools most in need. I would like to see a reduction in the amount of bureaucratic assessment paper work required of teachers and administrators. We should remove the pressure to teach to the test by taking a less punitive approach.

Some school districts hope Colorado explores new alternatives to testing for accountability purposes. Should Colorado change its testing system, if so, how?
The State Board of Education should take seriously the input of stakeholders including students, teachers, parents, school district boards and administrators. I do not have a rigid agenda regarding a specific test or vendor, but would like to see us settle on a reasonable assessment system we can keep. Momentum is lost and expenses are incurred each time we have to re-gear to a new system. Listening carefully to the concerns and priorities of stakeholders is essential to good decision making for an elected official, and I take that duty very seriously.

Some 30 schools and eight school districts are expected to reach the end of the state’s accountability timeline for chronic low performance. The State Board must act. What role do you see the board playing? Would you move to close low-performing schools or turn them over to charters?
Parent, teacher, student and community input is essential to understanding the unique challenges faced by our lowest performing schools. There is not a “one size fits all” answer. For example, Aurora Central High School serves many refugees who may be traumatized and facing the challenge of acclimating to a new country. In some cases, students may not have been able to attend school regularly in the country they left. Finding the right solution with the resources available involves working with those most familiar with each school’s unique challenges. Parents and community members must have empowerment in the process.

After six years, Colorado is set to begin reviewing its education standards. What do you hope the outcome is? Would you support whatever the panel recommended even if it went against your personal opinion of the Common Core Standards?
Colorado must have strong standards that benefit students and prepare them to make sound life choices after graduation. I do not have a rigid agenda regarding a specific set of standards. Standards that allow for consistency from state to state would help families who relocate to know that a child exiting one grade will be prepared to start the next grade in their new state. Feedback from educators, students and parents should be taken seriously during the upcoming review process as the Board strives to refine our standards to reflect the high expectations that will benefit all of our students.

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