Now it gets real

What the primary results in Colorado’s governor’s race mean for education

Democrat Jared Polis and Republican Walker Stapleton will compete to be Colorado's next governor. (Denver Post)

After millions of dollars and what sure felt like millions of mailers and door-knocks, Coloradans have their candidates for governor: Democrat Jared Polis and Republican Walker Stapleton.

Education was a major feature of the primary campaign on the Democratic side, as candidates jockeyed to emphasize what amounted to small differences. It was barely mentioned on the Republican side, where candidates focused on immigration, gun rights, and Trump.

Polis, 43, is a five-term congressman from Boulder. An entrepreneur who took his parents’ greeting card company online, Polis went on to found several other internet companies. He previously served on the State Board of Education and founded two charter schools.

Polis took 44 percent of the vote in a four-way primary, with Cary Kennedy, a former state treasurer, coming in second with 25 percent. Former state Sen. Mike Johnston, the architect of key education reform policies in Colorado, finished third with 23 percent of the vote.

Stapleton, 44, is finishing his second term as state treasurer and previously served as the CEO or chief financial officer for a number of private companies. He took 48 percent of the vote in a four-way race after cultivating the support of both hardliners like Tom Tancredo and members of the Republican establishment. Bill Owens, Colorado’s last Republican governor, introduced Stapleton at his victory party.

Polis and Stapleton are seeking to replace Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper, who is barred by term limits from running again. A Republican last was elected governor in 2002.

Now that we’re on to the general election campaign, here’s what it means for education:

The contrasts are real now

No more parsing statements three ways to see who might oppose vouchers more than another candidate. Polis thinks the most important issue facing schools is a lack of funding. Stapleton thinks schools need to spend their money more wisely and that schools can improve by fostering more school choice.

Here’s what each candidate said when Chalkbeat asked them earlier this month what they would change if they could change one thing about education in Colorado.

Stapleton: “I would like to see every parent have a choice in what school to send their child, regardless of income or ZIP code. The quality of our schools varies drastically not just across the state, but sometimes even within a particular school district. That said, one thing has been shown to be certain: Competition in public education works, and no parent should be condemned to sending their child to a failing public school. Period. We need to make improvements for our public schools as well, but I think this is only effective if we take an all-of-the-above approach to education.”

Polis: “We need to end decades of shameful underinvestment in our public schools. Our schools rank in the bottom tier of education funding nationwide at the same time our economy is booming. While I’m proud our state’s success led to nearly $150 million in one-time funding for the next school year, we cannot budget year-to-year and expect our kids to have the same academic and economic advantages as students in other states where funding is stable. Our current funding strategy undermines our ability to improve outcomes for students through innovative ideas that often result in cost savings and lower class sizes and give our teachers more opportunity to do what they do best: teach.”

Education might not be a huge talking point moving forward, but still could be a weapon

The candidates differ on many issues, from energy policy to immigration to gun rights. It’s not clear that education will emerge as a key issue in the race, especially with Democrats focused on opposing Trump on a variety of fronts. Nonetheless, expect Democrats to link Stapleton’s support of school choice with Education Secretary Betsy DeVos and Republicans to paint Polis as an extremist on, well, everything. Polis has made funding full-day kindergarten and expanding preschool access a key part of his platform, while Stapleton questions how he’ll pay for it.

The teachers unions have some fences to mend

But they’ll probably mend them.

The unions bet big on Kennedy, even as national supporters of education reform sent millions to Johnston. A union-backed independent expenditure committee ran attack ads that painted Polis as a supporter of vouchers (and Johnston as anti-teacher) while Kennedy was portrayed as the true friend of public education.

The Colorado Education Association has a formal process for endorsing candidates, and a committee will need to go through that process again to determine whether to make an endorsement in the general election.

However, partisans tend to put their differences aside after even contentious primaries. Polis might not have been their favorite in the primary, but union members almost always support the Democrat. They also have an interest in defeating Stapleton. As treasurer, Stapleton advocated a pension overhaul that was much less favorable to teachers even than the compromise adopted by the legislature, and he’s suggested the issue needs to be revisited sooner rather than later.

In a blog post, the Colorado Education Association said Kennedy’s campaign put education “front and center” and predicted that would continue to be the case in the general. The post did not make mention of Polis.

Conservatives, meanwhile, suggested the union had wasted their money.

And Democrats for Education Reform, which sat out the primary and took a battering from union loyalists at the Democratic Party’s state assembly, congratulated Polis for “emerging from a hard-fought primary in which every candidate emphasized the importance of high-quality public education for all Colorado students.”

“Colorado voters proved that they want leaders who will do whatever it takes to make sure every student has access to a high-quality public education,” DFER state director Jen Walmer said. “Now the focus must be on coming together to send Jared to the governor’s office and making sure we control both legislative chambers so that we can champion the needs of all families and defend our Colorado values against real threats from the White House.”

This post has been updated with additional comments.


(Screenshot: Colorado Secretary of State’s Office)

More money

Higher teacher pay and more school safety are up for a vote with November tax requests

Jefferson County educators Joel Zigman and Elizabeth Hall march during a teachers rally for more educational funding at the Colorado State Capitol on Thursday, April 26. (Photo by AAron Ontiveroz/The Denver Post)

Seeing confidence in the economy, growing needs in schools, and strong public support for education, leaders of some large school districts will seek new taxes on November’s ballot.

