School choice has become a hot-button issue in Colorado over the past decade. Currently two of Colorado’s largest school districts are engaging in very public fights over the future of K-12 education.
Jefferson County is Colorado’s second largest school district and serves about 86,000 students. In recent years, JeffCo has been a hot battleground between teachers unions and supporters of school choice. In 2013, three pro-reform members were elected to its school board and became the majority. Their attempts to reform curriculum and teacher’s compensation met vicious resistance from the teachers union, which organized classroom walkouts and protests.
A raucous recall campaign in 2015, largely funded by out-of-state funds, successfully replaced the three pro-reform school board members with members largely backed by teachers’ unions. In May 2017, this new school board replaced the superintendent, whom the previous majority had hired, with their own guy, Jason Glass. The board awarded Glass a base salary of $265,000, the highest of any superintendent in Colorado.
This new school board and superintendent have been heavy-handed with charter schools, which are public schools run by their own boards rather than the local school district. Golden View Classical Academy (GVCA), a charter school approved by the previous pro-reform majority board, became the first casualty.
We Don’t Care How Well You Educate Kids
GVCA opened its doors in the fall of 2015 with almost 500 children in grades K–10. During the current 2017-2018 school year, GVCA has expanded to include grade 12 and serves 670 students. It’s affiliated with the Barney Charter School Initiative (BCSI), a project run by Hillsdale College.
After only two years in operation, GVCA’s PSAT data (the highest test level it has so far) is third in the district and 16th in the state. It has received great reviews from parents and children. For the 2017-2018 school lottery, there were only 13 open seats at GVCA from grades 1-7, yet more than 500 kids are on the waiting list.
One month into the new 2017 school year, however, JeffCo withheld all funding from these 670 children attending GVCA. Parents of these children received an email notice from the district saying it is withholding funds because GVCA missed a September 15 deadline to submit their draft audited financial statements to the district.
Derec Shuler, GVCA founder and chairman of the board, disputes the district’s actions. He points out that the contracted deadline for a draft audit for GVCA was October 15, before JeffCo changed it outside of contract to September 15. JeffCo is the only district in Colorado that requires a draft audit and GVCA is the only school required to submit a “draft” audit by September 15.
Shuler acknowledged and accepts responsibility that GVCA wasn’t able to complete a draft audit by September 15, but was still within a contractual cure period when the school district notified the school it was withholding its funding for the month. According to Shuler, since GVCA was not violating its contract with JeffCo, JeffCo needed to follow the due process laid out in the contract to solve this dispute, rather than unilaterally withholding funding when 670 children are sitting in classrooms in the middle of a school year.
Since JeffCo refused to budge, on September 28 GVCA filed a complaint with the Colorado State Board of Education over JeffCo’s improper withholding of student funding. GVCA and Jeffco have another dispute because the school district withheld overhead fees in excess of they had mutually agreed to in an annual purchased services contract.
Meanwhile, Back at the Ranch
Meanwhile, another highly contentious school board race will take place this fall in Douglas School District, the third largest in Colorado that serves 67,000 students. The school board is currently split 4 to 3 with a pro-school-choice majority. Success in recalling pro-reform school board members in JeffCo has emboldened union operatives in DougCo. Regular school board meetings have become raucous events frequently interrupted by chants and protests.
The central issue in DougCo’s school board race is school choice. In 2011, DougCo’s school board attempted to establish a districtwide choice program that would have provided vouchers to 500 students to attend any private school of their choice, secular or religious. Unfortunately, this program never took off because those who oppose school choice began fighting a legal battle to kill it as soon as it was announced. In 2015, the Colorado Supreme Court ruled that DougCo’s choice scholarship is unconstitutional based on Colorado’s Blaine amendment, a law rooted in the nineteenth century’s anti-immigrant and anti-Catholic bigotry.
The current school board appealed its case to the U.S. Supreme Court. In June 2017, the court sent the case back to the Colorado Supreme Court with instructions to reconsider the Choice Scholarship program’s constitutionality in light of the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Trinity Lutheran v. Comer.
So, the battle line has been drawn. After this fall’s election, if the pro-choice board members can maintain their majority, they will continue to fight for education freedom for families in DougCo and the rest of Colorado. However, if those who oppose the scholarship program win the majority, they promise to end the program and withdraw the legal case. If that happens, it will mark a great setback for the school choice movement in Colorado and nationwide.
Thus, the DougCo school board race is closely watched by interest groups from inside and outside of the state. Teachers unions especially are expected to follow their new strategy of pouring money into local school board races to stymie school choice of all varieties.
Our existing education system has reached a crisis level. The future of America’s education is playing out at a local level. Colorado, a purple state, has become a battle ground of education reform. What’s happening in JeffCo and DougCo has implications for the rest of America: in 2017 and beyond, will American parents and children finally have the freedom of education choice?