How Colorado conservatives are pressing GOP candidates for governor on education policy

It’s just before 7 p.m. Tuesday and conservative talk radio host Ross Kaminsky asks his producer to include 30 seconds of background music to his introduction.

“It gotta be something like ‘Hot for Teacher’ or ‘School’s Out For the Summer,’” Kaminsky’s guest, George Brauchler, a Republican candidate for governor, suggests with a chuckle. “Doesn’t it have to have an education theme?”

Brauchler, district attorney for Colorado’s 18th judicial district that includes Arapahoe and Douglas counties, was the first leading GOP candidate to speak with Kaminsky about education issues in what will be a series of telephone town halls.

The hour-long conversations, which are also broadcast live on KHOW-AM and streamed online, are paid for by Ready Colorado, a political nonprofit that advocates for conservative education reform policies.

Though it’s common for advocacy groups to try to pin down candidates on issues during political campaigns, the paid radio forum — on a media platform long favored by conservatives — is an unusual strategy for elevating education as a campaign issue.

Luke Ragland, president of Ready Colorado, said the conversations are designed to help voters better understand where conservative candidates stand on policy matters such as school choice and standardized testing.

During the first town hall, Brauchler said he favors creating new entities that can authorize charter schools, establishing education savings accounts for parents that work like vouchers for private schools, and maintaining some form of end-of-year standardized testing to measure school quality.

“I need public education to be awesome right now,” said Brauchler, who has four children in Douglas County schools.. “Not in 10 years from now, but right now.”

Unlike most other states, Colorado’s governor has little sway over public schools. Most authority resides at the local school board level, while the state legislature and board of education write and put into practice statewide policies. (The governor does hold veto power over legislation).

“The governor might have little authority in the technical sense, but the governor has great power to influence education policy and how schools are run,” Ragland said. “No one has the bully pulpit that the governor has. I do think that is a great deal of power.”

Other leading GOP candidates include former state lawmaker and businessman Victor Mitchell and former investment banker Doug Robinson. Robinson is the nephew of 2012 Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney.

State Treasurer Walker Stapleton and Attorney General Cynthia Coffman are expected to join the race to succeed Gov. John Hickenlooper, a Democrat who is term-limited.

The Democrats also have a crowded primary field. U.S. Rep. Jared Polis, former state Sen. Michael Johnston, former state Treasurer Cary Kennedy and businessman Noel Ginsburg all are running. Lt. Gov. Donna Lynne also is considering a run.

Democrats for Education Reform, a political nonprofit, said it is not planning to hold similar conversations with candidates.

“Unlike the Republican candidates that need coaching about policy that serves kids, I believe every Democratic candidate running for governor has decades-long records of policy making experience in the best interest of students,” Jen Walmer, DFER’s state director, said in an email.

Ragland acknowledged the Democrats have long voting records and policy positions, but said improving the state’s schools is top of mind to Republicans.

“There are some clear lines on the Democratic side,” he said. “But when you’re sit down with these guys, education is one of the first things that come out of their mouths.”

Photo by Nic Garcia


  1. The Goldwater Institute along with the Heritage Foundation proposed an expansion to the voucher model that would expand the scope of vouchers beyond private schools. This model, called Education Savings Accounts (ESAs), operate like employee health savings accounts (HSAs). A portion of per-pupil funds earmarked for a public school are deposited in the students’ ESA. The amount contributed to the account is not subjected to federal income tax at the time of the deposit and will roll over and accumulate if not spent in a given year, or placed in a college savings account. Students can apply their per pupil allocation towards homeschool expenses, private school tuition, tutors, online education, educational technology, community college, technical education, or future higher education expenses. The purpose of ESAs, according to the Heritage Foundation Website, are to give parents more control over the funds that the state would otherwise spend on public school. The effect will be less money overall for public schools, which rely on contributions from the whole to control costs.

    ESAs will be exorbitantly expensive to fund, adding millions of private school and homeschooled children to the system. Participating states are phasing-in ESAs by limiting eligibility to low-income students at low-performing schools, with the intent of broadening the scope to include all children in the future. Nevada made ESAs available to all 450,000 children in January 2016, although each candidate must be enrolled in public school for at least 100 days to qualify. The State of Nevada will contribute 90 percent, or $5,100, of per pupil funding to each enrollee. Special needs children qualify for 100 percent, or $5,700. Although the Nevada law does not permit public money to be used for homeschooling, the law is vague enough to include it.

    The laws also allow children to re-enroll in public school at any time, even if the ESA funds for the year have been spent. This puts an additional burden on public schools, which will have to absorb these costs on top of their budget shortfalls. And because ESAs are managed by the parents and not the school district, there will be obvious issues of fraud and lack of accountability, problems that are already rampant in the poorly regulated privatization arena.

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