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Education is on the ballot in Colorado

Education is showing up on Colorado ballots in different ways this elections season.
Maeve Conran
Rocky Mountain Community Radio
Education is showing up on Colorado ballots in different ways this elections season.

Education issues are on the ballot in a variety of ways this year.

Maeve Conran spoke with Erica Meltzer, Bureau Chief at Chalkbeat Colorado, to find out more.

Maeve Conran: How is education and education issues, how are they showing up on ballots around Colorado this election season?

Erica Meltzer: There's a really significant race on the ballot for the State Board of Education, there's a new at-large seat that everyone in the state will get to vote on, as well as candidates on the ballot in CD-8, CD-6, and CD-5.

This is an independently elected body that plays a big role in education policy in Colorado.

We also have a number of ballot measures on the ballot related to education.

A key one is Proposition FF and that has to do with funding school meals.

And then education has been an issue in the governor's race and a number of our legislative races.

Maeve Conran: Let's start by looking at the State Board of Education. Many people might not actually understand what role the State Board of Education plays in Colorado. Can you clarify exactly what this entity does?

Erica Meltzer: Yes, they hire the Education Commissioner, they oversee standardized testing and the school accountability system, this is a system that rates schools in terms of how well they think they're serving students.

And they can extend help to schools that are struggling, but they can also intervene and order changes in schools that are struggling, so that potentially has a big effect on what happens locally.

They also oversee teacher licensure, and how easy or hard it is to become a teacher has implications for the teacher's shortage.

And they also hear charter school appeals, so if a charter school is organizing in a district and the local school board votes it down, the charter school can take that appeal to the State Board of Education.

So they affect what happens in schools in a number of ways.

And they also set academic standards which determines what we think as a state that students should learn.

That's turned into a really significant issue in this race because the state board is updating social studies standards, and it's become controversial for the same reason that these issues have been controversial in front of local school boards and nationally, these complex questions of how we teach history and race and gender and sexuality.

Maeve Conran: So in terms of the candidates in the State Board of Education race, I mean, how is that national conversation or some of these debates and some of this division that we're seeing around curriculum, how is that showing up in the State Board of Education candidate races here in Colorado?

Erica Meltzer: This is an interesting question because there's almost two questions here.

One is, what the social studies standards should say.

And we have Democrats, Kathy Plomer in the at-large race, Rebecca McClellan, who is the candidate in CD-6 in Arapahoe County, and Rhonda Solis, who's the candidate in CD-8 for Adams and Weld Counties, being very strongly in favor of more diverse social studies standards, more diverse perspectives represented in the curriculum.

And then on the Republican side, in the at-large race, candidate Dan Maloit has said that he sees himself as a moderate, that he supports having more diverse curriculum, but also he's really concerned about activism in the classroom.

He really wants local control to also be protected.

And then you have more conservative candidates in CD-8.

Peggy Propst, who previously served on the State Board of Education, you know, really would like to see a more traditional approach to teaching history.

And Molly Lamar, who's a Cherry Creek parent, has said that she has a lot of concerns about the ways that schools are talking about issues around race and gender and sexuality that she thinks things are just going too far.

So you have that division among the candidates, but then you also have this question of should we extend this debate?

Because technically the state board is actually supposed to finalize these in a few weeks after the election, but before the new board takes office and some of the candidates like Democrat Rhonda Solis, and Republican Molly Lamar feel like this is so important, if the state board doesn't get it right, the new board should actually get an opportunity to make that decision.

And other candidates feel like this has taken up a lot of time and energy and regardless of what happens, we need to move on to other issues.

Maeve Conran: Well, you mentioned there local control, and one of the candidates who is really in favor of that in terms of education, should we expect then future debates to really play out in a significant way in local school districts?

Erica Meltzer: Absolutely, and I think we already saw this in the 2021 school board elections, and I expect that we'll see it again.

What happens in Colorado is that the State Board of Education sets the academic standards, which says this is what students should learn, but then (it) ends up to local school districts to pick their curriculum, to pick their teacher training, and that's what we're really going to see show up in the classroom.

There's a lot of deference to local authority, school districts have a lot of power, and I think we'll see debates locally about how much the school board should comply with the state board decision on academic standards, depending on the political makeup of that community, and some school boards may say, 'we're not doing that because we disagree with it.'

And so I do expect that we'll continue to see these debates locally.

Maeve Conran: Well, it's always worth remembering that Governor Jared Polis actually was a State Board of Education commissioner, he served one term, and so if we segue now to the gubernatorial race, education is a big component given Governor Polis' history on the State Board of Education, but also the fact that Heidi Ganahl is a Regent at CU.

So how is education playing out in the gubernatorial race?

Erica Meltzer: They've both made education a big part of their pitch to voters, though I think anyone who's listened to the debates knows that crime and the economy have maybe played a bigger role this year.

Governor Polis ran in 2018 on making full day kindergarten free to families, and rolling out a universal preschool program.

That universal preschool program is now on the books, but families won't actually get to benefit from, it's going to be 10 hours a week of free preschool, won't actually get to benefit until fall 2023.

Governor Polis' education pitch this year is that he's really laying groundwork for kids to get a strong start and do well in school for years to come.

Regent Ganahl is pitching education savings accounts, and this could take a variety of forms, some sort of tax credit or voucher that families could use, for example, to offset the cost of private school or to pay for tutoring.

And she's promoting expanding school choice and being sort of a voice for getting back to basics in education.

Maeve Conran: Well, there was a statewide ballot measure around school funding in Colorado that didn't ultimately make it to the ballot, but is there anything happening locally, either mill levy measures in different communities around school funding? Because this seems to be a constant issue in the state of Colorado, but also locally, how do we fund education, how do we fund the infrastructure, is there anything happening around that?

Erica Meltzer: Yeah there are 19 communities this year where the school district is asking voters for either a bond or a mill levy override.

These are both different types of property tax increases.

So if you see a bond issue on your ballot, that might be to fund a new school or to fund some major school repairs.

And if you see a mill levy override, that might be an ongoing property tax increase that might fund higher teacher salaries or new programming.

And a lot of school districts feel like the state funding just doesn't cover everything that they need to do, and so they turn to local voters to provide additional support.

And on the one hand, this can be a great opportunity for a community to sort of go above and beyond, but it also creates a lot of inequality around the state because not every community is as open to a tax increase and not every community can raise as much money.

Some communities really don't have a lot of property wealth, and so even a high tax increase just doesn't generate very much money.

You can find Chalkbeat Colorado's coverage of the 2022 education ballot questions at co.chalkbeat.org.

This story was shared with Aspen Public Radio via Rocky Mountain Community Radio, a network of public media stations in Colorado, Wyoming, Utah and New Mexico including Aspen Public Radio.

Maeve Conran has been working in public and community radio in Colorado for more than 15 years. She served as the news director at KGNU in Boulder/Denver until 2020 and has since been working as the Program Director at Free Speech TV based in Denver, as well as host/producer of the Radio Bookclub podcast and radio show which is a collaboration with the Boulder Bookstore.