getting to know you

Meet the Colorado Republicans who want to reclaim their party’s education reform agenda

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Luke Ragland is the first president of Ready Colorado, a nonprofit to support Republicans in favor of education reform. Ragland is pictured in the lobby of the Colorado House of Representatives.

A small group of well-established Colorado Republicans are aiming to make education reform a top priority for the GOP again.

Ready Colorado, a political nonprofit, has been quietly working behind the scenes for two years supporting politicians and policies that expand school choice and protect school accountability — while challenging Republicans who won’t.

Now, the group is taking on a higher profile by hiring Luke Ragland, a well-known figure in Colorado’s education reform community, to be the face of the organization as its first president.

Ready Colorado was born out of the state’s testing debates in 2015. It was founded by Josh Penry, a former Republican state lawmaker who co-sponsored some of the state’s most ambitious education reform laws, and Tyler Sandberg, a former aide to Congressman Mike Coffman.

The two Republicans say they saw the need for Ready Colorado as they watched Republicans retreat from — and in some cases attack — the system of academic standards, tests and accountability measures for schools and teachers GOP lawmakers helped create between 2008 and 2012.

Since 2015, the organization has gone on to play a role in school board and legislative races, racking up an impressive financial war chest and early wins.

One of its first moves outside of the Capitol was supporting two candidates that supported expanding charter schools in Aurora Public Schools, which hasn’t historically welcomed charters. One of the candidates, Monica Colbert, won.

In 2016, Ready Colorado helped former state Rep. Bob Gardner defeat Rep. Gordon Klingenschmitt, a firebrand conservative known for making outlandish comments, in a Colorado Springs Senate primary race by pumping $100,000 into an independent political committee called Colorado Right Now.

Ready Colorado contributed $423,000 to committees created to help elect Republicans, including the Douglas County Education Alliance, Rural Voices for Education and the Senate Majority Fund.

Because Ready Colorado receives nonprofit status from the federal government, it’s not required to disclose its donors — and doesn’t.

The group also provided political consulting to an organization supporting former state Rep. Kevin Priola, who went on to win a seat in the state Senate. Priola’s victory helped Republicans keep control of the Senate by a one-vote majority.

“Our influence is not always defined in hard dollars,” Sandberg said.

Ragland’s described his mission this legislative session as about being bold.

But the organization faces tough challenges. A number of Republicans in the House and the Senate still want to back away from the positions Ready Colorado supports. And because the organization explicitly supports Republican candidates, it’s unclear how it will be able to work with Democrats who support some of the same reforms.

Ragland and the nonprofit’s contract lobbyist will be supporting legislation that is pro-charter school and will oppose any bills that chips away at either the state’s school accountability system or teacher evaluation law. The group also will oppose any efforts to drastically rewriting the state’s academic standards or gut its testing system.

“Parents can’t afford to go another year without good information,” Ragland said, referring to the recent one year pause in the state’s accountability system that was needed to adjust to the new PARCC tests.

Ragland said he hopes to work with the state’s existing and sizable education lobby. The types of changes Ready Colorado wants to see one day — including changes to the state’s school funding formula — can’t be achieved by “poking people in the eye,” Ragland said. “Everything has to be done collaboratively.”

Still, Ragland said he sees his role in part as pushing back against the state’s largest education advocacy groups such as the state’s teachers union, and the associations of school executives and school boards.

“Parents, students and taxpayers should be the focus, not the associations of adults,” he said. “It’s about giving as much power as possible to the people closest to the child.”

Lisa Escarcega, the executive director of the Colorado Association of School Executives, said she found Ragland’s slight at associations “odd.”

“CASE’s missions — and you can look it up — is to empower education leaders,” she said.

Before Ready Colorado had made a name for itself, members of the education lobby jokingly nicknamed the group “RFER,” a play on the acronym for Democrats for Education Reform, a well-financed and influential nonprofit.

Jen Walmer, Colorado state policy director for Democrats for Education Reform, said while there might be similarities between the organizations’ agendas there are also stark differences that matter to Colorado children.

“There are going to be times when we agree, like teacher accountability and high-quality charters,” she said, adding that DFER opposes using taxpayer dollars to allow students to enroll in private schools.

