In the small Colorado town of Woodland Park, nestled on Pikes Peak’s north slope, only 28.6 percent of students scored at grade level in math last year. Just 45.3 percent can read at grade level. So after taking over 18 months ago, the conservative school board immediately sought to recoup the learning loss.
But district leadership is now under siege — facing a deluge of integrated attacks from teachers unions resisting the board’s reform efforts. As the local union awaited a “crisis” designation and funding from the Colorado Education Association (CEA) — which recently condemned capitalism — other allied unions were coming to their aid.
Strangely, national legacy media are weighing in too. NBC News is setting up this school district as a poster child for “experiment(s) in conservative governance.” As reformers mount similar efforts to win and maintain school boards nationwide, they must watch the teachers union playbook unfolding in the Rocky Mountains.
National Attention on a Small Mountain Town?
Woodland Park is home to just 8,000 people, including 2,122 students. So why is a national news behemoth like NBC training its sights there? The answer may lie in reporter Tyler Kingkade’s coverage, replete with factual errors and mischaracterizations that portray the board as nontransparent and hasty in advancing its reforms.
Kingkade wrongly implies that in pursuing its school-choice program, the board rushed to approve the district’s first charter school, Merit Academy, under a vague agenda item in January 2022. However, it merely approved a memorandum of understanding for the application process — not the school itself. Following public criticism, the board relisted the item clearly and revoted at two subsequent meetings. A judge ruled the board “cured any previous violations” of Colorado’s open meeting laws.
Vice President David Illingworth supported Merit Academy, noting on my 710KNUS radio show it was his “No. 1 campaign issue.” Still, the board took great measures over five months to vet the proposal, hosting some 15 meetings and town halls before approving it. NBC News excluded these facts and that Merit Academy drives the district’s 16 percent enrollment increase, bucking Colorado’s downward public school enrollment trend.
Kingkade frequently omits key context, particularly when mischaracterizing the board’s decision to pioneer the American Birthright Standards, a traditional social studies curriculum that contrasts with Colorado’s new state standards. NBC suggests the school district in part discourages civic engagement by adopting these standards, contributing to an anticipated 40 percent resignation rate among the high school’s teaching staff.
But context is king: The standards merely reject “pedagogies” that advance a kind of civic engagement labeled “protest civics” or “action civics” — approaches preferred by the board’s critics. Interim Superintendent Ken Witt told me the district seeks to encourage critical consideration of government, its authority and limitations, and individual rights. Its intent is to “bring back an understanding” and critical thinking, he said, not to silence student voices or discourage political participation.
Kingkade wrongly conflates mental health supports with social-emotional learning (SEL), making district leadership seem heartless for not reapplying for $1.2 million in grants purported to provide mental health support. But Illingworth clarified the grants focused on other aspects, such as SEL, which is backed by news reports.
“We do not want to be in the position of usurping or interposing ourselves between the parent and the children,” Witt added. Kingkade implies malicious intent when the board publicly opposed HB23-1003, which initially compromised parental rights by letting students opt into a mental health assessment even against their parents’ wishes.
Let’s be clear: NBC News is exploiting controversy over education reforms in small-town America for its own agenda — misrepresenting and omitting key details to generate a false narrative of malintent and suspicion. But to what end?
Teachers Unions Coordinate Together
On Jan. 30, the Woodland Park Education Association (WPEA) organized a secret staff meeting led by Nate Owen, WPEA’s president and longtime Woodland Park High School teacher. Representatives from other unions participated, including Chris Idzik of the Pikes Peak Education Association and Thad Gemski of the Colorado Springs Education Association.
Their presence is revealing: As Gemski declared, according to a recording of the meeting, Woodland Park is “one of the epicenters” in a “statewide battle, regional battle.”
“The WPEA has filed for a ‘crisis’ assessment from the CEA,” Owen stated. “If we get that crisis grant, there will be some additional funding coming our way to allow us to do some more things.” Allies from other unions pledged assistance, he said.
Here’s the thing: The teachers unions aren’t converging on Woodland Park because they have extraordinary educational concerns. As I’ve written locally, they’re doing so because their influence and control are imperiled by a school board striving to fulfill the academic-centered agenda they were elected to accomplish.
What Scares the Teachers Unions
Witt became interim superintendent on Jan. 1, soon after a failed school board recall attempt. Union leaders were aghast: A former president of Jefferson County Schools (Colorado’s second-largest district), Witt is no union ally. “Union activity ramp(ed) up immediately,” observed Sean Pekron, a teacher at Merit Academy who spent 23 years at Woodland Park High School.
Witt recently ended the union’s automatic dues deduction and terminated the “Conditions of Employment” document, which had forced district and union leaders to “meet and confer” for teacher contract negotiations. This document resembled a collective bargaining agreement even though the district doesn’t have one and WPEA represents just 30 percent of Woodland’s teachers. It was nullified when the board approved a new compensation plan with an 8.5 percent raise in teacher pay.
Make no mistake: Union power over Woodland Park Schools has been unjustifiably strong for too long. That influence is diminishing and educational success in conservative Woodland Park jeopardizes their very existence. Teachers unions depend upon educational failures to expand membership, cement political power, and advance ideological agendas.
That’s why CEA ignores academic failures in Denver — Colorado’s largest school district — where the board is union-dominated, it faces a credibility crisis, and only 5 percent of Denver’s black and Hispanic third-graders are proficient readers.
The Teachers Unions’ Bottom Line
On April 22, CEA’s delegate assembly approved an extreme resolution condemning capitalism for “inherently exploit(ing) children, public schools, land, labor, and resources.” They also blame capitalism for systemic racism, climate change, patriarchy, education inequality, and income inequality.
“CEA may now publicly advocate & lobby for anti-capitalist policies at the CO capital,” tweeted radical union member Tim Hernandez. This is the same organization from which the WPEA seeks “crisis” funds.
The CEA resolution isn’t just a political statement. It affirms the anti-free-market mindset of the teachers unions, which oppose school choice and charters. Their resistance to a successful Merit Academy is a case in point. Why be concerned if you have a superior product?
Let’s be real: Any model exposing their failures is a threat. Capitalistic competition is deemed unacceptable to teachers unions because they simply aren’t about the kids. As longtime union boss Albert Shanker infamously said, “When school children start paying union dues, that’s when I’ll start representing the interests of school children.”
That’s why teachers unions and national media care about Woodland Park, Colorado. If they successfully thwart this school board’s efforts to prioritize academic achievement, cut out ideological agendas, and address learning loss, it will signal that it’s open season on reform-minded school boards everywhere.