Thursday, June 20, 2024

CO: Charter Backers Trying To Buy A State Board Seat

A mountain of dark money has been unleashed by charter supporters to win a critical seat on the state Board of Education in an election less than a week away.

Who's running?

Kathy Gebhardt has years of experience as a school board member, including serving on the state and national school board associations. She's an education attorney who has done some important work like serving as lead attorney on Colorado's school finance litigation. She has the endorsement of the teachers union, both state and various locals, and a hefty number of elected officials.

Marisol Rodriguez entered the race at the last minute; she lists her relevant experience as mom of two current students and education consultant.

It's the consulting work that provides a clue. Rodriguez’s consulting firm is Insignia Partners. She has previously worked for the Walton Family Foundation, a major booster of charter schools. Her clients include Chiefs for Change, a group created by former Presidential aspirant Jeb Bush to help promote his school choice policies; the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, an advocacy group for charter schools and charter school policy; and the Public Innovators in Education (PIE) Network, a national network of education reform organizations.

Most importantly, some of that consulting work appears to have been with the Colorado League of Charter Schools. A February meeting of that board shows her discussing some aspects of CLCS strategic planning.

Gebhardt has never taken a strong stance on charters, but as a school board membe4r she drew a hard line against a proposed classical charter, linked to Hillsdale College’s charter program, that refused to  include non-discrimination protections for gender identity and expression. My Colorado friends tell me that that was the point at which she became persona non grata for Colorado's charter industry. 
She told me “charters don’t play well with others.”

What are the stakes?

This is a Democratic primary. What's the big deal?

First, the GOP candidate is not running (accounts vary on why, exactly, she has disappeared from the race). That means the winner of the primary will take the seat on the state board.

That matters because Colorado gives local boards the power to say yay or nay to proposed charters, but if the charters don't like the nay, they can kick it up to the state school board, which can then overrule the local board's nay. 

The board has had a 5-4 majority favoring the charter industry, but one of the pro-charter crowd has been term-limited out. Gebhardt and Rodriguez are competing for that seat. This election could flip the board majority, making life more difficulty for folks peddling charter schools.

How hard is the charter industry fighting in this election?

On May 21, a group called Progressives Supporting Teachers and Parents filed with the state as a non-profit. On May 23, the Colorado League of Charter Schools gave PSTS $125,000. (Much of this info comes from Tracer, Colorado's campaign finance tracking site).

The registered and filing agents of PSTS are Kyle DeBeer and Noah Stout. DeBeer is VP of Civic Affairs for CLCS and head of CLCS Action, the CLCS partner 501(c)(4). Noah Stout is a member of the Montbello Organizing Committee, a group that receives money through various foundations that support charter schools, including the Gates Foundation and RootEd, and previously served as attorney for the DSST charter school network in Denver.

To date, PSTS has spent money on only one thing-- the election of Marisol Rodriguez.

And boy have they spent!

When I first wrote about this last week, PSTS had spent almost $600K to back Rodriguez. But as of this week, that figure is at $1.2 million. That's $1,270,205.97, to be precise.[Update: I've learned that a glitch in Tracer counted some money twice. The actual amount is $819,000-- so a little under a million instead of a little over a million.] That's a lot of money. 

The money has gone to two firms-- The Tyson Organization (strategic voter contact solutions) and 40 North Advocacy (advocating for and implementing policy change). The latter specializes in digital and print marketing, and the former handles phone calling. CLCS has used both before, but this time they are making some serious money. 

Colorado voters are being hammered with slick mailers and repeated robocalls. And in the last week, the tone has shifted. Where earlier expenditures were for pro-Rodriguez marketing, the last week has seen more "Vote no on Gebhardt." 

And these marketing materials are the campaign. Rodriguez herself has made few appearances, done virtually no press, and is not visible on the campaign trail, so the trail is mostly just paved with glossy mailers and expensive marketing. I couldn't find much in the way of expense costs for previous board campaigns, but in 2022, Chalkbeat reported that almost $5 million had been spent on a total of 213 school board campaigns in Colorado.

So what do we have, Colorado?

It sure looks like the charter industry recruited a paper candidate and then created a funding and marketing campaign to try to push her on the public. And as yet there's no word on where exactly that dark mountain of money came from, but it's a sure bet that it's not from the plain old grass roots voters in Colorado.

The primary is on June 25 (though mail-in voting has been going on for a while), so we'll see whether the charter industry has been able to use a mountain of dark money to install a friend on the state board. 

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