DFER also supports universal preschool, something Republicans generally oppose. Walmer also pointed to philosophical differences on issues outside of the education debate that influence young children such as climate change and health care as areas where Ready and DFER will split on the issues and candidates they support.

Ragland echoed Walmer: “This is not a DFER copy.”

Ragland, 31, grew up in southwestern Colorado and earned a bachelor’s degree from Colorado State University and law degree from the University of Colorado’s School of Law.

During his time at Colorado Succeeds, Ragland represented the business community on a variety of committees including a task force that made recommendations on reforming the state’s standardized testing system.

“Colorado is always going to be a mixed state politically,” Ragland said. “But I think Republicans have a unique opportunity to advance a new and positive vision for Colorado schools.”

Update: This post has been updated to reflect that Ready Colorado helped an organization supporting the election of Kevin Priola, not the candidate himself. 

Funding fight

In Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, Colorado’s teachers union finds a useful face for the opposition

PHOTO: Department of Education
U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos.

The Colorado Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union, is working to fuel opposition to a bill that would boost charter school funding by associating it with U.S Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos.

The union on its Facebook page published an image of DeVos and branded Senate Bill 61 as a “Betsy DeVos-Style Privatization Bill.”

The bill, which has bipartisan sponsors in both chambers, would require school districts to equally share money from local tax increases with charter schools. It was recently approved by the state Senate — but not without a fierce fight from a bloc of lawmakers who taught in district-run public schools.

The union isn’t the only group using DeVos’s image to oppose legislation making its way through the statehouse. A new political nonprofit, Colorado Children Before Profits, launched its own website linking DeVos and President Donald Trump to the charter school funding bill, and two other bills that would change the way Colorado funds schools.

DeVos, a Michigan billionaire who has long supported charter schools and vouchers for private schools, became an unexpected political lightning rod early in Trump’s administration.

PHOTO: CEA/Facebook
The Colorado Education Association posted this image to its Facebook page earlier in March.

In Colorado, the union and a group of parents protested outside U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner’s downtown Denver office, urging him to oppose her confirmation. Gardner ultimately voted to confirm DeVos.

DeVos has no formal role in the push for Senate Bill 61, which soon will be considered by the state House of Representatives.
But “there’s a natural tie,” argues Kerrie Dallman, CEA’s president.

“Betsy DeVos has long been connected to the movement to radically expand charter schools, as well as grow education vouchers and tax credits,” Dallman said. “We’re concerned because there is so little accountability in that movement, and a lack of transparency.”

Luke Ragland, president of Ready Colorado, a conservative education reform organization, said the union’s use of DeVos is “typical D.C.-style politics.”

“The teachers union’s latest propaganda campaign is shameful,” Ragland said in a statement. “They are spreading demonstrably false information in an attempt to politicize an issue that has had longtime bipartisan support in Colorado. Senate Bill 61 is a uniquely Colorado solution, supported by local leaders in both parties.”

The perennial debate

How the heck does Colorado fund its schools? (And six other money questions you might be embarrassed to ask.)

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
A high school student at Vista Peak Preparatory works on a computer during an engineering class.

Since public schools were founded, arguments have raged over how to pay for them.

In Colorado, it’s one of the perennial debates that gets the best of lawmakers, lobbyists, school leaders and advocates every year. Further frustrating things, lawmakers can only do so much because constitutional amendments lock in much of the state’s budget.

It’s no chump change: More than $6 billion in Colorado tax money goes toward schools.

As Colorado lawmakers get to work on crafting the state budget, here are some questions and answers about how the school funding system works in the Centennial state.

How the heck does Colorado fund its schools?

Colorado funds its schools from two major sources of revenue.

The first pool of revenue is called the “local share.” This money comes from local property taxes on homes and businesses. The second pool is the “state share.” This revenue comes from income and sales taxes.

PHOTO: Sarah Glen
Over time, the state has had to increase its contribution to the state’s schools.

Historically, schools received about an equal share of their funding from the local and state shares. However, for a variety of reasons, the state has had to dramatically increase its contribution to schools during the last two decades.

Many schools, especially those that serve large populations of at-risk students, also receive federal money.

What about marijuana taxes? Aren’t schools seeing a windfall from recreational sales?

No.

