Last week, the new Colorado education commissioner abruptly announced that, effective immediately, he was now the old Colorado education commissioner.
The departure of Richard Crandall and the subsequent appointment of Katy Anthes as the interim commissioner bring us to a grand total of four different state education commissioners in less than a year—an average tenure of about three months, which is just about long enough to get your business cards printed.
By comparison, during the preceding eight-year span of 2007 to 2015, Colorado had two education commissioners: Dwight Jones and Robert Hammond. Jones was in the job for three years and Hammond for five. Plenty of time for business cards…and the actual business of improving schools.
The turmoil created by heavy turnover comes at an especially bad time. The new federal education law—the Every Student Succeeds Act—gives state education departments significantly more control over school accountability. And Colorado’s schools, while showing improvement over the past decade, still need to get a lot better.
A recent story in the Atlantic titled “The Colorado Paradox” makes that point:
By 2020, three-quarters of Colorado’s jobs are likely to require some kind of education beyond high school….The state doesn’t seem to have an issue attracting people from elsewhere to fill open positions; unemployment is an impressive three percent. But the state has struggled to educate the children born and raised here so that they can also tap into the economic opportunities around them. It’s a well-known but persistent problem that locals call “the Colorado paradox.”
So how do we stop the revolving door at the Colorado Department of Education?
When Hammond announced his retirement in the spring of 2015, there was speculation that he had grown frustrated with the tenor and direction of the Colorado Board of Education, which had new members join at the start of 2015. Hammond and new board agitator Steve Durham, who was appointed by Republican leadership to fill an El Paso County vacancy, both downplayed talk of a rift.
But less than two months after Hammond announced his resignation, Colorado Board of Education Chairwoman Marcia Neal announced hers.
Her reasons were not left to speculation: “Sadly, our current board has become dysfunctional,” Neal, a widely respected education leader, wrote in her resignation letter. And she later in the letter offered a diagnosis of CDE’s talent drain: “As for our state department of education, we are losing top quality staff now. We’ve recently had a surprising number of resignations and notices of retirement. One has to wonder how much of the board’s seemingly destructive behavior has contributed to this exodus.”
Durham, whose seat is up for election this November, has now replaced Neal as board chair, and he’s now on his third commissioner.
The reasons for Crandall’s quick and jarring exit aren’t entirely clear. But it was apparent to just about everyone that he wasn’t up to the task of overseeing Colorado’s 179 school districts, which serve roughly 900,000 (and climbing) students. And that was pretty clear to CDE staff, who are still keeping that exit door whirring.
Anthes was on her way out that door when Crandall got there first. Now she’s in charge—the first woman to be appointed Colorado’s education commissioner in 65 years. She knows the place and has the respect of the many good people still at CDE.
Here’s hoping the state board of education sees that. Here’s hoping they recognize and reflect on the damage done by the churn over the past year. And here’s hoping they take a long, hard look in the mirror and ask if the root of the problem is staring back at them.