by Janet Lopez
DENVER (March 9, 2009) - As the halls of the State Capitol buzz with bill debates, and the Governor carefully examines the cuts to the state budget in relationship to President Obama’s stimulus package, many education policy wonks also consider if the Governor’s P-20 Education Council will be as influential as it was in the 2008 legislation session.
The P-20 Council shaped multiple pieces of landmark education legislation last year including, millions of dollars for full-day kindergarten, increased funding for secondary counseling, the first steps toward a P-20 data system and the sweeping Colorado Achievement Plan for Kids.
In 2008 Education Commission of the States released a policy brief outlining landmines to be avoided by P-20 Councils. By all accounts, Colorado’s Council avoided many of those. The Governor assembled the right people throughout the P-20 spectrum, included representatives of both sides of the aisle, and clarified members’ roles. He charged the group with addressing specific questions, a tactic that didn’t tell members how to think, but did guide them toward the issues he needed them to confront.
It also was a year of good feelings. Sincere partnerships developed between the Governor’s Office, and the Departments of Education and Higher Education that continue to facilitate each agency’s work The political climate, the resources from education and foundation communities, and the hard work of the Council came together to hit the first round of recommendations out of the park.
Yet, among the 20-plus recommendations delivered to Governor Ritter in December, the only recommendation mentioned in the State of the State was that of expanding concurrent enrollment to increase access to postsecondary education. While bills influenced by various elements of the subcommittees’ recommendations have been introduced this session, the priorities of the Council are notably absent from current education bills garnering significant public attention.
The obstacles the Council faces in its second year cannot be ignored; momentum has stalled. Can the P-20 Council maintain its legitimacy as an agent of education policy reform? The depressing fiscal climate is a definite factor, but the Council’s work also appears to have experienced a general loss of steam likened to a sophomore slump.
Nevertheless, policymakers recognize the power of bringing all sides of the education continuum together to create policy. It would be a shame to see the Council falter.
One way to reenergize the group would be to add a tier of leadership to deal with implementation—thus bridging the gap between policy makers and practitioners. To reinvigorate the Council, it also will be necessary to bring in new voices. Membership on subcommittees has declined as the time and energy necessary to put into the work is taking its toll. The governor’s office might consider rotating Council and subcommittee members on committees and limiting the time a member may serve.
The group also would benefit from greater participation by representatives of the business community. One way to address this is to add business members and then utilize their skills (developing budget matrixes etc.) rather than just asking them to share opinions on producing workforce-ready graduates.
Finally, tasking the Council with addressing specific questions proved more successful in 2007 than in 2008. As the subcommittee’s work becomes more diffuse, it may be necessary to return to a few pointed questions that all the subcommittees are asked to answer--approaching the issue from multiple angles and coming together around focused, specific recommendations on one or two issues. This model may also lend weight to the recommendations coming from the Council.
Ultimately, the grim fiscal climate likely will determine what success the Council’s recommendations have in the legislature, but as the Council plans its next steps for the future, efforts to breathe life into the policy-making body will be critical. The landmines in the education system will not disappear, and the talents and sincere efforts of our education leaders on the P-20 Council should not either.
Janet Lopez is University of Colorado Denver’s director for P-20 Education Initiatives at the School of Public Affairs.