Constants and Changes: Colorado's New Political Landscape in 2017

I apologize for my absence last week, friends. I was helping my policy friend Ross Izard wrap up another major publication—and trying to finish wrapping my head around the previous extraordinary (and extraordinarily confusing) political week. I’m not sure anyone fully understands what happened this November, but it’s clear that something has changed. This week was something of a watershed in modern American politics. Exactly what kind of watershed—and what it means going forward—remains to be seen. President-elect Trump is still a question mark when it comes to education, and all we can do is wait and see what happens in 2017.

In the meantime, we should remember that national-level elections weren’t the only nail-biting contests in 2016. In fact, I think I could make compelling case that they weren’t even the most important. Truthfully, we should be far more interested in what happened at the state level in Colorado, where political tides and the policy shifts they bring can immediately and directly impact our lives. Let’s catch up on those important changes today.

For those who don’t follow state-level politics very closely, here was Colorado’s landscape heading into the 2016 election:

  • Democratic governor
  • 18-17 Republican majority in the Colorado Senate
  • 34-31 Democratic majority in the Colorado House of Representatives
  • 4-3 Republican majority on the Colorado State Board of Education

After the election, things look the same in some ways and importantly different in others. Here’s the new breakdown:

  • Democratic governor
  • 18-17 Republican majority in the Colorado Senate
  • 37-28 Democratic majority in the Colorado House of Representatives
  • 4-3 Democratic majority on the Colorado State Board of Education

As usual, these results gloss over some important details. We discuss some of those details below.

After some bruising fights for Senate seats, Republicans managed to eke out a victory that results in the maintenance of their 18-17 majority. The deciding race in the fight for control of the chamber turned out to be that of Representative Kevin Priola (R), who was challenging Representative Jenise May (D) for Senate District 25’s seat. The seat was empty after Senator Mary Hodge (D) hit her term limit.

But the fact that the Senate remained narrowly red glosses over some important internal shifts. There were some internal changes that could play a big role in how the chamber operates from here on out. Perhaps the biggest change is that Republican Senator Laura Woods, whose race flipped the Senate into the red back in 2014, lost her SD 19 seat to Democrat Rachel Zenzinger—the same woman whom Woods successfully ran against in 2014. There were also other significant shifts within the legislature that could factor into how the 2017 legislative session plays out. For instance, Dominic Moreno (D) will now move to the Senate from the House, as will Rhonda Fields (D) and Angela Williams (D).

As a member of the House Education Committee, Senator-elect Priola has long been a strong advocate for choice, reform, and accountability. I think his voice will continue to be valuable in the Senate. On the Democratic side, some of you may remember Senator-elect Moreno as the architect and sponsor of last year’s HB 16-1343, which nonsensically attacked charter schools for automatically receiving waivers that traditional public schools are perfectly free to apply for. On the other hand, Senator-elect Angela Williams helped spearhead an important push for charter funding equity during the 2016 legislative session, and ultimately helped win some important victories on smaller, but still important, charter fronts. Senator-elect Finally, Rhonda Fields is a strong advocate for the African American community who has previously voiced support for educational choice.

Whether and how these preconceptions transfer to these legislator’s new roles in the Colorado Senate remains to be seen. But for now, I think we have some reasons to be cautiously optimistic when it comes to the Senate’s new makeup.

Things are murkier in the House. The chamber is still controlled by Democrats, but the gap between the two parties has widened considerably. The Democrats picked up three additional seats, giving them a 37-28 majority. That gulf translates to significant Democrat control of what happens in the chamber, particularly given the fact that, if the rumors I’m hearing are true, we are likely looking at committees structured to give the Democrats two-person committee majorities instead of the traditional one-person majorities. How exactly this plays out in the context of education is a significant question mark, especially with the Senate remaining Republican. But if I had to guess, I’d say that we’re going to see a fair number of “statement bills” about charter schools, school funding, teacher licensure, and other subjects emerge from the House this session.

Finally, and in some ways most importantly, the Colorado State Board of Education has turned blue for the first time in more than 40 years. After days of furious effort and waiting (which was part of way I’ve held off on this post until now), staunch choice supporter Debora Scheffel (R) lost a very tight race to Rebecca McClellan (D) for the 6th Congressional District’s seat on the Colorado State Board of Education. The race was so close that both sides were engaged in ballot “curing” efforts, which means they were reaching out to voters whose ballots were rejected for signature discrepancies or other issues. It truly was a situation where every vote counted.

Though it hasn’t been widely reported on, the sea change on the state board has the potential to be enormously consequential for Colorado education. The board will soon have to make some tough decisions on what to do about schools and districts reaching the end of the state’s five-year accountability clock, approve a new state education plan for Colorado under the Every Student Succeeds Act that is sure to bring some level of controversy, and navigate the tricky waters surrounding an upcoming academic standards review.

Most importantly, the board will have to continue acting as the final arbiter on the fate of charters that appeal their local school districts’ decisions not to grant them a charter or renewal. Given the political landscape of the local education scene following the 2015 elections, this will be an enormous responsibility—and one that I hope the board’s new majority takes very, very seriously. I do not want to see a situation in which anti-choice forces use the Colorado State Board of Education as a means of thwarting choice, opportunity, and the voices of parents and community members.

Then again, the state board has a long history of taking votes that do not fall cleanly along party lines. Exactly how McClellan’s presence will affect the shifting dynamics among the board members remains to be seen.

With Thanksgiving fast approaching, everyone is beginning to gear up for what is sure to be an interesting ride in 2017. You can bet I’ll be watching.