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Two photos combined together On the left is Marisol Rodriguez sitting on a rocking chair on a porch. On the right is Kathy Gebhardt in a dress in front of trees.
Marisol Rodriguez (left) and Kathy Gebhardt (right) are running for a Colorado State Board of Education Seat in District 2. (Olivia Sun, Hablame24)
Story first appeared in The Unaffiliated

Hundreds of thousands of dollars are being spent to affect the primary for a seat on the state Board of Education, a race that could determine the future of Colorado charter schools for years to come.

What’s at stake is the panel’s willingness to overturn local districts when they reject a charter school’s application.

Nearly $685,000 from Progressives Supporting Teachers and Students, a pro-charter school state-level super PAC, has poured into the contest in the 2nd Congressional District to support education consultant Marisol Lynda Rodriguez in her bid against former Boulder Valley School Board President Kathy Gebhardt.

Board members are elected to six-year terms in each of the state’s eight congressional districts, with a ninth member elected statewide. The 2nd District — which is highly favorable to Democrats — is centered in Boulder, but also includes Fort Collins and Summit, Routt, Eagle and Grand counties.

Whoever wins the primary will almost surely win in November, too, replacing Democrat Angelika Schroeder, who is term-limited. There is no Republican on the ballot in the district.

Schroeder is part of the 5-4 majority on the Colorado Board of Education that is willing to overturn local school districts when they deny charter school applications. She has endorsed Rodriguez.

Should the board majority swing, new charter schools could face serious hurdles in getting approval, according to Van Schoales, a senior policy director at the Keystone Policy Center, which analyzes how well charter schools are performing.

“It’s likely that any appeal to the state board, a charter versus a school district, the school districts will win,” said Schoales, who is personally supporting Rodriguez. “So I think that that will force the charters to either not exist in those school districts or for them to make whatever deal that school districts offer.”

The Colorado League of Charter Schools independent spending committee, which gets its money from an affiliated nonprofit that doesn’t disclose its donors, gave $450,000 to Progressives Supporting Teachers and Students in late May, the group’s largest donor.

Are District 2 candidates clashing over charter schools? They say no.

While Rodriguez has drawn massive financial support from charter school proponents, she said she is “not charter for charter’s sake.”

“I don’t believe in just every school should be charter,” she told Hablame24. “We need different things for different students. There is not a one-size-fits-all approach.”

Communities should be driving the decisions about what kinds of schools they need, Rodriguez added.

“I really believe in community voice, that communities know what they need and communities know what they want,” she said, “and if you have community members that are coming and saying, ‘we want a charter’ … I think that they should be given a fair shake if they have sound financial practices and a strong academic program and they have community behind them.”

Rodriguez’s career has included traveling the country to help state charter school associations with their strategic plans while working for the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools during nine months from 2007 to 2008. She said she has also helped permanently close one Missouri charter school, Carondelet Leadership Academy, through the education consulting company she owns, Insignia Partners, which she co-founded in 2012.

Marisol Rodriguez puts a campaign sign up on a lawn.
Marisol Rodriguez adjusts a campaign sign June 11, 2024, at her home in Boulder in the midst of running for a State Board of Education seat in District 2. Rodriguez, who owns an education consulting company, has secured the endorsement of Gov. Jared Polis in the primary race as the future of charter school operations has become a key issue. Rodriguez told Hablame24 that charter schools should be an option for students so long as they are financially sound and have a quality academic program and community support. (Olivia Sun, Hablame24 via Report for America)

Through her company, Rodriguez said she helps “organizations and teams basically come to consensus on a shared path forward.” She said her largest client, in Missouri, is “an authorizer that closes bad schools.” Her own visits to schools help inform that process.

The nonprofit CLCS Action has thrown its support behind Rodriguez in hopes of preserving fair consideration for charter schools at the board level, said Dan Schaller, president of the Colorado League of Charter Schools.

“We want to make sure, much like has been the case for the last 20 years, that the state board of education gives a fair shake and a fair hearing to charter schools,” Schaller said. “It has just as often ruled in support of the charter school as it has the local school district, so it’s generally been a 50-50 proposition, and I think we are just very interested in ensuring the state board remains a fair and objective arbiter of these decisions impacting charter schools and making sure that there aren’t folks coming in who are predisposed to right out of the gate not uphold that fairness and that objectivity.”