The first $40 million of tax revenue collected from marijuana excise taxes — a wholesale tax — goes to a special fund to help school construction. That doesn’t go very far.

However, given a tightening state budget, Gov. John Hickenlooper has suggested increasing taxes on pot to help fund school operations. Lawmakers haven’t been keen on that idea.

Does every school district get the same amount from the state?

No. Lawmakers use a funding formula to determine how much money each school district gets. The formula, which was written in 1994, takes in a variety of factors including student enrollment, the district’s cost of living and how many at-risk students the district serves.

The large suburban district in Douglas County received $7,050 per student this year. Thirty-four percent came from local taxes, while the state picked up 66 percent of the cost.

The smaller Mapleton school district in Adams County, which serves a large Latino population, got $7,303 per student. But only 24 percent came from local property taxes, while the state kicked in 76 percent of the cost.

The tiny Aguilar school district in southeastern Colorado received $13,600 per student. The locals pitched in 25 percent and the state took care of the rest.

What determines the size of the local share?

School boards have no say in how much local property taxes contribute to their funding. That’s left to a complicated constellation of constitutional amendments and state law.

First there’s the Gallagher Amendment. Adopted in 1982, the amendment requires the state to maintain a 45 percent to 55 percent ratio ratio between the revenue collected from personal property and business property. When home values go up, the state is required to drop the percent on which property can be taxed. In 1980, the rate was 21 percent. In 2013, it was 7.98 percent. That means a smaller proportion of a home’s actual value can be taxed by school districts.

The second constitutional amendment in play is the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights, or TABOR. Approved by voters in 1992, TABOR puts a cap on how much revenue the state and local governments can collect from taxpayers. It also requires governing bodies to seek permission from voters before increasing taxes.

While all but four school districts have received voter approval to keep excess tax revenue, lawmakers have put two key restrictions on school districts.

First, school district property taxes can only increase by inflation and enrollment growth. When that revenue exceeds the limit, school districts must reduce their tax rates. And because of TABOR, once the tax rate is lowered by statute, it can’t be raised without voter approval.

(If you want to sound super-smart at your next PTA or school board meeting, this is known as the “ratchet effect.”)

Lawmakers put an additional check on school districts in 2007 when they put a statewide cap on school districts’ tax rates.

What determines how much the state is supposed to kick in?

While there are two amendments that put restrictions on how the state can generate revenue to fund its schools, there is another Constitutional amendment that spells out how the state is supposed to spend that money.

Amendment 23, approved by voters in 2000, did a few things, but two points are still relevant today.

First, Amendment 23 requires the state to increase funding based on population growth and inflation. Second, it created the State Education Fund, an account lawmakers are relying on more heavily to pay for schools. It is financed by one-third of 1 percent of federal taxable income that is exempt from TABOR limits.

Wait, if lawmakers are required to increase funding each year, why does the state have an education funding shortfall?

During the Great Recession, when lawmakers were forced to slash hundreds of millions from the state budget, they argued that Amendment 23 only covers “base funding,” or the average every school district receives per pupil.

The amendment, they argued, doesn’t govern the additional money districts receive to compensate for size, at-risk students and other factors.

So in 2010, lawmakers created “the negative factor,” a new tool they could use to make across- the-board cuts to school funding after all other factors (size, at-risk students, cost-of-living) are taken into consideration.

As part of a compromise, lawmakers are required to report how much money they’re not giving to schools based on that legislative tool.

A lawsuit challenged the negative factor. But the state Supreme Court ruled in favor of lawmakers.

So while a large portion of funding must increase every year, lawmakers have places to cut education in a pinch. The current shortfall is at $828 million, down from a $1.01 billion in 2013.

Didn’t a bunch of school districts just pass tax increases?

Yes, and according to some, that’s making the situation worse.

As the state’s finances have squeezed, some school districts have turned to local voters to ask for more local revenue. These tax increases, known as mill levy overrides, exist outside of the state’s school funding system. The more voters approve doesn’t lessen the state’s burden.

There are some school districts like Boulder, Denver and Cherry Creek that have generated millions of local revenue but are still getting their equal share from the state. Meanwhile, districts like Greeley, Pueblo and Sheridan have never been able to convince their voters to approve a tax increase. That means they have to get by with whatever the state gives them.