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Colorado: Governor-Elect Jared Polis Packs His Education Transition Team with Privatizers

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Coloradans should not be surprised to learn that Governor-Elect Jared Polis has packed his transition team on K-12 education with people who have a history of preferring charters and vouchers over public schools.

Polis himself founded two charter schools and is a fierce advocate for privately managed charter schools. He was one of the wealthiest members of Congress.

So of course he appointed Jen Walmer from DFER, the notorious organization of hedge fund managers who advocate for charter schools, never for public schools, and who are anti-union, pro-merit pay and pro-high-stakes testing. DFER is the face of corporate reform, using its ample resources to undermine public education. Walmer, according to the article, is an unregistered lobbyist for DFER. The Democratic party of Colorado (and California) both passed resolutions calling on DFER to stop calling itself “Democrats for Education Reform” because its idea of “reform” is to turn public schools over to private management. Its political action arm, Education Reform Now Advocacy, bundles hedge fund money to candidates in state and local races across the nation without releasing the names of the donors. The linked article says that ERN gave out $1.8 million in Colorado races, “almost all of it on behalf of Polis and Democrats running for the General Assembly. Education Reform Now Advocacy is a dark money group that doesn’t disclose its donors.”

It gets worse. Polis invited former Republican Congressman Bob Schaeffer to join his transition team on K-12 education. Schaeffer supports vouchers. Not only that, he directs the “Leadership Program of the Rockies,” an organization that prepares candidates to run for local school boards and to become active in local politics on behalf of vouchers and other conservative principles. Schaeffer’s group was active in leading the effort to turn Douglas County into the first district in the nation to vote for vouchers. The DougCo School Board supported by Schaeffer paid former Secretary of Education Bill Bennett $50,000 to speak to local civic leaders and praise its voucher plans. After a bitter, divisive fight, the entire pro-voucher board members were ousted by popular vote in 2017.

Schaffer also is chairman of the board of the Leadership Program of the Rockies (LPR) a Republican-leaning organization that provides training on conservative principles and leadership. Its graduates include three of the former members of the Douglas County Board of Education who approved a controversial private-school voucher program in 2011. Schaffer advocated for the state board of education to endorse the voucher program.

The Dougco program led to lawsuits, including a trip all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. It was dismantled last year after voters elected an anti-voucher school board.

Another member of Polis’ transition group is Michael Johnston, who ran for governor against Polis and lost. Johnston is a graduate of Teach for America and author of what is possibly the most punitive teacher evaluation law in the nation, known as SB-191. Johnston, of course, favors privately managed charters. I was in Denver in 2010 on the day the SB-191 passed. I was scheduled to debate Johnston, who arrived at the event the minute I finished speaking. He proclaimed that as a result of SB-191, which based 50% of the evaluation of teachers and principals on student test scores, Colorado would soon have great teachers, great principals, and great schools, because the bad teachers and principals would be fired. Reformers across the country hailed Johnston and his law as the dawning of a new day. Last year, one of Colorado’s reform leaders, Van Schoales, lamented the failure of Michael Johnston’s law. Most teachers were not teaching the tested subjects, so could not be judged by student test scores. All of Colorado’s 238 charter schools waived out of this wonderful system designed by one of their champions. The new evaluation system failed: less than 1% of the state’s teachers were found to be “ineffective,” about the same as before the law. As Van Schoales put it, we “not only didn’t advance teacher effectiveness, we created a massive bureaucracy and alienated many in the field.”

So what Governor-Elect Polis has pulled together is a transition team devoted to charter schools, vouchers, the discredited VAM method of evaluating educators, and high-stakes testing.

I had a brief and unpleasant personal experience with Polis in 2010, when I was invited to meet with the Democratic members of the House Education Committee to talk about my reasons for abandoning school choice and standardized testing. We met in a Congressional conference room. I explained that charter schools and vouchers were harming public schools and were part of a national effort to turn public education into a free market (this predated my awareness of Betsy Devos, who makes no bones about her desire to do exactly what I predicted). At the end of my talk, Polis took the floor, announced that my book (The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education) was “the worst book he had ever read.” He then threw the book across the table at me, and said, “I want my $20 back.” Another member of the committee reached into his wallet, pulled out a $20 bill, and bought the book from Polis. To say he was rude would be an understatement.

Parents of Colorado: Prepare to protect your public schools from your new Governor. He doesn’t like public education.

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