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Colorado Board of Education could shift against charter schools

Kathy Gebhardt poses for a portrait on Sept. 28, 2021, in Boulder. Preliminary election results Tuesday night showed Gebhardt winning a State Board of Education seat in the Democratic primary in District 2. The race was widely regarded as a battleground for the future of Colorado charter schools. (Olivia Sun/The Colorado Sun)
Pro-charter school candidate Marisol Rodriguez concedes 2nd Congressional District seat to Kathy Gebhardt

The Colorado State Board of Education will swing to a majority with a more critical eye toward charter schools after former Boulder Valley School District board president Kathy Gebhardt beat education consultant Marisol Rodriguez in the Democratic primary for the 2nd Congressional District seat Tuesday night.

As of 10:20 p.m., Gebhardt led with 56% of votes. The AP called the race in Gebhardt’s favor.

Rodriguez, whom Gov. Jared Polis had endorsed, sent out an email shortly after 9 p.m. Tuesday conceding the race to Gebhardt.

“While there are more votes to be counted, we don’t see a path to victory tonight,” she wrote.

Gebhardt’s victory came as a blow to charter school advocates, who spent nearly $1 million to help Rodriguez in the hopes of ensuring charter schools continue to receive full consideration from the state board when local districts reject their applications.

Under state law, the state Board of Education can reconsider charter school applications rejected by a local school board.

Charter schools — public schools managed by outside nonprofit operators that establish a performance contract often with a school district — are a divisive schooling option among many communities and parents and they compete against traditional public schools for students and tax dollars. Some have also drawn scrutiny over curriculum decisions, often turning on sharp disagreements over how to address issues of sexuality, gender and race in the classroom.

Gebhardt still has to win the general election in November, but the 2nd District is a Democratic stronghold and she should cruise to victory. She has no Republican general election opponent.

Gebhardt will replace Democrat Angelika Schroeder, who is part of the board’s pro-charter school majority and is term-limited.

The 2nd Congressional District race had been widely perceived as a battleground for the future of charter schools, with a pro-charter school state-level super PAC called Progressives Supporting Teachers and Students committing hundreds of thousands of dollars in support of Rodriguez.

By late Tuesday afternoon, the group had spent about $871,000, compared with about $97,000 aimed at electing Gebhardt onto the state board.

“We’ve showed that money can’t buy an election and that our public still supports public education,” Gebhardt told The Colorado Sun over the phone while celebrating with a group of supporters at Velvet Elk Lounge in Boulder.

Marisol Rodriguez, June 11, 2024, at her home in Boulder. Rodriguez, an education consultant, lost a State Board of Education seat in District 2 according to preliminary results Tuesday. Her campaign garnered support from charter school advocates and Gov. Jared Polis. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun via Report for America)

“I think people were upset by the dark money, and they wanted to show that democracy is still alive and well in the second congressional district and that people’s voices matter more than money,” said Gebhardt, noting that Polis called her to congratulate her.

Gebhardt previously told The Sun that she believes charter schools are “an essential part of our choice system.” She echoed that stance Tuesday night, saying she has never been anti-charter schools.

“I’m still not anti-charter,” she said. “I encourage (charter school advocates) if they have concerns to reach out to me so that we can partner to make sure we have the best education possible for our students.”

Among Gebhardt’s supporters is the Colorado Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union.

“Voters want candidates who are running for the people” over candidates backed by dark money and corporate interests, CEA President Amie Baca-Oehlert said.

CEA recommended Gebhardt for the seat, Baca-Oehlert added, “because she truly is somebody who has a lifetime of experience supporting public education.”

Despite Rodriguez’s loss, she said she remains proud of the election results.

“Before pretty much March, nobody knew who I was or knew my name, and I’m really proud of the fact that at least as of tonight, 42% voted for me having never known who I was,” Rodriguez told The Sun.

She said that when she congratulated Gebhardt on securing the seat, she offered to have conversations in the future so that Gebhardt can hear from a parent of students enrolled in public schools. Rodriguez has two children in Boulder Valley School District.

Public school parents’ voices matter, Rodriguez told The Sun.

“I think it’s really important that the state board hears from parents who have kids in the public school system currently,” she said.

Charter school proponents like Kyle DeBeer met Rodriguez’s defeat with disappointment.

“Regardless, it was heartening to see both candidates express support for public charter schools as a high quality option for Colorado families in the closing days of this campaign,” said DeBeer, executive director of CLCS Action — an affiliate nonprofit of the Colorado League of Charter Schools — and an organizer of Progressives Supporting Teachers and Students. “I take Kathy at face value for what she’s said in a number of interviews over the last couple of weeks that she’s going to be a supporter of charter schools on the State Board of Education as a high-quality option for Colorado families.”

Meanwhile, former Colorado GOP Chairwoman Kristi Burton Brown won her primary for the 4th Congressional District seat on the Board of Education with 53% of the vote Tuesday night over Saundra Larson. The AP called the race for Burton Brown.

Elliott Hood wins Democratic primary for at-large seat on CU Board of Regents

University of Colorado Boulder alumni Elliott Hood beat fellow alumni Charles “CJ” Johnson, who served as quarterback on the 1990 National Championship team, in the Democratic primary for an at-large seat on the CU Board of Regents.

The AP called the race for Hood at 11:29 p.m.

Hood is an attorney at Boulder-based law firm Caplan & Earnest LLC. On his campaign website, he describes himself as a school attorney who advocates for school districts and teachers across Colorado.

He aims to ban concealed carry on campus. Hood also supports collective bargaining for CU employees and wants to make the university more affordable for students, including by expanding the university’s endowment to lower the cost of tuition, developing housing that is within students’ financial reach and curbing the cost of books.

Johnson is vice president of diversity, equity and inclusion at Ball Corporation and also serves as a trustee of the CU Foundation.

On his campaign website, he writes that he prioritizes making CU more affordable and offering students mental health services, resources and support systems. Johnson also wants to make CU a welcoming campus for students and staff of all backgrounds and push the university to continue research and education efforts around climate change and sustainability.

Hood now advances to the statewide contest for the seat in November.