Two of Colorado’s largest education interest groups — often on opposite sides of thorny debates such as the roles of charter schools and teacher evaluations — have found a common interest this election in supporting a Democrat for the State Board of Education.

Political committees associated with the nonprofit Democrats for Education Reform and the Colorado Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union, have spent large sums to support Rebecca McClellan for a seat on the state board, currently held by Republican Deb Scheffel.

Raising Colorado, the independent expenditure committee run by DFER, has spent more than $65,000 on the race since the general election started, finance records filed with the secretary of state show. The teachers union’s small donor committee gave the maximum amount to McClellan’s campaign — $4,850. And two other committees tied to local teachers unions in Douglas County and Aurora gave another combined $5,850 to McClellan.

The filings reviewed by Chalkbeat, which span from Aug. 1 to Oct. 17, also spotlight the organizations’ other legislative priorities — including one of the state Senate’s most competitive elections and a rare donation to a Republican by the teacher’s union.

The state board race between McClellan and Scheffel, surely an afterthought to most voters during one of the most bizarre presidential elections in modern history, is one of the most watched races by education insiders. The winner will likely determine partisan control of the state board, which has been run by Republicans since 2008 by a one-vote margin.

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Each state board member represents one of the state’s seven congressional districts — and McClellan and Scheffel are battling over one of the state’s most competitive districts.In 2010, the 6th Congressional District was redrawn to include larger portions of Arapahoe and Adams counties and less of Douglas and Elbert counties. The new look of the district is one that is more diverse politically, ethnically and socioeconomically.

Democrats believe that makes it more winnable this year.

“It’s a very balanced district,” said Jen Walmer, DFER’s Colorado state director. “Our hope is when people learn what Rebecca stands for, they understand why she’s the best choice for the seat.”

The state board is responsible for overseeing the Colorado Department of Education, which works with the state’s 178 school districts to put in place education legislation. The board is also charged with rating schools, and in the coming months it will be responsible for deciding on sanctions for the state’s poorest-performing schools that have failed to improve.

State Board of Education member Deb Scheffel meets with participants at an education forum in Aurora.
PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
State Board of Education member Deb Scheffel meets with participants at an education forum in Aurora.

Other issues in front of the state board in 2017: reviewing the state’s academic standards and finalizing a federally required plan that spells out how Colorado plans to use federal dollars attached to the nation’s education civil rights laws.

“The State Board of Education is an important entity,” said Amie Baca Oehlert, vice president of the union. “The fact that they have so much to do with setting policy and rules that impact educators across Colorado, we want to ensure there are elected officials on the board who are supportive of public education.”

Both Baca Oehlert and DFER’s Walmer pointed to other times the two organizations supported the same candidate, including state board member Jane Goff, a Democrat from Arvada.

“I think that the alignment and coalescing from both education camps is more a testament to Rebecca’s leadership than any one person’s agenda,” Walmer said.

DFER’s independent expenditure committee, Raising Colorado, can raise an unlimited amount of money and spend it however it chooses, so long as it does not coordinate directly with candidates. The only donor to Raising Colorado is a New York-based nonprofit Education Reform Now Advocacy. The donors to that organization are not public because the nonprofit has 501(c)(4) federal tax status, which allows it to keep its donors private.

While the union’s small donor committee must abide by state donation caps to candidates, it doesn’t have to report its donors so long as individual donations are below $20. The union did not report any individual donations, only lump sums.

Both organizations are spending heavily in other races.

Raising Colorado has spent $169,819 on a variety of state House and Senate races since July, including more than $28,000 on direct mail pieces supporting Democrat Rachel Zenzinger in one of the state’s most competitive Senate races.

Zenzinger was originally appointed to the seat after fellow Democrat Evie Hudak resigned in 2013 amid a recall threat. Republican Laura Woods later won the seat in 2014.

Political watchers point to this Jefferson County race as one that could tip the control of the Senate back into Democratic control.

Meanwhile, the teachers union’s small donor committee so far has donated $39,675 on other legislative races, including $4,850 to Republican Katy Brown.

Brown is running for the state’s one of the most competitive House seat, representing district 3. It includes the blue-collar town of Sheridan, portions of the middle class suburb of LIttleton and the wealthy enclave of Cherry Hills.

While it’s rare for the state’s teachers union to support a Republican, it’s not unprecedented. The union has supported eight in the last decade, a spokesman said.

The union’s endorsement of Brown is peculiar, however, given her support of the ACE Scholarship, a nonprofit that provides children of low-income families with scholarships to private schools in grades K-12, and to advocate for expanded school choice.

“I am not a champion of vouchers or any other particular solution,” Brown writes on her campaign website, “but I am a champion for working together, with schools, teachers and families, to find the best solutions possible.”

Vouchers and school choice are a sort of dog whistle for teacher unions, which generally oppose both, claiming those programs drain resources from traditional district-run schools.

Baca Oehlert said Brown went through a rigorous vetting process that included a written questionnaire and in-person interviews.

“She was the strongest on the issues that we support,” Baca Oehlert said. “Katy’s commitment is working together with teachers, students and families to ensure we have quality public schools.”

DFER, meanwhile, is supporting Brown’s opponent Democrat Jeff Bridges. Jeff Bridges is the son of Rutt Bridges, a high-profile political donor who is credited with helping the Democrats regain control of the General Assembly in 2004 after years of being in the minority.

On his campaign website, Bridges pledges to “promote testing that doesn’t distract from learning objectives and provides feedback that helps both students and teachers improve,” and provide more money for schools.