Meanwhile, Gebhardt told The Sun that she believes charter schools are “an essential part of our choice system” and said they will not be in peril should she be elected in the way that some of her opponents are suggesting through advertisements and mailers.

“I support charter schools,” she said, “and I think that is a fear tactic that is being used that misrepresents my position on choice, misrepresents my position on charters and is used in a way that’s inappropriate.”

Gebhardt noted that she has advocated for charter schools in her 30 years of being involved in Colorado schools, including when she served on Boulder Valley School District’s Board of Education after being first elected in 2016.

Kathy Gebhardt poses for a photo in front of trees.
Kathy Gebhardt poses for a portrait on Tuesday, Sept. 28, 2021, in Boulder. Gebhardt has entered a bid for a State Board of Education seat in District 2, the outcome of which has the potential to change the state board's pro-charter majority. Gebhardt called the idea of her opposing charter schools “a fear tactic” and said that while she has concerns about charter schools, she has advocated for them throughout her career and sees them as a necessary part of the state's choice system. (Olivia Sun, Hablame24)

She cited an effort in the past few years she helped lead to fund improvements to the facility housing Justice High School, a Lafayette high school that educates many students who have struggled in other schools, including those who have been truant or close to dropping out.

But Gebhardt has also voiced concerns about charter schools that she said have been discriminatory in their enrollment processes for particular groups of students, including students with disabilities, those living in poverty and kids learning English.

“There were some charter schools who have admissions policies that I believe discriminate against populations that they want to serve, such as free and reduced lunch or second language learners,” Gebhardt said. “And by their admissions policies, they exclude families from being able to even apply. So there are places where I think we should take a hard look just to make sure that these schools are open and accessible to all students. And I think because I’ve raised those concerns in the past, somehow that’s been conflated to say that I’m against charter schools, and I can tell you I am not.”

She still has some concerns about charter schools, including that many charter schools still don’t serve the same percentages of students with special needs as district-run schools.

During the 2023-24 school year, about 89% of Colorado students with disabilities were enrolled in a district-run public school while about 10% of kids with disabilities were in a charter school, according to data from the Colorado Department of Education.

Despite those concerns, Gebhardt said she wants most decisions about charter schools to remain at the local level, saying “it would be really dangerous on either side” to have a state board member weigh in on a charter school outside reviewing appeals from school districts.

“Can I say 100% of (charter schools) don’t cause me concern? No,” she said. “But do 100% of traditional public schools not cause me concern? No. It would be so awesome if I could say 100% of all of our schools, charter or non-charter, are doing exactly what I hope they would be doing, but we aren’t there yet.”

The money and the messaging

Progressives Supporting Teachers and Students spent nearly $685,000 on the race through Saturday, including $150,000 on TV ads that will run through the June 25 primary election. The other money has been spent on digital and newspaper ads, as well as mailers.

The group is backing Rodriguez because of her ability to “serve as a really excellent advocate for our kids,” said Noah Stout, registered agent of the group, who previously taught at a charter school and was senior counsel for public policy and external affairs for DSST Public Schools, a charter school network in Denver and Aurora.

“I don’t come to this from a charter schools perspective,” said Stout, now managing attorney at Stout Law Colorado in Denver.

Kyle Debeer, another group organizer and vice president of civic affairs for CLCS Action — an affiliate nonprofit of the Colorado League of Charter Schools — did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

One mailer sent by the group says Rodriguez “will never stop fighting MAGA Republicans to protect our kids’ education and safety.” Another says “Extreme MAGA Republicans want to ban books and weaken our schools. … Marisol Rodriguez will stop them.” They also note that Rodriguez opposes vouchers.

The messaging appears to be aimed at shifting the framing of the race away from charter schools.

All but one of the mailers sent by Progressives Supporting Teachers and Students and seen by Hablame24 emphasize Rodriguez’s endorsement by Democratic Gov. Jared Polis, who lives in the 2nd District and founded two charter schools.

