Colorado Divided Over Systematic Education Reforms

Published May 1, 2007

Democratic Party leaders in Colorado are proposing an overhaul of the state’s education system, but the national report that stirred the discussion has evoked significant skepticism.

House Speaker Andrew Romanoff (D-Denver) wants to reshape the education debate in Colorado as he looks to formulate a plan that focuses the state’s energy on common reform objectives.

Immediately upon the December 2006 release of the national report Tough Choices or Tough Times by the National Center on Education and the Economy (NCEE), Romanoff touted the report as a blueprint for change that Colorado should embrace to create a highly skilled twenty-first century workforce.

Centralizing Reform

The systematic changes Tough Choices urges for American schools include improving and narrowing test standards, issuing mandatory high school board exams, trimming teacher pensions to free money with which to recruit and reward high-quality instructors, giving management of schools to independent contractors, increasing contributions to early childhood education, and allotting funds directly to schools based on students’ learning needs.

“I think there’s something for everyone to love in this proposal and something for everyone to hate,” Romanoff said.

Bob Schaffer, vice chairman of the Colorado State Board of Education, agrees with the report’s diagnosis but believes the proposed remedy is entirely wrong.

“It seeks a highly centralized approach to school reform, rather than a market-oriented, decentralized approach that appeals to consumers,” Schaffer said.

Romanoff does not insist the report’s specific proposals are the necessary prescription for Colorado, but he believes it provides a concrete starting point to bridge the ideological divide between school choice reformers and establishment advocates who plead for more funding.

“I think this proposal offers us a chance to break that deadlock,” said Romanoff.

Seizing Momentum

Gov. Bill Ritter (D) has taken no public stance on the Tough Choices report. But Sen. Nancy Spence (R-Centennial), the ranking minority member of the Senate Education Committee, believes he wants to push the education reform discussion in another direction.

“I think Governor Ritter is interested in establishing his own mark on education, and it’s not going to be [by] accepting a report from Washington,” Spence said.

NCEE operates out of Washington, DC under the direction of former Clinton appointee and influential education standards advocate Marc Tucker.

The creation of a “P-20 Council” is a keystone of Ritter’s education agenda, outlined in his “Colorado Promise” campaign document. The council’s goal will be to bring K-12 and higher education stakeholders together to help ensure the system’s graduates have “the skills needed to enter a modern workforce.”

Among Ritter’s ambitious goals for public schools is to cut the state’s dropout rate in half within the next decade. The P-20 Council, he hopes, will channel and coordinate the growing drive for significant education reform to achieve that end.

“There’s a lot of energy in the state around new ideas for education,” said Matt Gianneschi, Ritter’s senior policy analyst. “The idea for a P-20 Council is to capitalize on the momentum of recent years of how to engage students to achieve the most in our education system.”

Pushing Buttons

Still, much focus remains on the Tough Choices blueprint for reform.

A hot button for early discussions has been the report’s call to use state board examinations to help determine whether high school sophomores should move on to a four-year university, community college, or trade school.

Schaffer said the report’s proposals resemble Germany’s state-centered model for education. “It indoctrinates children in the philosophy that public schools steer them toward careers and jobs that are determined to be important by government planners,” he said.

Others share that skepticism.

“I’ve heard from many parents and school board members,” Spence said. “Tracking kids after 10th grade is not going to fly with this state or its students.”

Measuring Performance

Romanoff says this depiction of Tough Choices is a caricature because students would not be forced “to make a life-or-death decision” at age 16. Students could take the board exam as many times as necessary.

Romanoff says the focus should be on finding out what students have learned, not simply letting them pass on to the next grade level because of their age.

“We ought to be measuring performance, not just seat time,” Romanoff said.

Challenging Local Control

If Tough Choices is to be the vehicle for change in Colorado, it could encounter a major legal obstacle.

Spence believes the report’s proposals to diminish local school boards’ oversight and to make all teachers state employees would “be in violation of the Colorado Constitution.” Article IX, Section 15 gives local school boards “control of instruction in the public schools of their districts.”

Romanoff admitted the constitutional issue is “an especially serious concern” but shouldn’t derail reform efforts. A team of researchers is examining how the proposals will fit within Colorado’s legal framework and will provide official recommendations, though at press time no deadline for their recommendations had been set.

“They may say it’s okay, they may say it collides with our constitution, or they may say this is important enough that we should look at changing our constitution,” Romanoff said.

Finding the Right Place

Spence expressed her skepticism about the report’s future in the Rocky Mountain West. “There’s not any reason to think that anyone from the East Coast can make decisions about our state. Tough Choices is out there, but it doesn’t have solutions for Colorado,” she said.

Nevertheless, Romanoff believes Colorado’s highly educated citizens make it the right setting to debate the report’s themes and proposals, and that Colorado is a more realistic venue than a state such as California.

“The state is still small enough that you can conduct a conversation,” Romanoff said.

Ben DeGrow ([email protected]) is a policy analyst for the Independence Institute, a free-market think tank in Golden, Colorado.

For more information …

Tough Choices or Tough Times, National Center on Education Reform and the Economy,