Pro-charter PAC pours nearly $1 million into single Colorado State Board of Education primary

Nearly $1 million — mostly from a group supporting charter schools — has poured into the Democratic primary for a seat on the Colorado State Board of Education, a race that some observers say could play a role in the future of charters in the state.

But the two candidates vying to represent the 2nd Congressional District dispute that Tuesday’s primary, whatever the result, will alter the fate of charter schools. They each said in interviews that they support school choice, a system in which charters — public schools that have more autonomy than traditional, district-run schools — play an integral part.

“I believe this is a false narrative,” said Marisol Lynda Rodriguez, an education consultant new to politics with a background in charter schools.

“It’s just simply not true,” added Kathy Gebhardt, a former president of the Boulder Valley School District’s Board of Education.

And yet, as of Friday, their race has drawn more than $871,970 in paid advertising from a single political action committee called Progressives Supporting Teachers and Students, which has charter school ties. That money has gone toward supporting Rodriguez and opposing Gebhardt.

The pro-charter committee has spent more than 20 times as much as a union-backed group has put toward its opposition to Rodriguez.

The winner of next week’s primary almost certainly will replace board member Angelika Schroeder, whose six-year term ends in January. No Republican candidate is on the ballot.

Noah Stout, an attorney who previously worked for DSST Public Schools, a charter school network in Denver and Aurora, according to his LinkedIn profile, and Kyle DeBeer, vice president of civic affairs for the Colorado League of Charter Schools, are both listed as agents for the committee.

Neither Stout nor DeBeer could be reached for comment Friday.

The committee is supporting Rodriguez because she can “serve as a really excellent advocate for our kids,” Stout told the Colorado Sun this week, adding, “I don’t come to this from a charter schools perspective.”

The Colorado Labor Action has spent more than $42,300 on mailers opposing Rodriguez, according to campaign finance reports. The Colorado Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union, is a funder of that committee, according to finance records.

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The influx of money into the state race comes after more than $2 million was spent in the Denver Public Schools board race last year. That spending came primarily from groups and donors who backed education reform and charter schools, and they outspent the Denver teachers union 5 to 1, according to Chalkbeat Colorado. All three candidates they supported were elected to Denver’s school board.

The vast majority of the money in the 2nd CD race for the state board has gone to support Rodriguez, who is viewed as the candidate most likely to back charter schools when they appeal local districts’ decisions to reject their applications. Gebhardt is seen as someone who would most likely side with school districts in such disputes, said Van Schoales, senior policy director at the Keystone Policy Center.

“This election is interesting because it’s a primary with Democrats, which in most cases, on most issues, it’s hard to differentiate between the two of them,” he said.

But, Schoales said, “People who follow this stuff perceive that this race will have a significant impact on what happens on charter appeals.” (Schoales said the Keystone Policy Center doesn’t support candidates in any races, but he is personally backing Rodriguez.)

Rodriguez has also garnered endorsements from Gov. Jared Polis — a charter school founder and supporter who previously served on the State Board of Education — and two current board members, including Schroeder, according to her website.

Gebhardt has received endorsements from four State Board of Education members, including vice-chair Lisa Escárcega, according to her website.

Rodriguez previously worked for the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools and the Walton Family Foundation, which in 2016 announced it would spend $1 billion to create more charter schools across the U.S.

Rodriguez said that while she has connections to the charter school community, both of her children attend traditional district-run schools in Boulder. She said charter schools also are not the reason she decided to run for the board.

Instead, she said the culture wars that have played out in districts across the U.S. helped spur her bid, especially as a parent of a child who is part of the LGBTQ community and of another child with special needs.

“Colorado is not immune to becoming a Florida,” Rodriguez said, referencing a state that has become an epicenter for such culture wars as the government has limited what schools can teach about racism and U.S. history as well as on sexual orientation and gender identity.

Among the Colorado State Board of Education’s roles is approving academic standards for districts. Almost two years ago, the board debated the inclusion of references to people of color and the LGBTQ community in revisions to the state’s social studies standards.

“I really don’t understand,” Rodriguez said of the charter school discussion. “It seems like we have very similar takes on charter schools. I really don’t know why there’s much support for me from that community vs. her.”

Gebhardt, an attorney, said her relationship with charter school networks soured during her tenure on the Boulder school board after she denied a charter’s application because the school refused to adopt the district’s discrimination policies.

“From that point on… I’d just say we parted company on that issue,” said Gebhardt, adding, “I don’t think it’s hard for anyone to see a connection a least for the dark money side of this.”

Rodriguez said that, if elected, she will decide on a charter school’s appeal by evaluating the school’s financial model, whether it’s meeting state standards, what the school plans to teach and whether it has support from the local community.

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“I’m not going to be on the state board approving every charter school that comes there,” Rodriguez said. “It’s just a false narrative around who I am and the work I have spent the last 20 years doing.”

Gebhardt said she approved applications for other charter schools during her two terms on the Boulder Valley School Board, which ended last fall, and noted she also has advocated at the Colorado legislature for more money for charter school facilities. She has served on the Board of Directors for the Colorado Association of School Boards.

“The people who suggest that charter schools are at risk if I’m elected have not pointed to a single fact and have ignored the rest of my record,” she said.

Gebhardt said that, if elected to the board, when it comes to reviewing a charter school’s appeal, she will follow the state board’s procedures. She said she would also want to know what needs in the community a charter school would be filling by opening, as well as its projected enrollment.

“Charters are an important part of (school) choice,” Gebhardt said, adding, “I am a strong proponent of choice.”

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