At least seven districts, including those in Aurora, Jeffco, Douglas, Thompson and Westminster, have approved proposals asking voters to increase local revenues to pay for new safety measures and to raise teacher salaries.

The school board in Aurora placed a $35 million request on the ballot Tuesday, after a consultant hired to help evaluate the public mood said the country is generally very supportive of public education this year.

Voters statewide will also decide on an income tax plan to increase school funding for all Colorado districts. If approved, the new state funding would cover full-day kindergarten, but would be used otherwise at the discretion of each district.

Officials in school districts placing their own questions on the ballot either said they doubt the state measure will succeed or that they believe both are still necessary for their schools.

“It starts with our community first, and I think that’s what we have to recognize,” said Ryan McCoy, president of Westminster’s school board. “We can’t worry about what other school districts and their communities are thinking and wait to see what the state does as a whole.”

But board members in at least one district, in Montezuma, said they did worry that a local tax proposal in addition to the state’s request would be too much for voters.

Officials in the districts seeking local measures now will focus on helping voters understand the specific improvements their taxes would fund.

For instance, Jason Glass, superintendent of Jeffco schools, has laid out in blog posts the differences between what would be funded by the state measure and two district requests.

Jeffco school board members described the state measure as a necessary “long-term solution,” whereas the local proposals would address more immediate needs such as building repairs and safety improvements through mental health, counseling and school security.

Keith Frederick, the consultant who spoke to the Aurora school board this week, also asked voters about their interest in the specific items the district planned to pay for. Teacher pay, school safety and mental health measures “all scored extremely high,” he said.

At a public meeting for Jeffco on Thursday night, the board heard more than an hour of comments mostly from supportive teachers, parents and other community members. Teachers and other school staff shared stories about working multiple jobs to get by, and told the board their students “deserved better.”

Support for higher teacher pay has been mounting as teachers have walked out of schools this year in Colorado and across the country, demanding better school funding. The attention on mental health and safety measures has grown following a number of high-profile shootings in schools.

Like several of the districts going to voters, Jeffco has failed in past attempts to increase local taxes, most recently in 2016.

The Westminster school district has failed repeatedly to pass local tax hikes. Recognizing that, it is requesting only a $9.9 million mill levy override, less than in previous years.

“We could have gone for twice this amount, but we asked members of the community where their comfort was,” said Dino Valente, Westminster school board member. “Does this do everything we want to do? No it doesn’t, but it’s a start. It’s been over 20 years since we passed a mill levy override in our district and that’s quite frankly pathetic.”

Aurora’s school district has enjoyed voter support for previous tax measures. The mill levy override request proposed this year will be the largest request that has been made in that district.

Because of differences in the assessed value of their tax base, Aurora’s $35 million request, and Westminster’s $9.9 million request will have among the largest financial impacts on homeowners.

If Aurora’s measure is approved, homeowners will pay an additional $98.64 per year for every $100,000 of a home’s value. If Westminster’s measure is approved, homeowners there will pay an additional $103 per year for every $100,000 of a home’s value.

Tax requests and their impact on homeowners per year

DISTRICT Request amount Tax impact, per $100,000 of home value
Westminster $9.9 million mill levy override $103
Aurora $35 million mill levy override $98.64
Thompson $149 million bond, $13.8 million mill levy override $84.35
Adams 12 $27 million mill levy override $77.76
Jeffco $567 million bond, $33 million mill levy override $46.92
Douglas $250 million bond, $40 million mill levy override $43.88
Pueblo 60 $6 million mill levy override $43.20

Mended Fences

Despite earlier attack ads, Colorado teachers union endorses Jared Polis for governor

Congressman Jared Polis meets with teachers, parents and students at the Academy of Urban Learning in Denver after announcing his gubernatorial campaign. (Photo by Nic Garcia/Chalkbeat)

Colorado’s largest teachers union has endorsed Jared Polis, the Democratic candidate for governor.

The endorsement is not a surprise given that teachers unions have traditionally been associated with the Democratic Party. However, the 35,000-member Colorado Education Association had previously endorsed one of Polis’ rivals during the primary, former state Treasurer Cary Kennedy, and contributed money toward negative ads that portrayed Polis as a supporter of vouchers based on a 2003 op-ed, in spite of votes in Congress against voucher programs.

With the primary in the past, CEA President Amie Baca-Oehlert focused on Polis’ support for more school funding, a priority shared by the union.

“Our members share Jared’s concern that too many communities don’t have the resources they need for every child to succeed,” Baca-Oehlert said in the press release announcing the endorsement. “We have created ‘haves and have-nots’ among our children, and nowhere is that more apparent than with our youngest students who don’t receive the same level of quality early childhood education. Jared impressed us with his strong commitment to give all kids a great start and better prepare them for a successful lifetime of learning.”

Polis has made expanding access to preschool and funding full-day kindergarten a key part of his education platform, along with raising pay for teachers.

Polis is running against Republican Walker Stapleton. As state treasurer, Stapleton advocated for changes to the public employee retirement system, including freezes on benefits and cost-of-living raises, that were opposed by the teachers union, something Baca-Oehlert made note of in the endorsement of Polis.

Read more about the two candidates’ education positions here.