End run: New education law empowers school reformers

Obama's new education act may give conservative school reform advocates a new way to finally take over public education


In the early 2010s, conservative billionaires from the Koch brothers to Alex Cranberg poured money into local school board elections nationwide in order to get conservative school reform advocates elected. Meanwhile, Jeb Bush worked with Microsoft, Dell and textbook makers to change curriculums and promote faulty virtual charter schools. It all worked. That is, until voters got wise last year, and communities across the country voted the reform billionaires, and their candidates, out of their schools.

But now, new education legislation from the Obama administration threatens to put those very same reform advocates in power at the state level. And no one’s talking about it.

The reform movement was strong in Colorado. Voters in Jefferson County chose to recall and replace a majority of the school district’s board of education. Parents, teachers, students and the community were tired of the conservative school reform agenda that three members comprising the board’s majority were pushing. Protests outside the district’s schools called attention to the vast amounts of outside money that helped the three reformers win their elections in the first place.

By a two-to-one margin, voters in the district sent a clear message in 2015 that they were tired of outside influence controlling what went on in their local schools.

In the same election last year, residents in the Thompson School District overwhelmingly voted to replace the conservative reform members who made up that board’s majority and who had cut public comment sessions, sued the local teachers’ union, wasted millions in public funds and were pushing education reform tenets like pay-for-performance for teachers and charter school vouchers. The same outside forces that funded reform board candidates in Jefferson County also funded the Thompson board members.

And in Douglas County, where the board reform majority still remains, money from those same billionaires as well as money from Jeb Bush and Michael Bloomberg poured into the reform candidates in 2009 to boost their initial campaigns.

Nobody in Thompson, Jefferson or Douglas, had seen the election of these reform candidates coming. The local school board just wasn’t something people expected hundreds of thousands of outside dollars to pour into. But by and large, once voters noticed what had happened, they rejected the policies and the method by which those policies were enacted in their districts.

Just as Colorado voters pushed back against the reformers last year, communities across the country rebelled in their own districts where groups like the Koch brothers’ Americans for Prosperity, the school reform group Americans for Choice in Education (ACE) and others had funneled money into small, local races in order to swing school boards. Just as swiftly as the reform movement had taken over local school boards nationwide, voters pushed them away.

But then the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) was passed and signed by President Obama on Dec. 10 last year. It was hailed as a bipartisan end to No Child Left Behind (NCLB), a national school performance accountability program that many educators ultimately felt was too burdensome and punitive. ESSA was also packaged as an effective rewrite of Obama’s Race to the Top program, which awarded NCLB federal grants to states that adopted the Common Core, federally devised math and language standards that each student had to meet.

When it was signed, ESSA replaced NCLB and also got rid of the Common Core mandate — that is, states could now determine how to assess their students. It meant less standardized testing for students, a move that has made many educators very happy, but it also appears to have empowered state boards of education that were mostly rendered impotent under NCLB.

Bottom line, ESSA is large legislation. It’s a long, complicated bill that sometimes contradicts itself and that state officials, from the Colorado Board of Education to the state teachers’ union, are working diligently to sort out. At the very least, ESSA gives states the right to control many things about how they run their schools.

And, according to the White House, the education bill will “[empower] state and local decision-makers to develop their own strong systems for school improvement,” and “[establish] new resources for proven strategies that will spur reform.”

This transition from federal to state control of academic standards figures to be a defining moment in the way the U.S. educates its children. Though it’s not unprecedented for there to be incongruity in the way states educate (in fact, this was partly the impetus for NCLB) the stakes, arguably, are higher now than ever, and outside influencers, like the reformers that voters roundly rejected last year, are preparing to take advantage of the changes.

Though how Colorado decides to unpack ESSA is still to be determined, the state legislature is likely to continue to carry the weight of enacting education laws and standards, according to several state education sources. But one group whose influence is likely to increase in that process is the Colorado Board of Education.

The state Board of Education is comprised of seven elected members from seven districts across the state. Each member serves a six-year term. There are three seats up for election this year. The board works with a commissioner, whom they appoint, and a new commissioner, Rich Crandall, was appointed in January this year.

