Legislators Seek Freedom for Colorado Schools

Published March 1, 2008

An initiative propelled by school leaders is gaining traction with state lawmakers in Colorado, creating the prospect of greater administrative freedom in the state’s schools.

Senate President Peter Groff (D-Denver) introduced a bill this February that would empower school districts to waive certain state laws or rules in targeted “zones of innovative performance.” Exemptions from federal laws or from health and safety regulations would not be included.

Groff says some of the challenges many schools face stem from legislative reforms that often work against their intended purposes.

“Though all these things sounded great at the time, it just weighs down a principal’s ability to create the kind of school environment that best suits the needs of the students,” Groff said.

Defining Waivers

Sen. Nancy Spence (R-Centennial) said besides affording individual schools the opportunity to seek more hiring freedom, the proposal also may enable them to bypass tenure laws and rigid salary schedules.

“Depending on what they waive, it could allow schools to hire teachers at will so they have a year-to-year contract rather than a lifetime contract,” Spence said. “They also could use differentiated pay if they choose to do so.”

But rather than giving the proposal overly prescriptive guidelines, Groff said local boards should choose the criteria to determine the boundaries of their specific zones and which waivers to request for them.

“Leave it up to the district to create something innovative,” Groff said.

Broad Application

Groff says the legislation should find broad application among children with different needs.

“I think students all over the educational spectrum will benefit, particularly low-performing students. It will help to lift achievement,” said Groff. He also noted the innovations spurred by his autonomy proposal could challenge higher-performing students to excel.

State Republican leaders have embraced the concept enthusiastically. Spence previously sponsored similar bills that would ease school districts’ ability to obtain waivers from state regulations. She believes the proposal would enhance the effectiveness of existing public school choice and accountability programs.

“I just think it’s the best thing that could happen to improve public education for kids,” Spence said. “This is just the first strong step toward freeing schools from the stranglehold the teachers union has had on the system for years.”

Seeking Freedom

In December 2007, the leaders of Denver’s high-poverty Bruce Randolph School submitted a formal request to be unshackled from district bureaucratic policies and rules formulated through collective bargaining negotiations with unions. The Denver Public Schools (DPS) board unanimously approved the request on December 20.

Following Randolph’s lead, Denver’s Manual High School asked for autonomy in January 2008, which at press time it had yet to receive. Manual had closed its doors in 2006 after several attempts to thwart declining enrollments and test scores. Drawing much support from the community, the school reopened in the fall of 2007 for freshmen only and will add a new grade in each successive year.

New principal Rob Stein says the school district’s rigid budget and hiring policies are holding back his ability to enact successful plans for Manual’s revitalization. He says he would be ahead of the game if he had the autonomy he has requested. The school’s instructional staff unanimously voted to support the autonomy request, he said.

“I’d already have the draft of a budget, I’d be way ahead of the planning cycle of what I have within the district,” Stein said. “I could be recruiting the best teachers available on a free market, rather than waiting until most of the best teachers have been grabbed by other districts ahead of me.”

Practical Concerns

Stein said there are problems in the agreement negotiated between the union and the district. Though he noted his teachers “have much better working conditions” than stipulated in the contract, “the minute work rules” dictating schedules and class loads interfere with plans to improve.

Stein said providing autonomy for all district school leaders, although a good idea, is not yet practical.

“If this were universalized, not all principals would be equipped to deal with it,” Stein said.

Stein added that the district has been supportive of his request, and that he was willing to meet with union leaders to answer their concerns.

But on January 22, Denver Classroom Teachers Association (DCTA) officials announced they would not consider any new autonomy requests. DCTA said it would support only a limited waiver agreement for Randolph as a pilot project and called for new bargaining provisions to address the issues raised.

More Freedom

Groff said his plans to introduce the zones of innovative performance legislation predated the announcements from either Randolph or Manual, but their actions have reinforced what he is trying to do.

“I think they are great examples of teachers and administrators who are saying what we’re doing is just not working, and we need the flexibility to change the type of education we’re offering,” Groff said.

Groff believes the same kind of freedom would benefit students in other states.

“I doubt that Randolph and Manual are the only schools in the whole nation where parents, teachers, and principals want to step aside from [the regulations],” Groff said. “There are situations where teachers and parents have the opportunity to create a type of school that really serves their students’ needs.”

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