Imagine if your day job involved stewarding a public education system with nearly 900,000 students and 178 districts?
That’s the reality for Katy Anthes MPA ’01, PhD ’07 Colorado’s Commissioner of Education and two-time graduate of CU Denver’s School of Public Affairs (SPA). A self-described “education policy wonk,” Anthes earned a master’s and a doctoral degree from SPA and taught statistics and public administration as an adjunct faculty member. These experiences laid the groundwork for her current role leading education policy on a statewide level.
As Anthes prepares to step down in July—for a well-earned break after six years that included the COVID-19 pandemic—we asked about her experiences at CU Denver, her career, and the landscape of public education.
What inspired you to pursue education policy work?
In college, I was really interested in environmental policy, civil rights, and how we decrease and think differently about poverty. I concluded that the proactive side is public education. If we can work to have the best education system, one that everyone has equal access to, a lot of those other issues I care deeply about improve. So, I researched where to develop my interests. When I stumbled upon public administration, I thought, “This is perfect.” I’ve always had that policy mind, that 35,000-foot systemic view. It sounded wonderful: working for government to solve problems and work toward the public good.
Why did you pick CU Denver for your master’s and doctoral degrees?
I’m a Colorado girl. I deeply love Colorado, so I wanted to find somewhere to go here. I knew CU Denver had a great reputation and SPA was a great program, so I thought, this is perfect.”
What was your experience at CU Denver like?
It was a great foundation for understanding government. It’s where I first understood the difference between policy and politics. I love policy; I don’t love politics. I also loved that the SPA program was grounded in reality, not just the academic ivory tower. We always had guest speakers who work in these areas, city officials and past politicians coming and speaking and being part of the school. I was a full-time student but also working at the Education Commission of the States. I’d work days, then go downtown for my SPA classwork, then take the bus back to Boulder. Those were long days.
How has Colorado education evolved since you became Colorado’s education commissioner in 2016?
In Colorado and nationwide, more politics have gotten into education. There is more polarization, and, in jobs like mine, you end up spending a lot more time on that polarization. It takes a lot more relationship-building. You have to work harder to find common ground and common policy solutions. But Colorado has a spirit of problem-solving. When you get right down to the people doing the work, there’s more agreement than disagreement.
What is your proudest achievement as Education Commissioner?
We had been steadily making progress on student achievement, graduation rates, decreasing dropout rates. That has gone backwards a bit since COVID, so we have work to do to catch up. But I have to give my team credit on some things we do to work with the state’s lowest performing schools. We recently did an analysis and found that if schools and districts go through our school-improvement programming, 92% of them increase their performance rating. So, we’re seeing tangible impacts on school improvement.
Any tips for someone who wants to be an education-policy leader?
Some people I mentor have asked: “Should I go into a program that’s education-specific, or a more generalist program?” I really liked the generalist program of SPA. I was working in K-12 education, but when I’d go to class, I’d hear what the city manager is doing, what someone in health care is doing, what someone in corrections is doing. It contributed to my global thinking that we shouldn’t think of public policy in silos.
—Interview edited for length and clarity.