Until now, the state board’s responsibilities have been to implement legislation passed by the state, and sometimes, to help craft education bills. ESSA will give the state board at least one more major responsibility, says Colorado Education Association (CEA) President Kerrie Dallman. The board and commissioner will be charged with developing a “practitioner’s committee,” which will “develop an implementation plan” for any new legislation required by ESSA or designed by the state. In other words, the state board and commissioner will decipher and decide what ESSA says and how it will be implemented in Colorado.

Colorado Board of Education member Angelika Schroeder (D-Boulder) says there is currently a wide political range on the state board, which could factor into how ESSA is implemented.
“I keep saying the world is round and if you keep going way to the left and way to the right you’re going to run into each other on the other side of the world, and that’s what’s happened,” says Schroeder.

But not everyone agrees that the state board’s politics are substantively diverse.

There are currently four Republicans and three Democrats on the state board. Commissioner Crandall is a Republican. Party affiliations for these board members, as was the case in local school districts where reformers had taken over, are less telling than the political connections each member has made.

Take Board Chairman Steve Durham (R-Colorado Springs). He’s a former lobbyist for the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce. He and Tom Tancredo were members of the pejorative “House Crazies” in the ’70s and ’80s, a group of hyper-conservative legislators. He’s been scheduled to speak at  Koch brothers’ Americans for Prosperity events. And he was involved with launching Coloradans for Freedom with Republican Joe Megyesy, a program officer at the Gill Foundation. The Gill Foundation is a singularly focused advocacy group that financially supports Democratic and Republican candidates, groups and legislation in exchange for those parties’ support of gay rights.

Or take state board member Pam Mazanec (R-Larkspur). She’s a director of pro-reform and pro-charter school group, Great Choice Douglas County. She is a graduate of the Leadership Program of the Rockies, the ultra-conservative factory of policy makers run by school reform champion Bob Shaffer, who also has ties to the Koch brothers. On Facebook, she has adamantly called people “conspiracy theorists” if they question that the Koch brothers and similarily uber-rich school reform advocates Ed McVaney, Ralph Nagel and Alex Cranberg — who are three of Colorado’s largest contributors to Republican campaigns and members of ACE — are “good men who truly care about the kids.” She also once wrote on a Facebook thread that the U.S. ended slavery voluntarily and wondered “Shouldn’t our students be provided that viewpoint?”

Or take state board member Joyce Rankin (R-Carbondale). She’s an outspoken supporter of school reform, calling for equitable funding for charter schools and more school choice. She has been backed by the conservative Independence Institute, which also supported reform candidates in Jefferson, Thompson and Douglas counties. Rankin told Chalkbeat Colorado that working with her state representative husband, Bob Rankin, won’t “be a problem at all.” Bob Rankin has received money from Colorado Concern, a shadowy, invitation-only powerhouse of conservative politics in the state.

Or you can even take Deborah Scheffel (R-Parker), who is the sister of Leadership Program of the Rockies graduate and state senator Mark Scheffel.

Do these affiliations and connections sound familiar, voters in Jefferson, Thompson and Douglas counties? And yet there is still the matter of the new board commissioner, Rich Crandall.

As a state senator in Arizona, Crandall received a rating of 84 from the Kochs’ Americans for Prosperity. He runs a USDA school lunch audit and consulting group, while also having sponsored legislation in Arizona to get rid of the state’s free lunch program. He was the sole final candidate for the commissioner position as chosen by Ray and Associates, the consulting group hired by the reform board majority in Douglas County to find their superintendent.

It’s history repeating itself, only this time it’s at the state level, which has become far more important with the passage of ESSA.

Crandall sponsored or supported legislation written by the conservative law-writing group, American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), including bills that benefited charter schools, “opposed federal intrusion” in state education standards, and promoted digital and virtual school programs. In fact, Crandall’s championing of virtual charters and programs ties him directly to some heavy national funders and politicians — from Jeb Bush to Bill Gates.

In 2010, Bush campaigned for virtual school expansion in Florida. ALEC adopted Bush’s virtual school platform, and Bush’s nonprofit, Foundation for Excellence in Education (FEE), has since advocated states to adopt the platform. FEE is funded by education material publishers K12, Apex, Pearson, McGraw-Hill, as well as Microsoft and the nonprofit Gates Foundation. An advisory board made of personnel at Blackboard, Google, Dell, Microsoft and others help oversee the implementation of Bush’s virtual school tenets in states. There is money to be earned for those listed above in virtual charter schools — it was an estimated $900 million industry in 2015.

