The Independence Institute’s Ben DeGrow traces former Lt. Gov. and current Denver Public School Board candidate Barbara O’Brien’s work shepherding the state’s charter school law into existence.
Two weeks ago, former Lt. Gov. Barbara O’Brien announced her candidacy for the at-large seat on Denver’s school board. In most places in the country, such a move for a person of her stature would be seen as a downward step. Denver certainly is not most places. After all, Colorado’s constitution provides local school boards an exceptional degree of authority, and the capital city remains a hotbed of education reform initiatives and debates.
Nor could anyone disparage O’Brien’s own extensive education bona fides. That she should step forward to run so close to the 20th anniversary of Colorado’s Charter Schools Act is especially noteworthy. She contributed greatly to the landmark success, the third law of its kind adopted nationwide. In fact, she plays a prominent role in the new Independence Institute paper that tells the story, “On the Road of Innovation: Colorado’s Charter School Law Turns 20.”
O’Brien first appears in 1985 as a staffer for then-Gov. Dick Lamm, co-organizing what may have been the first national public school choice meeting. Years later, she made a bold decision to lead the Colorado Children’s Campaign into a new advocacy role for charter schools, still just an idea. (Interestingly, she was contacted by the Piton Foundation’s Elaine Berman, who herself later served eight years on the board for DPS.) After the sudden passing of charter champion Rep. John Irwin (R-Loveland) in December 1992, O’Brien and then-Sen. Bill Owens invited Rep. Peggy Kerns to assume the crucial role of House sponsor, at which she succeeded admirably.
Maybe it was more in the spirit of the times, but O’Brien noted that support for SB 93-183, the original charter school bill, brought together an unprecedented “diverse coalition.” True bipartisanship is evident throughout the story. Denver Post columnist Vincent Carroll’s description of the paper as “painstakingly evenhanded” represents high praise. Democrats Kerns, O’Brien, and Gov. Roy Romer deservedly get as much attention as Republicans Owens, Terry Considine, and David D’Evelyn.
D’Evelyn, who co-founded the Independence Institute and passionately worked to promote the charter school legislation while at the Colorado Department of Education, died in a plane crash one week before the law took effect. His tragic story provides just one example of the compelling drama in this real-life tale of parents, educators, and political leaders trying to crack open the doors to new opportunities in public education.
“On the Road of Innovation” is a far cry from your typical wonkish white paper, though we wonks understand that some of the greatest difficulties in reform come after the law passes. The challenging work of implementing the Charter Schools Act included overcoming the objections of many local school boards who looked down on pioneering parents and expected the idea to fail. The board of Denver Public Schools resisted efforts to create the Thurgood Marshall Charter Middle School so much that it took a unanimous 1999 Colorado Supreme Court decision upholding the State Board of Education’s authority to order local boards to open charters on appeal.
Besides the remarkable growth and success of Colorado’s charter sector, an indication of changing times has been the welcoming attitude of DPS toward these non-traditional schools that help to drive choice and innovation. And now our last lieutenant governor seeks the chance to continue the trend and to extend her legacy, beyond that impressive 20th anniversary. The story continues.