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Kelly SloanKelly SloanJune 25, 20186min763

The Democratic primary race for governor of the state of Colorado took on a certain air of the surreal in the waning days of the contest. It began a few weeks back when a group supporting Cary Kennedy ran what one presumes was supposed to be an attack ad against both Jared Polis and Mike Johnston. The elements were all there – the unflattering photos, the cropped headlines, the accusatory voice-over – and yet curiously the message was laudatory, pointing out pro-education positions allegedly taken by both candidates. Specifically, the ad credited Polis for apparently at some point in his life supporting the extension of educational opportunity to all regardless of income in the form of a voucher program, and Johnston for sponsoring a bill to improve teacher performance and accountability.


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Dan NjegomirDan NjegomirNovember 8, 20179min4610

This turned out to be the year the teachers unions staged a comeback. Long on the defensive and losing members in Colorado and across the country amid expanding school choice and a rapidly shifting public education landscape, the unions dug in their heels. They opened their coffers and pushed back hard in Tuesday's election against proliferating reforms like charter schools, performance pay, new accountability measures and in one district, school vouchers, all of which they have bitterly opposed.


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Dan NjegomirDan NjegomirOctober 30, 20173min918

A boatload of cash has been pouring into some Denver-area school board races — particularly in the make-or-break face-off over control of the Douglas County School District’s board of education. The board has been run since 2009 by a succession of reform-minded majorities whose agenda has included enacting a school-voucher program (as-yet unimplemented amid a years-long court challenge) and effectively ending collective bargaining with the Douglas County Federation, the local teachers union, in 2012.

The union has been trying to climb back into the saddle ever since and, in the upcoming election, is supporting a slate of candidates that is angling to take the board majority. As has been widely reported, the local union’s national parent, the American Federation of Teachers, recently dumped $300,000 into an independent political committee that favors the slate.

Now, Chalkbeat Colorado’s Nic Garcia reports that the group Campaign Integrity Watchdog filed a campaign-finance complaint this week with the Secretary of State’s Office against that same independent committee, Douglas Schools for Douglas Kids, over the contribution:

A report filed by the committee shows one contribution from the union. However, other records filed by the union make it appear like there were two contributions — both $300,000 — from the union to the same committee. One donation is from “American Federation of Teachers” the second donation is from “American Federation of Teachers Solidarity.”

The union, responding to questions from Chalkbeat, said the double reporting was a clerical error made in an attempt to amend its original report and that it only made one $300,000 donation to the committee.

Campaign Integrity Watchdog’s Matt Arnold told Chalkbeat, “It’s possible they screwed up the reporting,” but “voters deserve to have information about who is trying to buy and sell their votes.”

 


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Jesse MalloryJesse MallorySeptember 28, 20176min1213

It’s becoming harder for opponents of education freedom to come up with legitimate reasons families should not have more options when deciding the best possible education options for their children. The U.S. Supreme Court made it more difficult with a pair of recent rulings, including one that said denying approximately 500 families in Douglas County the ability to exercise that freedom was wrong.


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Dan NjegomirDan NjegomirSeptember 13, 20176min3098

Promising “a well-rounded six-figure campaign,” pro-education reform behemoth Americans for Prosperity-Colorado announced it is launching a sweeping outreach effort to parents in the Douglas County School District, the state’s third-largest school system, to warn them “educational opportunity is in jeopardy.” The digital and direct-mail campaign, touted in a press release from the group this week, directs parents to sign an online petition calling on the Douglas County School Board “to preserve educational freedom.”

The pitch appears intended to rebuild support for the district’s dormant school-voucher program — which would help parents pay tuition at parochial and private schools of their choosing — though there’s no explicit mention of the program itself in the group’s announcement. A reform-minded DougCo school board, elected in 2009, adopted the much-debated policy but was never able to implement it in the face of a court challenge.

AFP’s campaign is launching on the heels of two major developments — renewed action in the long-idled court case, which halted the program in 2015, and the approach of the November school board election, which could shift the DougCo board away from its current, pro-reform tilt. Both developments could determine whether the voucher program ever takes effect. Meaning, the stakes are high, as AFP-Colorado must have noticed; by the way, it recently mounted a broader, statewide campaign advocating for school choice.

The U.S. Supreme Court in June ordered Colorado’s Supreme Court to reconsider its ruling two years ago striking down the program. The state’s highest court had ruled at the time that Colorado’s constitution included, “broad, unequivocal language forbidding the State from using public money to fund religious schools.” However, the new ruling by the nation’s top court, following its decision on a related case, sets the stage for a do-over ruling by the state Supreme Court that could reopen the door to vouchers in DougCo.

