Vouchers have popped up as an issue in two of three Denver school board races, even though all nine candidates in the three races this year have expressed opposition to using public money for private schools.

The issue has been raised by two candidates who have tried to tie vouchers to groups that have opposed them or endorsed other candidates.

Arturo Jimenez
DPS board member Arturo Jimenez appeared at a rally on Oct. 11, 2011. At left is Sen. Lucia Guzman, D-Denver, a former DPS board member.

The issue surfaced most recently in northwest Denver’s increasingly heated District 5 battle between Jennifer Draper Carson and incumbent Arturo Jimenez.

When a newly-formed committee called Latinos for Education Reform placed ads in several community newspapers criticizing the records of both Jimenez and board member Andrea Merida – who is not up for re-election this year – the Jimenez campaign initially complained of “race-baiting.”

But Jimenez followed that with a newsletter to supporters claiming LFER is misrepresenting itself and that its ads “are being pushed by pro-voucher individuals and special-interest groups,” making reference to “radical pro-voucher activists from Douglas County.”

Jimenez, backed by about 100 supporters, appeared at a noon event Tuesday at Viking Park in Denver near North High School. A series of supporters passionately declared their support for Jimenez, including former Denver Mayor Wellington Webb.

“Negative campaigning in Denver does not work,” said Webb, who has recorded a robo-call for Jimenez that went out Tuesday across the northwest district.

Following the event, Jimenez said in a brief interview that vouchers are relevant in the race.

“We’re not just talking about LFER,” said Jimenez. “We’re talking about all the groups who are outside special interests. All have ties that have varying degrees of support to privatization of public schools, and I think the people of Denver reject that soundly.”

Thirty-eight names appeared on the LFER ad, including Myles Mendoza, who lives in Douglas County, having moved there from Jimenez’s district. Mendoza hosted a reception at his home in May in support of National School Choice Week, which was honoring the Douglas County school board’s passage of a voucher pilot. That program has been halted by a Denver judge.

“It is no surprise that he (Jimenez) is doing this now,” Mendoza said in a prepared statement. “In the past week, the focus on his voting record has gained prominence with articles in EdNews Colorado (“Claiming Credit for West Denver Prep” 10/5/11) and in The Denver Post (“Pity Denver’s Voters” by Vincent Carroll, 10/9/11). He is trying to avoid accountability for these actions by deflecting criticism into other areas.

“His voting record has been consistently against ed reform policies our kids need.”

Marco Antonio Abarca, a spokesman for LFER said, “It is absurd to say that we are pro-voucher. It’s typical of the cynicism of Arturo Jimenez to draw that conclusion from one event hosted by one person on our list.”

Abarca cited former state Sen. Polly Baca, listed on Jimenez’s campaign website as a supporter. “She has vouchers in her background. It would be unfair to say that Arturo supports vouchers because one of his supporters did. If we were to do that, we would be guilty of the same cynicism as Arturo Jimenez.”

Baca is also listed on the host committee for a Thursday community leadership luncheon organized by ACE Scholarships, co-founded by Colorado voucher proponent Alex Cranberg, and featuring Howard Fuller, who was the superintendent of the Milwaukee Public School District when the city started the nation’s first publicly-funded school voucher program.

Others appearing both as supporters on Jimenez’s site and as hosts for the Fuller event are Escuela Tlatelolco president and CEO Nita Gonzalez, and Zee Ferrufino, owner and CEO of the KBNO Spanish Radio Group.

At Tuesday’s event, Jimenez said “reform” is a term too often used as a wedge in Denver.

Jennifer Draper Carson
Jennifer Draper Carson

“We’ve had enough of those who claim to support reform and progress but waste our time and our money deliberately trying to divide us into opposing sides,” Jimenez told his supporters.

Draper Carson, Jimenez’s opponent, recently reiterated her opposition to vouchers.

“Public funds belong in the public education system, not in the parochial or private school systems,” she said. “Our public education system is sorely underfunded as it is, and we need to focus every dollar possible on improving our public schools so that every child has access to a great public school.”

Vouchers also raised in District 1

Before vouchers surfaced in the northwest district race, they popped up in the District 1 race between Anne Rowe and Emily Sirota in southeast Denver.

Following endorsements of Rowe, Draper Carson and at-large candidate Happy Haynes by the Colorado chapter of Democrats for Education Reform, Sirota on Aug. 16 wrote “Saying NO To Vouchers” for Huffington Post Denver. (See EdNews story on the endorsements.)

Emily Sirota
Emily Sirota

Labeling DFER a “front group” with a pro-voucher agenda, she wrote, “Most troubling of all, the group’s Colorado affiliate is advised by an outspoken advocate for vouchers who also runs a local education policy organization my opponent co-chaired.”

The piece didn’t name Van Schoales, who assumed his post as executive director of A+ Denver on Aug. 1, and previously was executive director of Education Reform Now. Rowe prominently cites her service as a founding co-chair of A+ Denver in her campaign literature.

“I am not now, nor have I ever been, what I would describe as a strong voucher proponent,” said Schoales, who said his comments were offered as his own perspective, not that of A+ Denver. He added that he considered vouchers a “total red herring” in the DPS races.

“I haven’t heard the issue raised except as a means of disparaging somebody else,” said Schoales, who is listed as an advisory committee member for DFER. “But nobody is proposing it as a policy agenda or as an initiative for Denver on any side.”

Rowe has issued a flat “no” at candidate forums when asked about support for vouchers.

“I want to continue my focus on creating great educational environments within DPS. … I don’t think vouchers play any role in that,” Rowe said on Tuesday. “Hopefully now we can put this to rest.”

The Sirota campaign may not be ready to do that.

Anne Bye Rowe
Anne Rowe

“Vouchers are still a valid issue for discussion,” said Sirota campaign spokesman Kevin Paquette. “Anne has stated at forums she does not support vouchers. However she is endorsed by an organization who, from all appearances, is pro-vouchers despite their best efforts to conceal that fact from the public.

“Emily welcomes the conversation with Anne so the voters of SD-1 can make an informed decision on where Anne really stands on this issue.”

Haynes, the at-large candidate endorsed by the DFER-Colorado chapter, also disavowed vouchers – again – after the issue sprung back to life in the northwest Denver race.

“I unequivocally oppose vouchers because we need to have public accountability for public dollars,” Haynes said. “We have the charter process in place that enables independent school ideas to become part of the public education system.”