Colorado State Government Spotlight: The Department of Education

by Julie Pelegrin

The Department of Education stands out as an anomaly among the 19 executive branch agencies: it is the only executive branch agency that is not under the direct control of the Governor or another single, statewide-elected officer. The Department of Education is led by the State Board of Education, whose seven members are elected from around the state, and the Commissioner of Education, who is appointed by the State Board. Because both the State Board and the Commissioner are established in the state constitution, the Department of Education is as indispensable as the executive branch agencies that are led by elected state officers.

In 1858, a full 18 years before Colorado became a state, a territorial provision called for the election of a territorial superintendent of education who was responsible for generally supervising the schools in the territory, recommending a uniform series of texts, filing and making available all county superintendents’ reports, making other reports to the territorial legislature, and preparing and distributing a course of study. The original Colorado constitution in 1876 created the office of the state superintendent of public instruction and the State Board of Education, made up of the attorney general, the secretary of state, and the state superintendent.

In 1948, the voters amended the state constitution to create the State Board of Education as an elected body, one member to be elected from each congressional district plus an at-large member if there is an even number of congressional districts. The voters also abolished the office of the state superintendent of public instruction and replaced it with the Commissioner of Education, who is appointed by the State Board.

Since 1948, the Department of Education has grown and continued to take on duties assigned by the General Assembly and additional duties arising from, and funded by, federal education laws. With regard to the Department’s 2013-14 operating budget, not including moneys that the Department distributes to school districts and institute charter schools, approximately twenty-seven percent is paid with federal moneys.

The Department’s core functions
The main function of the Department of Education is to work with the 178 school districts, the boards of cooperative services, and the charter schools in the state and the Colorado School for the Deaf and Blind to assist with and oversee the operations of the statewide public education system. The Department currently consists of five divisions plus an operations team that handles human resources, budgeting and accounting, and data management services.

The Achievement and Strategy Division works to support educators and implement the statutes that regulate education professionals. This includes implementing the educator effectiveness system requirements; providing educator licensing; and providing teaching and learning supports, including early learning and school readiness, literacy, and standards and instructional support. This division also oversees implementation of the statewide student assessments.

The Accountability, Performance, and Support Division oversees and supports districts in implementing many of the recent federal and state education reform requirements. This division includes a unit that implements federal programs, including those that focus on poor and at-risk students; an accountability data analysis unit; a unit that works with districts and schools to measure and improve performance, including assisting with turnaround and priority improvement schools and districts; a unit that focuses on improvement planning; and a unit that assists districts and schools with exceptional student programs, including special education programs, gifted and talented student programs, and facility schools for students in out-of-home placements.

The Department also includes the Innovation, Choice, and Engagement Division, which works with districts and public schools to implement the statutes on expanded learning opportunities. These statutes are designed to provide greater freedom for public schools to adopt and implement innovative programs, provide a greater range of educational choices for students and parents, and reduce dropouts by increasing student engagement in school. In addition to the Choice and Innovation Unit, the division includes the Office of School Choice; a unit that regulates and oversees online and blended learning programs that combine in-school and online learning; and the Office of Dropout Prevention and Postsecondary Readiness. This division also supports the state library, including adult education, and oversees health and wellness initiatives in public schools.

To ensure that the Department communicates not only with school districts and public schools, but also with parents and students and the General Assembly, the Department has the Communications Division. This division includes the offices of communications, legislative relations, and web management. In addition to its executive agency homepage, the Department maintains a web site called SchoolView that gives a brief explanation of the Colorado Growth Model for measuring student academic growth and provides a wealth of information concerning the academic performance and environment of all public schools and school districts in Colorado, as well as in the state as a whole. This web site also includes the annual school and school district accountability reports.

Finally, and for some most importantly, the Department includes the School Finance Division, which ensures that each school district and institute charter school receives the correct amount of state funding appropriated by the General Assembly. This division also includes the Office of Capital Construction that oversees the state’s public school capital construction fund, commonly known as the “BEST” fund. Along with the public school capital construction assistance board, also located within the Department, this division distributes grants and loans to districts and charter schools to assist with capital construction projects.

Other responsibilities
In addition to the work of these major divisions and offices, the Department is also responsible for overseeing school district transportation; implementing the Colorado Preschool Program; working with the State Charter School Institute, which authorizes state charter schools; and overseeing the Colorado School for the Deaf and the Blind.