The State Board of Education on Thursday unanimously approved Colorado’s federally required education plan, but not before two of its most outspoken members questioned whether it would make any difference and clashed over which students would benefit.
“Unless you’re poor or a minority or from another identity politics group, there is nothing in this plan that will benefit you,” said board member Steve Durham, a Colorado Springs Republican. “There’s nothing in this plan to improve the education of your children.”
Democrat Val Flores, though, had a conflicting view. Echoing some of the state’s education reform advocates and civil rights groups who sounded alarm about the plan, Flores said it doesn’t go far enough in addressing the needs of Colorado’s most at-risk students.
“There are these monies that should be going to a special category of kids — and we’re not being creative about how we could solve these problems,” she said.
Ultimately, the board agreed to send the 145-page plan to Washington, D.C., for approval.
The document — required by the new federal education law, the Every Student Succeeds Act — took 15 months to complete. It outlines how the state will spend federal dollars to raise test scores, help students who are learning English as a second language and better train teachers.
Durham said the only reason he approved the plan was so the board could move on.
“I’m glad this is off our plate,” he said.
Colorado’s public schools serve about 905,000 students. About 42 percent qualify for free or discounted lunches, a proxy of poverty. A similar proportion of students are non-white. Both populations are growing in the state.
Education reform and civil rights advocates criticized Durham’s portrayal of the state’s plan.
“It’s unfortunate that board member Durham seems to view education as a zero-sum game,” said Jack Teter, a research director for Democrats for Education Reform. “As the title would indicate, the Every Student Succeeds Act exists to ensure that we are educating all students — not just the ones who look like Steve Durham.”
Sean Bradley, president of the Urban League of Denver, sat on a committee with Durham that helped craft the plan. He said he was disappointed in the comments of the former board chairman.
“Poor kids and minority kids are not political identity groups,” Bradley said. “They’re historically underserved in our public education system. What’s political is that a person in a position of power is trying to pit more affluent families against families that have barriers to success.”
Most federal money the state receives is meant to help at-risk students. The laws that established these sources of funding — including Title I — were created during the Civil Rights era of the 1960s.
In Colorado and across the nation, wide achievement gaps separate white, middle- and upper-class white students from poorer students of color.
About 47 percent of white third-grade students in Colorado were at grade level on state math tests in 2016, while 23 percent of Latino third-grade students and 22 percent of black students met that mark.
While 51 percent of white students met or exceeded the state’s expectations on the eighth-grade English test, only 27 percent of black and Latino students did. That’s a 23-point gap.
“The gaps in achievement, and in opportunity, are real and pervasive across the state for today’s students of color, students living in poverty and students with special education needs,” said Kerrie Dallman, president of Colorado Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union. “By focusing on the needs of the most vulnerable, we lift the bar of education equity higher for all students.”
The state’s federal education plan does heavily focus on Colorado’s most at-risk kids. However, part of the plan calls for statewide academic goals for all students.
One of the state’s goals is to improve its graduation rate for all students to 90 percent. The 2016 statewide average was 78.9 percent. The average graduation rate for white students was 84 percent, while the rate for students of color was 72 percent.
One change to the state plan — about how the state rates its schools — drew praise from conservative education policy watchers.
In the past, the state awarded schools points based on how many students met or exceeded the state’s standards on English and math tests. Moving forward, the state will measure schools based on the average test score.
Advocates for the change believe this will incentive teachers to focus on accelerating learning for all students, not just those who are near proficiency.
Durham said that federal intervention hasn’t done enough to improve learning for students, and he said the state didn’t do enough to take advantage of freedom given under the new federal law to try to improve it.
He said he plans to send ideas to the state education department staff about how to improve the plan later. During the meeting, Durham suggested the state should have been creative with how it uses federal dollars to replicate high-performing schools and charter networks.
Under the new law, the state can amend its plan regularly.
Colorado did not need to alter its education plan dramatically because state laws largely were already in harmony with the new federal law, which President Obama signed into law in 2015.
One change involves the inclusion of a new way to measure school quality. Starting next year, schools will be measured in part by how well they increase student attendance.
Chalkbeat is a nonprofit news site covering educational change in public schools.
Photo courtesy Jefferson County Public Schools.