• April 24th, 2024
  • Wednesday, 07:05:54 PM

The ‘Dark Money’ Behind the Lobbyists Opposing a Colorado Charter School Accountability Bill


Mike DeGuire

 

Mike DeGuire

Posted March 28, 2024

 

 

On March 7, three Colorado legislators introduced a charter school accountability bill to establish improved guidelines for authorizing and renewing charter schools by local school districts. The bill would strengthen the authority that elected school boards have regarding their governance of charter schools, and it also provides citizens with expanded information about the operations of charter schools in their districts.

 

According to its backers and public education advocacy groups, this is the first major legislation to prescribe more charter school accountability since the first Charter Schools Act was passed in 1993. Current state legislation often limits local control over the charter school approval process, funding requirements, and waivers from state legislation. Given that nearly two-thirds of the state’s 64 counties experienced an “absolute decline in the under-18 population over the last decade,” the charter school accountability bill would empower local school boards to address the overall enrollment needs of the district. While charter schools primarily utilize taxpayer dollars for their funding, many charter schools allow private interests to invest in their growth and development, which can create potential conflicts of interest.

 

Pro-charter school organizations don’t agree with this legislative effort to increase accountability as they believe this bill would “kill” charter schools. Republicans have been especially vocal in their opposition to this bill, even though the bill promotes increased local control over charter schools. The pro-charter organizations hired over 30 lobbyists to oppose the bill. Lobbying can be expensive, but the organizations opposing the bill have connections to several billionaire-funded foundations.

 

While charter schools primarily utilize taxpayer dollars for their funding, many charter schools allow private interests to invest in their growth and development, which can create potential conflicts of interest.

 

The largest lobbying team hired to oppose the bill works for Americans for Prosperity, a conservative organization funded by the Koch network, whose goal is  to “destabilize and abolish public education.” American for Prosperity has been active in Colorado for years promoting vouchers and education savings accounts for families to use for any school of their choice. Last January, AFP joined with the American Legislative Exchange Council and the Heritage Foundation to form the Education Freedom Alliance, an organization that ALEC initiated to promote parents’ rights to use public money to attend a private, charter, home or public school of their choice. Funded with nearly $80 million primarily from the Koch Industries, the Americans for Prosperity political action group has also supported far-right candidates for decades.

 

American for Prosperity and Advance Colorado issued a press release on X stating the bill would “mark the beginning of the end of charter schools in Colorado,” and together, the two groups “would work overtime to make sure the bill was soundly defeated.” According to the Colorado Times Recorder, Advance Colorado is a conservative dark money group said to be funded by billionaire Phil Anschutz. Formerly known as Unite Colorado, Advance Colorado has “given over $17 million to support major Republican political groups and efforts in Colorado.” Colorado Dawn, another dark money group headed by State Board of Education member Steve Durham and Colorado state Sen. Paul Lundeen,  gave millions to Ready Colorado, which also has lobbyists opposing this bill.

 

Besides Americans for Prosperity and Ready Colorado,  these organizations have enlisted their lobbyists to defeat the bill: Colorado Succeeds, the Colorado Children’s Campaign, Transform Education Now, Colorado League of Charter Schools Action, Education Alliance of Colorado, and Education Reform Now Advocacy. Several of these organizations have access to deep pockets of money, and often the donors are not known.

 

Colorado Succeeds, the Colorado League of Charter Schools, and Transform Education Now have received over $20 million from the Walton Family Foundation, which has given over $400 million to charter schools for decades. Education Reform Now Advocacy is closely connected to Democrats for Education Reform, “which was started by Wall Street hedge fund managers,” according to Ballotpedia. Colorado Politics stated that “various reports say Education Reform Now has taken in millions from Rupert Murdoch and the Walton Family Foundation.” The Education Reform Now money also benefited the campaign coffers of 14 Democratic legislators, which may create a hurdle for the charter bill’s passage unless these legislators decide the bill’s merits warrant their support.

 

The upcoming lobbying effort in Colorado’s legislature is not unique, as similar high-paid lobbying efforts occur wherever there is significant charter school legislation. In Nashville, a local news reporter exposed who 67 pro-charter lobbyists worked for during legislative hearings on several charter bills in 2022. In the video that accompanied his report, Phil Williams highlighted the direct connections that the pro-charter lobbyists have with billionaires. His investigative report documented that “Americans for Prosperity is linked to billionaire Charles Koch,” and they also “received funding from billionaire Bill Gates and the Walton family of Walmart fame.”

 

As in Tennessee, the Colorado lobbyists will meet frequently with legislators to convince them this bill is not necessary. The legislators will need to weigh the benefits of the bill with the concerns of those who participate in a massive letter-writing campaign initiated by the lobbying organizations to oppose the legislation. The bill’s backers hope this will be the legislators’ opportunity to update 30-year-old legislation and begin to ensure increased local control and accountability for the millions of taxpayer dollars that fund the charter schools educating 15% of the state’s K-12 student population.

 

Mike DeGuire, Ph.D., is an executive coach for school leaders in Denver, and he serves on the board of Advocates for Public Education Policy. He has been a teacher, district level reading coordinator, and a principal in the Denver metro area for most of his education career. He also worked as a leadership consultant for several national education organizations, and as an educator effectiveness specialist with the Colorado Department of Education. He blogs periodically at medium.com/@jfiske80.