At 9:23 p.m. MDT on May 11, 2022 Education Reformers in Colorado suffered their first serious setback in the Colorado legislature. While SB 22-197, the so-called Innovation and Alternative Governance Bill passed both houses of the legislature, the resulting legislation was actually a defeat for reformers/privatizers in Colorado, a first such legislative stumble in many years. At the very least the adopted Bill placed a roadblock in the previously unobstructed march to privatization. At the most it was a sign of the weakening of privatization. We can only hope.
While education reformers/privatizers will try to convince you they got a victory in the fight for the soul of public education, that is not the truth. The Bill that passed and will likely be touted as a great success has little substance. In fact, one could say, “There is no THERE THERE,” for the final version neutered the original intent of the legislation and codified:
- No third party governance with binding arbitration.
- Retention of decision-making powers for duly elected school boards.
- An advisory non decision-making role for the State Board of Education should any disputes reach it.
After much ado SB 22-197 ended up being a nothing burger with very few of the original ingredients in place.
The Bill’s original purpose was to install an alternative, third governance model with binding arbitration for disputes between a school district (read DPS) and an Innovation Zone (read City Fund’s RootEd/Gates Family Foundation funded Denver Innovation Zone Schools.) Reformers took this inequitable, highly divisive idea very seriously. Simply put, they wanted special treatment for 12 (!) Innovation Zone schools. The Bill was sponsored by two Denver Democrats Senators, James Coleman and Chris Hansen, both of whom have been highly subsidized by various local and national reform organizations. In real time this bill was crafted specifically for for 12 out of about 1800 public schools in Colorado. After garnering no sponsorship in the House, Jen Bacon, Denver Democrat and former DPS school board member stepped in to co-sponsor the bill. With her leadership and knowledge of the importance of local control for school boards she was able steer the conference committee into producing a more palatable Bill. It must have been very awkward for Senator Chris Hansen to have to admit to his colleagues, the difference between his original bill and the one they were now voting on was the loss of binding arbitration. There were of course other changes but binding arbitration was the big one, for it would have undermined local school boards’ authority by allowing for the appointment of a “third party” to resolve disputes.
In the reformers’ zeal to get the Bill passed and save face they chose to employ many practices that encapsulate much of what has become so problematic with our democratic process today.
- They fast-tracked the bill, meaning they introduced it very late in the session with the hope of slipping it quietly through.
- They hired upwards of 15 different lobbyists, most from a Boston-based firm called Empower Schools where local innovation hawker and former DPS board member Mary Seawell served on the board.
- They spent untold hours trying to convince legislators, school leaders and parents of a false narrative that this Bill was necessary to protect the “innovations” in these 12 schools which in turn resulted in anger, division and chaos in school communities.
- They pitted school leaders against current elected school board members and the superintendent of Denver Public Schools.
- They overlooked blatant conflicts of interest within the independent Innovation Zone boards and within the reform community itself.
Remember. All of this was for twelve schools. Twelve out of 1800 public schools in Colorado. As one community activist described the Bill, it was designed for “privilege hoarders,” to gain more special treatment for schools already receiving more services. And even though the Bill didn’t lessen the inequitable treatment of Zoned v. other schools, the Bill in its original form would have resulted in a widening equity gap between these kinds of schools for a District that touts EQUITY as its guiding principle. With the passage of the amended bill, however, legislators stopped third party binding arbitration, protected elected school board control of its schools, stopped state board decision-making and at the very least didn’t create greater inequity. These are big deals. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise!
The Bill passed the Senate by a 27-8 vote. The vote in the House could not have been closer: 33-32. All Republicans voted for it on the Chamber floors, as they did in committees. By the end of the evening there was very little for reformers/privatizers to celebrate, that is if they were being honest, but we know that isn’t one of their strong suits.
Would it have been better had the bill failed? That is hard to say. If its failure would have assured the end of the Innovation Zone discussion, then yes. But given there is now something in the law addressing the Innovation Zone issue, it will be more difficult to introduce another such Bill next session. At least that is the hope. And for the record the hopes and the dreams of the original Bill come straight out of American Legislative Exchange Council, or ALEC, the Koch/DeVos play book, as are Innovation Schools themselves. So, let’s hope they declare their version of victory and move on to other ways to subvert public education. Whack a Mole.
Finally, a real shout out to all the people and communities who worked tirelessly together to make this victory possible. And while we can celebrate today, we cannot let our guard down. If we could only count on all members of our 7-0 school board to push harder for the dismantling of the reformer chaos in Denver, we could all rest easier.