Some Colorado K-12 leaders betting the state’s bark is worse than its bite when addressing failing schools

Jul 3, 2013 by

DENVER – In 2009, Colorado lawmakers got tough with the state’s chronically lousy school districts by passing a law that promised serious corrective action if they did not show big improvement within five years.

Kevin Simpson of the Denver Post reports that dozens of Colorado schools are about to enter year three or four of their five-year turnaround term, though some school leaders are taking a rather laid-back approach to the entire process.

These school leaders aren’t overly concerned that their districts aren’t making big gains in student learning. Instead, they’re betting that when the clock runs out on them, the state will back down from imposing any meaningful consequences.

They’re taking quite a risk.

Under the 2009 law, Colorado officials are allowed to impose big changes on perennially dysfunctional school districts, either by reorganizing the district, taking control of the failing schools, transferring control to a charter school operator, or shutting the schools down entirely, the Denver Post reports.

But Colorado Department of Education official Peter Sherman said there’s an ongoing debate among education leaders just “what the state really has the authority to do.”

“The question is: What could actually happen, and what’s the political appetite for that to happen?” Sherman told the Post.

“There are some (districts) where the urgency translates into thoughtful action,” Sherman continued, “and others where – I’ll say this politely – there’s disbelief that the state can do anything, that the clock many run out and not be a big deal.”

Sherman calls this the “wait-and-see” strategy.

‘Old culture’ difficult to uproot

The state’s lack of additional K-12 funds is one reason some school leaders seem to be shrugging off the reform law. State officials might not have the financial resources needed to impose major changes in failing districts.

The Post writes, “With a recent history of more than $1 billion in K-12 education budget cuts, some contend the state is hardly well-equipped to engineer turnarounds the way some other states have.”

Others believe the state will back down on its tough talk because shutting down schools – or wresting control of them away from the community – would not play well with voters.

To these observers, any state action will likely come in the form of a helping hand, not a clenched fist.

Pat Sanchez, superintendent of one Colorado district that’s going through a turnaround process, said the casual approach taken by some districts is a hallmark of the “old culture” that’s accepting of failure.

“I’ve worked with standards-based education systems quite a bit. But it always breaks down with the will of the leadership acquiescing to the old system,” Sanchez told the Post.

If Colorado officials don’t vigorously enforce the 2009 reform law, defenders of the status quo will conclude the reformers’ bark is worse than their bite. The impetus for meaningful reform will fade.

And that would have disheartening ramifications for the Colorado families that want something better for their children than failure and mediocrity.

Some Colorado K-12 leaders betting the state’s bark is worse than its bite when addressing failing schools – powered by Education Action Group Foundation, Inc..

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