By Erica Meltzer
Colorado’s Democratic candidate for governor is the founder of a charter school network, and the Republican candidate is a longtime supporter of charter schools and school choice. But their common support for charter schools belies strong differences in their education priorities.
Speaking to an audience of charter school leaders on Monday, both candidates highlighted where those policy disagreements might undermine their opponent’s stated support. U.S. Rep. Jared Polis, the Democrat, said the education policies supported by Colorado Treasurer Walker Stapleton, the Republican, would take money from public schools, including charters.
For his part, Stapleton made sure to mention that Polis is endorsed by the Colorado Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union, an alliance he called “a bargain with the devil.”
The two men spoke Monday to the Colorado League of Charter Schools’ Leadership Summit in the midst of a campaign that has been more dominated by health care and energy policy than education issues. This is in marked contrast to the Democratic primary, where candidates debated and attacked each other over degrees of support for or opposition to education reform policies.
Charter schools — publicly funded but independently run — have long enjoyed bipartisan support in Colorado as part of a broader education reform agenda. Charters have been praised for expanding options and raising achievement for students who are ill-served by traditional public schools and criticized for not serving all students and diverting money from other public schools. Teachers unions, a key Democratic constituency, have often opposed the expansion of charter schools, where teachers are generally not unionized.
The candidates discussed school funding, school choice, and Amendment 73, a corporate and income tax increase on the November ballot that would raise $1.6 billion for K-12 education.
Stapleton and Polis are competing to replace Gov. John Hickenlooper, a Democrat, who is barred by term limits from seeking re-election.
Here’s what we heard:
On Amendment 73
Polis said he does not have a position on the tax increase and that he’ll work to increase funding to public education regardless of the outcome on Amendment 73.
“It’s not exactly what I would do or how I would form it, but if the people decide to move forward with that, I would make sure those resources reach the classroom and that charter schools were treated fairly,” he said. “If the people don’t like that proposal, I’m ready to roll up my sleeves and work with Republicans and Democrats and the business community and the charter school community and teachers to end decades of underfunding and underinvestment in our public schools.”
Unlike other Democratic candidates for governor, Polis did not make rolling back portions of Colorado’s Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights to allow the state to keep money generated by existing taxes a key part of his platform. He said Monday that if elected, he would allocate significantly more money for K-12 education out of the general fund.
How much money will go to education versus other needs is a constant debate in the legislature, with Republicans arguing that roads and other infrastructure needs have lost out.
Stapleton said he is “adamantly opposed” to Amendment 73 in part because there is not enough accountability for how the money would be spent. He pointed to rising administrative costs in many school districts, costs that have outpaced growth in enrollment, as well as the share of districts’ personnel budgets that goes toward paying pension costs.
“If you don’t earmark money, money finds its way to places you never expected and maybe not in the most effective way for kids or into the classroom,” he said.
As treasurer, Stapleton advocated for changes to the pension system that put more of the responsibility for fixing unfunded liabilities on teachers and retirees. At the same time, many observers say pension costs are partially responsible for stagnation in teacher pay.
“I will do whatever I can through executive order to make it possible for everyone in this room to get line-item details on what’s being spent in any school district,” he said. “Until we get numbers and transparency, we won’t be able to get to the root of the problem.”
Colorado’s system of “local control” has granted school districts significant autonomy in everything from curriculum to salaries. Schools have to report how much they spend on administrative costs, but there is not consistency about what goes into that portion of the budget.
On expanding school choice
Colorado law allows students to enroll in any school that has room for them and can meet their needs, but some parts of the state have far fewer options than others. And transportation remains a barrier everywhere to students who want to attend schools outside their neighborhood or town.
Without offering a detailed proposal, Polis said he wants to work on solving the transportation problem for Colorado students.
“That’s going to be an important part of taking the charter school movement to the next level,” he said. “You can’t take the transportation side out if you truly want the market mechanism of choice to lift all boats and improve student performance and make sure every child has access to a world-class education.”
He also demonstrated his experience with the nitty-gritty of charter school management by promising to protect charters that provide half-day kindergarten from having to renegotiate their contracts if he’s successful in funding full-day kindergarten.
Stapleton said he would send more money to charter schools authorized by the state’s Charter School Institute. These schools received an increase in a 2017 bill that gave more money from local tax increases to district-authorized charter schools, but they depend on the legislature to allocate that money every year.
And he promised to create a new state-level authorizer for charter schools whose districts were not interested in working with them. In a brief interview after the forum, he said he isn’t sure yet what that would look like or how it would differ from the Charter School Institute. The idea is not mentioned on his website’s education page.
“I will be an advocate for another board or entity being able to authorize charter schools,” he said. “In some school districts where you have failing public schools, there is a bias amongst some people on the school board who are predisposed to not have more competition in public education. The people that end up being the losers are the people who can least afford it.”
On why the other would be bad for education
Polis said two of Stapleton’s key education proposals — a tax holiday for school supplies and education savings accounts that would let parents save money tax-free to pay for music lessons, academic tutoring, career and technical education, and preschool — wouldn’t change fundamental inequalities but would reduce the money available to fund K-12 education.
“The problem in our state is where does that money come from,” he said. “It comes from public schools. So you’re actually taking money out of public school finance to say we’re going to create a tax break for wealthy families to pay for tutors.”
Stapleton said Polis cannot be counted on to support charter schools because he has been endorsed by the state teachers union. This endorsement came after the primary, during with the Colorado Education Association endorsed one of Polis’s opponentsand contributed to attack ads that questioned his support for public education.
“My opponent is fully endorsed by the CEA, and I am very concerned about the CEA’s plan for education versus … charters’ plans for education,” Stapleton said as his final unprompted comment to the crowd. “I think that it’s a bargain with the devil, and I am proud that I am not endorsed by the CEA.”