Meanwhile, the school board is sharply divided, 4-3, between pro- and anti-voucher factions. The upcoming races promise a rematch between the two sides albeit with largely new slates of candidates. If the current majority loses just one seat, the new board could pull the plug on the program and moot any action by the state Supreme Court.

So AFP-Colorado’s new campaign comes at a critical juncture (though of course it makes no reference to the races).

The four-candidate, pro-voucher slate, which bills itself as “Elevate Douglas County,” will face off with the anti-voucher, four-candidate “Dream Team.” Voters can expect a lot of campaign money to pour in on both sides in the coming showdown, as has been the case in past elections; there are no contribution limits for school board candidates.

Prominent, well-heeled school-choice advocates like Alex Cranberg, Ed McVaney and Ralph Nagel have funded previous pro-voucher slates and probably will be back at bat for Elevate Douglas County. The state’s teacher unions — adamant foes of vouchers as well as charter schools and backers of the ongoing court challenge — likely will step up to the plate for the Dream Team.

As for AFP-Colorado’s campaign, State Director Jesse Mallory had this to say in this week’s press announcement:

“We should be doing everything possible to ensure that families have the ability to select the best educational options for their children. Kids enrolled in educational opportunity programs have shown increased graduation rates, are more likely to enroll in college, and ultimately are better prepared for the jobs of the future. We’re calling on parents to sign our petition calling on the Douglas County School Board to ensure that a child’s future shouldn’t be decided by their zip code or family income.”


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Dan NjegomirDan NjegomirAugust 8, 20175min850

At first blush, it seems like an innocuous restatement of bedrock public policy:

“No appropriation shall be made for charitable, industrial, educational or benevolent purposes to any person, corporation or community not under the absolute control of the state, nor to any denominational or sectarian institution or association.”

That’s Article V, Sec. 34 of the Colorado Constitution. The same goes for Article IX, Sec. 7:

“Neither the general assembly, nor any county, city, town, township, school district or other public corporation, shall ever make any appropriation, or pay from any public fund or moneys whatever, anything in aid of any church or sectarian society, or for any sectarian purpose, or to help support or sustain any school, academy, seminary, college, university or other literary or scienti c institution, controlled by any church or sectarian denomination …”

Separation of church and state, right? Something we all agree on.

Not so fast, say advocates of school choice and, more fundamentally, leaders of the Catholic Church in Colorado. They point out the above “Blaine amendments” were inserted in the state’s founding charter as well as in the constitutions of most U.S. states amid a wave of anti-immigrant and related anti-Roman Catholic bigotry in the late-19th century.

And they now are rallying their rank and file to speak out to federal authorities about the offending clauses, which they contend not only enshrine discrimination but also give opponents of education reform a  pretext for shutting down school-voucher programs.

Colorado’s advisory committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights held a public hearing in Denver last month to discuss the constitutional language and it’s impact on Colorado. The committee now is taking public comments for use in an eventual report. The Colorado Catholic Conference — the church’s advocacy arm in the state — as well as other Christian groups are urging their members to weigh in.

Far from simply keeping church and state separate, critics of the Blaine amendments say, the policies in fact were intended to curb the proliferation of Catholic schools and the Irish and other immigrant communities they served. As recounted in the much-reported, ongoing legal battle over Douglas County’s stalled school-voucher program, Blaine amendments were the product of a time when prayer of the Protestant variety was common and accepted in Colorado public schools. So were classroom readings from the Protestant King James Bible. And members of the Protestant political establishment looked askance at attempts to establish a rival, “sectarian” — i.e., non-Protestant — school system.

There’s hope for the Blaine opponents on the legal front. After ruling in Trinity Lutheran v. Comer in June that churches could not be excluded from a Missouri state grant program that funds playgrounds for charitable organizations, the U.S. Supreme Court ordered Colorado’s highest court to take another look at the Douglas County voucher case. The Colorado Supreme had ruled against the voucher program in 2015, effectively upholding the state’s Blaine amendment.

Alongside the continuing court debate, the Catholic Conference hopes to stir popular push-back. It’s asking adherents of the faith to weigh in. From an email campaign this week:

We hope that you will join us in sending comments to the committee stating your opposition to this amendment.

Comments may be sent to: (please be sure to include your name and address)
Colorado Advisory Committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights
1961 Stout Street
Suite 13-201
Denver, CO  80294