By Ben DeGrow | Special to Colorado Watchdog
Critics of Colorado‘s reform-minded Douglas County Board of Education have asserted that the School Board is responsible for a declining rating in state-measured performance.
Yet overlooked changes in how the state measures performance, as well as the timing of the decline, make the claim fall flat.
This School Board gained national attention for adopting the groundbreaking, voucher-like Choice Scholarship Program and stripping away the American Federation of Teachers‘ local collective-bargaining power.
At back-to-school events in August, many families in the suburban Denver district — Colorado’s third largest with more than 60,000 students — received a flier from the local Strong Schools Coalition. The flier tells Dougco parents that they should care about the state of the school district under the reform board, because Douglas County School District slipped a notch on the District Performance Framework measured by the Colorado Department of Education:
DCSD lost the highest CDE rating of “Accredited with Distinction” in 2010 and is now “Accredited”.
Based on a CDE analysis, however, the coalition’s insinuation that the board has harmed Dougco’s accreditation status doesn’t add up.
In 2009, the Colorado General Assembly adopted the Education Accountability Act, which not only raised the point value districts need to attain the highest accreditation rating but also altered the factors used in the measurement. Douglas County’s rating declined because of the new formula that measures student achievement.
Among other changes, the 2010 version of the District Performance Framework stopped giving easy credit simply for having an improvement plan filed with the state, greatly complicating comparisons with previous versions.
“The two can’t be directly correlated,” said CDE Executive Director of Field Services Jhon Penn, regarding the differences between the 2009 and 2010 ratings.
The timing of Dougco’s rating change demands further explanation from critics. The board’s reform majority was sworn in halfway through the 2009-10 school year, in which the rating declined, and Superintendent Elizabeth Celania-Fagen was hired shortly after the year ended. Work to develop the school district’s new choice program did not begin until the summer of 2010.
Yet critics have cited the claim published in the coalition’s flier to argue that the reform board somehow has had a negative effect on student outcomes. An anonymous “Douglas County Parent” blogger touted the decline as a reason for parents to be concerned about the board’s actions. Pro-union teachers similarly have forwarded the claim on social media sites.
Coalition vice president Susan Meek, a former DCSD employee who ran a failed campaign to unseat one of the school board reformers, has assailed the board for spending too much time in executive session — the result of additional lawsuits filed to halt the district’s policies.
The Strong Schools Coalition website says its purpose is to “work toward delivering factual and complete communications to the entire community.” Some residents who support the board’s reform efforts, though, said the misleading claim on the flier calls into question the group’s credibility as an arbiter of facts.
“It’s unfortunate that the Strong Schools Coalition has provided less than complete and accurate information,” said Becky Barnes, whose son received one of the Choice Scholarships later invalidated by a Denver District Court judge. “They should be informing the community that our accreditation status may have declined because of new CDE calculations.”
Coalition president Laura Mutton did not respond to questions regarding her group’s use of the questionable claim.
Douglas County’s accreditation rating remained unchanged for 2011. The next round of results is scheduled to be released before the end of the year.