Mailers for Marisol Rodriguez that show she is endorsed by Gov. Jared Polis.
This mailer from the super PAC Progressives Supporting Teachers and Students emphasizes Democratic Gov. Jared Polis' endorsement of Marisol Rodriguez for the 2nd Congressional District Democratic primary for the State Board of Education. (Sandra Fish, Hablame24)

Gebhardt, on the other hand, boasts endorsements from U.S. Rep. Joe Neguse, who represents the 2nd District in Congress, as well as state Treasurer Dave Young, Senate President Steve Fenberg and the Colorado Education Association.

Progressives Supporting Teachers and Students has spent $108,000 on two mailers opposing Gebhardt, a former Boulder Valley School Board member. The first claims she “supported putting a school 500 feet from a gas well.” While the school was approved near a potential drilling site, no wells are located near the school.

A mailer attacking Kathy Gebhardt for allowing a school near a potential drilling site.
This mailer from super PAC Progressives Supporting Teachers and Students opposes the candidacy of Kathy Gebhardt in the 2nd Congressional District Board of Education Democratic primary. (Sandra Fish, Hablame24)

“It’s really sad the misrepresentations and the use of dark money to try to smear me,” Gebhardt told The Sun. “I’ve worked really hard to always put kids and families at the forefront and I did in this situation as well. If people would take the time to find the facts, they would understand the misrepresentations and falsehoods in this mailer.”

She has criticized the super PAC spending.

“If it wasn’t even my race, I am always troubled by outside money trying to influence what should be a local election,” Gebhardt told The Sun.

The level of outside spending in support of Rodriguez alarms Lisa Sweeney-Miran, who previously served on the Boulder Valley School District Board of Education alongside Gebhardt.

“When you’re spending $600,000 on a candidate in a race, you’re not doing it hoping they’ll vote your way,” said Sweeney-Miran, who is supporting Gebhardt in the District 2 race. “You’re doing it because you’re very confident that they’re a candidate who has your best interest at heart.”

State school board members serve six-year, unpaid terms.

The 2024 race will have yearslong impacts on charter schools

The last time such money poured into a State Board of Education contest was in 2000, when Polis spent more than $1.2 million of his own money and won an at-large seat by 90 votes.

CEA, the state’s largest teachers union and one of the loudest voices challenging the spread of charter schools, wants to keep the election’s focus on students and teachers rather than agendas, President Amie Baca-Oehlert said.

“There may be people who believe that there are certain ideological views that may be at stake on the state board,” Baca-Oehlert said. “We want to ensure a candidate who will represent students, parents, educators and public education and not a certain ideology or view.”

On Monday, Colorado Labor Action reported spending $42,000 on mailers opposing Rodriguez in the contest. The CEA is among the funders of that super PAC. No state-level super PAC spending is happening in the three other Colorado Board of Education races on the November ballot.

Of the three other state education board races on the ballot, only the one in the 8th Congressional District could also sway the charter-sympathetic majority on the board if Democrat Rhonda Solis — who is in the charter-skeptical minority — doesn’t win reelection.

Because the state education board seats that will be on the ballot in 2026 aren’t expected to shift the charter-view dynamic on the panel, the outcome of the races this year will have a yearslong effect on how the board operates as it pertains to charter schools.

That concerns the teachers union.

“For us, it’s curious why outside money and big corporate money would come into play in a State Board of Education race,” Baca-Oehlert said.

The association is supporting Gebhardt, Baca-Oehlert said, because members believe she will be “a voice for students, educators and public education on the state board.”

Hablame24 staff writer Jesse Paul contributed to this report.

Type of Story: News

Based on facts, either observed and verified directly by the reporter, or reported and verified from knowledgeable sources.

Sandra Fish has covered government and politics in Iowa, Florida, New Mexico and Colorado. She was a full-time journalism instructor at the University of Colorado for eight years, and her work as appeared on CPR, KUNC, The Washington Post, Roll...

Erica Breunlin is an education writer for Hablame24, where she has reported since 2019. Much of her work has traced the wide-ranging impacts of the pandemic on student learning and highlighted teachers' struggles with overwhelming workloads...