Crandall, according to The Nation, spoke at a FEE-sponsored National Summit on Education Reform in 2011 and “said to hearty applause that he had developed a local think tank to support the virtual school reforms he helped usher into law.”

Virtual schools and digital education programs have since proven to be effective for a minority of students, and the 2015 Stanford University “CREDO” study found that students in K-12 online virtual schools lose the equivalent of 72 days of reading education and the equivalent of a full school year in math education.

But it’s folly to focus on Crandall’s support of virtual schools and miss the connections Colorado’s new state commissioner has forged through his time in politics.

Boulder’s state board member Angelika Schroeder points out that the commissioner acts at the behest of the board, which may actually align with the body of work Crandall has previously accomplished.

“We are his boss. If he’s got four people supporting what he’s doing, that’s it,” Schroeder says. “Our last commissioner was also a Republican. He was a-political, and Rich is political.”

But Schroeder, though on the other side of the figurative aisle, agrees with Crandall on many things, and is “supportive of much of the reform” that Crandall worked on in Arizona and during a brief stint as state superintendent in Wyoming. Crandall, by the way, was also a finalist for a similar position in Utah last year.

“I don’t worry as much about [the] ALEC [bills Crandall supported] to be honest with you, because they are largely a business organization,” Schroeder says, belying the organization’s true character and purpose.

Schroeder adds that in her meetings with Crandall, she was impressed with his ability to communicate and galvanize education communities toward a co-operated goal. That ability, she says, is near the top of needs for Colorado, where leadership has objectively been lacking and at a time when ESSA figures to shake up the dynamic.

“The politics are killing us,” Schroeder says of Colorado education, both on a policy-making and community level. “I would say that we’re not listening very carefully. Only 20 to 25 percent of the voters have children in schools. … Those are the people making the most noise. Teachers don’t want educator effectiveness. They don’t want time taken out for testing. They overreact to testing, I would say. Then we’ve got 70 to 75 percent of the population that says we want teachers to be evaluated in some way, so that the bad apples are out in some way and that we recognize our very best teachers.

“None of us have been able to find anything negative about Rich or people who were upset with him,” she says, adding the caveat that, “Rich has been here way too short a time for me to get any sense if he can provide leadership.”

Dallman, the state teachers’ union president, is cautious about Crandall.

“He’s a very nice man, and I think it’s too early to tell what kind of commissioner he’s going to be within the Colorado context,” she says. “He clearly still has a lot to learn about the climate here in Colorado, as well as the various education mandates that are currently on the books.”

Dallman pointed out that in one of her two conversations with Crandall, she picked out an idea that is typical of education reform advocates.

“He’s very focused on business metrics, and obviously a reform-minded crowd has been really focused on business metrics, which has led to our state over-testing students,” Dallman says, before adding that, “It’s too early to tell if there are philosophical differences.”

Schroeder says Crandall has already been touting research that indicates independent, state-developed tests during the time of NCLB and Race to the Top have been as effective and could be more accommodating than federal or Common Core testing.

“Rich has said he’s going to have Colorado do their own assessments, and what he will tell you is the results are the same. He talks about four different states, two of which did their own assessment, two of which [did not], and there wasn’t any difference between the four.”

Developing state assessments would require the state legislature to disperse additional funds, Schroeder says. There is no indication as to which company will receive the contracts and money to create the new assessments should they get the greenlight.

Other immediate changes are unlikely as ESSA’s stipulations get figured out, but Dallman says she’s paying close attention to the new commissioner and the state board.

“We’re always concerned that someone can bring bad policy with them,” Dallman says of Crandall. “All I can say is we’re going to be watching very carefully.”

One thing Dallman, CEA and educators will be watching carefully is the implementation of these new regulations and if any of the outside influences currently involved on the state board will actually have an impact. Schroeder says it could be May before the board has figured out all that ESSA entails.

“I’m told there are things in one part that counteract pieces in the other part,” she says. “If that is in fact the case, that’s really going to make writing the rules a trick. I’m looking forward to it, but I’m not sure how it’s going to come out.”

Colorado is not alone in figuring out how to implement ESSA, and Schroeder says the federal government will hold workshops across the country to show “states how to unpack this.”

