Local Versus State Boards of Education

Dr. Lisa Escárcega

One of the most frequent questions I am asked these days is, “Who decides ‘X,Y,Z’, the state or local board?” Depending on ‘X,Y,Z’, some decisions are easy to place at either the state or local board level, while other decisions result from interplay between the two entities and can include the federal level as well. For example, calling snow days is only under the local school board control while the selection of what is taught, known as ‘Standards’, is decided at both the state and local board level.

The policies directed by the state board are generally as follows: academic standards setting; choosing specific state assessments to monitor progress on the standards and when the assessments are given; development of a framework for evaluating districts and schools (both federal and state statute dictate parameters in this area); accreditation of districts (not schools); setting educator licensure requirements; and setting requirements for instructional time (minimum teacher/student contact time).

The policies directed by the local board include: choosing of curriculum that aligns with state standards and how it will be taught; choosing local assessments to monitor progress on the standards and when the assessments are given; hiring of all personnel; setting health and safety protocols; and setting school calendars and student schedules. It is the local board that must make the difficult, on-going decisions around in-person and remote learning offerings.

When it is not clear where an education policy originated, getting something changed can be difficult and complex. Take state assessments for example. The federal government passed a law stating all students will take certain state assessments each year grades 3-8 and once during high school. If states do not implement this practice, there is the threat of losing federal funding (it has never happened.) The state of Colorado legislature duplicated much of the federal assessment law, and enacted a statute that goes beyond what the federal legislation requires. The state board of education’s role is to choose the specific tests and vendor(s) for administration along with the timing of the assessments. The state board cannot provide waivers for these state assessments to any school or district (including charter/innovation schools) without both the federal and state-level government ‘permission’.

During our on-going pandemic, must schools give state standardized tests this spring? Unless both the federal and state-level government act to waive testing requirements, the answer is yes. To comply with the statute, all students who are doing fully remote learning (40% of Denver Public Schools students) must be asked to come into schools. It will require a significant number of students to turn in the laptops and Chromebooks they were provided so the devices can be cleaned and locked down for at least six weeks. Can you imagine sending or getting that email? Given that a disproportionate number of our BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) students/families chose to do fully remote learning for the entire year and received the bulk of the devices, what will the impact be to them?

Who benefits and who gets hurt by a policy is a strong question to ask in determining if a policy is equitable. Review of all state education policy for equity and bias is one of my focus areas. That includes our current accountability system that is overly dependent on state assessment scores and does not encompass all the school qualities that parents want. I see this policy review as a long-term focus that will take multiple approaches and a series of levers being pulled with the local boards of education, the state legislature and the state board of education. Any change will require ongoing input from all stakeholders – particularly those who historically have not had a voice. Our communities are asking how to make their voice heard and at which levels they should advocate. I strongly urge anyone with questions, concerns, and/or input to contact me. It is time to put education back into the hands of the community as the common good it was intended to be.

Dr. Lisa A. Escárcega was elected to the Colorado State Board of Education in November 2020 representing the 1st Congressional District. She recently served as the Executive Director of the Colorado Association of School Executives (CASE) that represents more than 2,400 Colorado education leaders.


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