What remains to be seen is if members of the reform movement will continue efforts to win seats on the district school board level. After such resounding defeats at the polls last year, ESSA could be an opportunity for reformers to focus their attentions on state departments of education and school boards — and if Colorado is any example, it appears that may be their new method of attack.

Progressive critics of ESSA have said that the bill doesn’t do enough to protect low-income students, protects special interests and includes too many ambiguities with regards to teacher evaluations, achievement standards and more. In states with heavy reform presence like North Carolina, Oregon and Wisconsin, these inadequacies could be exploited by outside interests. Too, in states without clear delineations of who produces education policy and how it’s produced, outside interests like the Kochs are likely to become involved.

There are also several states that, like Colorado, already have a reform or conservative presence on their state school boards. These states have varied laws, and the state boards have varied levels of control. The Texas state school board, for instance, has had various factions of conservative, reform and even Christian fundamentalism in control for at least seven years, and because of state laws, the board has been able to pass controversial policies including changes to curriculum. In Alabama, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, the state school board joined evangelical Christian political activist David Barton to publicly rail against Common Core in 2014. In Utah, the state school board and Koch-affiliated superintendent voted last year with the state legislature to implement an aggressive pay-for-performance program for the state’s lowest performing schools. And it was just last year that the North Carolina school board voted to allow teachers to include history class materials outside of those which had been created by a Koch brothers-backed organization called the Bill of Rights Institute, which the state had required for years prior.

If you look deep enough, or just at, any number of states or state boards across the country, the reform influence likely already exists. Reformers may have to plug money into school boards or they may not have to if reform proponents are already instated. And ESSA, when all is said and done, figures to give curriculum, assessment and other critical decisions to these state school boards that previously may not have had that leeway.

In Colorado, with three state school board seats up for grabs in November, precedent dictates money is going to fly in, while groups like Americans for Prosperity and Independence Institute will likely work the media, phones and mailers, as they have in the past, to curry favor.

In fact, the public relations campaign for the reform movement is in full swing. You may have seen, or even participated in, National School Choice Week (NCSW). In 16,140 events across the country in the last week of January, NCSW brought together students, teachers and administrators (many from charter schools), gave them all a yellow scarf and held rallies and speeches at various locations.

So deeply has NCSW taken root in just three years that in Denver, new state board commissioner Crandall spoke to a crowd at the State Capitol about the importance of school choice. Students stood and talked about the advantages of charter and virtual schools. There was even mention made of the National School Choice Week dance, which is taught in schools across the country. You can learn it here: www.youtube.com/watch?v=L0M5nCsKObc

You might be looking at your kids right now and thinking the idea of them singing and dancing about “school choice” is a little forced. If so, you’d be onto something.

NCSW is supported by a who’s who of the reform movement: Independence Institute, Great Choice Douglas County (Board Member Mazanec’s group), Colorado League of Charter Schools, ACE Scholarships, various local charter school groups, and Jeb Bush’s Foundation for Excellence in Education.

What stemmed the tide for many against the reform movement in Jefferson, Thompson and school districts across the country was simply paying attention to the outside forces that were funding the reform. Though voter turnout will be high in this presidential election year, Schroeder says voters in Colorado will need to pay attention to education and the three state board seats up for grabs if they want change.

“Education issues are not resonating with the voters, that’s not what they’re flipped out about,” Schroeder says. “So maybe we just need to get through this election, and Colorado needs to look at their standards and decide if this is what we want to do.”

The issue is that the Kochs, and all reformers, are happy enough to keep education off of voters’ minds this year. By the time communities get wise this time, it may be too late to change back.

The Common Sense Policy Roundtable, which has ties to the Koch brothers and has several board members who have graduated from the Leadership Program of the Rockies, is a group that provides research to back up the conservative causes in which they believe. Recently, the group published a study, “Douglas County’s Dramatic Shift —Treating Teachers Like Professionals,” which proclaims the success of school reform in the only Colorado district with a reform board majority remaining.

There is reason to believe that more studies from the group will be forthcoming from the CU Leeds School of Business, which runs their economic modeling program, REMI. The studies will likely support the viability and success of educational reform. BW will be watching closely.

Previous articleThe long of it

Next articleNothing left to lose