Upstart conservative advocacy group Ready Colorado didn't exactly tiptoe into the state's Great Education Debate a few years ago; it hit the ground running.
As we noted last fall in a Q&A profiling Ready President, Luke Ragland, the formidably funded, politically attuned organization aimed to be much more than another voice at the table. It entered the fray with aggressive marching orders to doggedly champion education-reform policies at the Capitol when the legislature is in session as well as to back state and local candidates who sync with that agenda come election time.
Underscoring its ambitions, Ready hired seasoned political strategist Craig Hulse as its vice president earlier this year - luring him away from ride-sharing juggernaut Uber Technologies. Though a newcomer to Colorado's political scene, Hulse has a lot of experience elsewhere in political and policy circles, in both public and private-sector posts.
He even served as chief of staff to the speaker of the Nevada Assembly - helping usher in groundbreaking education reforms in that state - before becoming Uber's public affairs manager. At Uber, he led legislative efforts for western states and for autonomous vehicles nationwide.
How does that skill set fit into Ready Colorado's ground game - and what's next in its playbook? Hulse elaborates in today's Q&A.
Colorado Politics: You have an extensive background in the school-choice movement, particularly on the political battlefront. Which state in your view has made more progress at its statehouse over the years in enacting educational choice-friendly policies, Colorado or Nevada? What state or states are in the forefront of change? What next moves, realistically, would you like to see Colorado's legislature make in advancing choice?
Craig Hulse: Colorado has an extensive traditional school choice program and is a national leader on charter funding equity, but we lack a quality charter authorizer law and robust private school choice options. When I was the chief of staff to the speaker in the Nevada Assembly, we passed a historic education savings account (ESA) law, but Nevada's Supreme Court mistakenly shot it down because of a specific funding law and not the program itself. But Nevada also has an active opportunity scholarship program that allows students whose parents make up to 300 percent of the federal poverty level to attend any school of their choice, including a private school. Additionally, school districts, colleges, the achievement school district and the statewide authorizer can all be the first stop for a charter operator's applications in Nevada. Without any substantive private school choice and school districts mostly maintaining an authorizing monopoly in Colorado, I have to go with Nevada being further along in choice-friendly policies.
As for states in the forefront of change, it's got to be Arizona or Indiana. They both have robust school choice programs between ESAs, scholarships and friendly charter school laws. Gov. (Doug) Ducey (of Arizona) and (former Gov. Mitch) Daniels (of Indiana) have both made student-centered education a top priority and followed through. Colorado could learn from both states on pathways to charter school growth and their private school choice options.
What would we like to see the legislature do next? An objective authorizer outside of school districts, so they are not asked to approve or regulate their own competition, should be a real possibility. Right now, parents who want to start a charter school have to go through a long and expensive application process with school boards, many of whom are not charter-friendly and don't want competition with their neighborhood schools no matter their quality. Before (charter applicants) can even get to an objective regulator, they have to appeal to the state board, which is a long and expensive process. We need to give parents and communities the opportunity to seek authorization without a process that can take years and tens of thousands of dollars. There are national objective criteria available for "quality authorizer laws" that we aren't even close to. For decades taxi companies were allowed to stifle competition with their regulatory body, and allowing school districts to reject their own competition is actually very similar.
I would also love to see a private school choice program that allows low-income kids attend the best private schools if they so choose, similar to what (Democratic gubernatorial candidate) Cary Kennedy chose for her children.
CP: What is the biggest obstacle to education reform in general, regardless of the state?
Hulse: The term special interests is a little played out, but it's the same friction I saw at Uber. An entrenched system that has mostly a regulatory monopoly and strong politics protecting it. With education, it is ultimately adults getting in the way of children having the best chance for success, which is troubling. We should focus on empowering parents and creating a bottom-up decision path, not top-down. Drawing random boundaries and telling someone where they must grocery shop, dine out, buy clothes or see a medical provider doesn't make sense either. Education isn't any different.
CP: What's it like making the leap from a leading-edge, 21st-century operation like Uber to the ancient art of politics - in hopes of retooling an old-school bureaucracy like public education?
Hulse: When you think about the tech and innovation of Uber, my job was mostly regulatory innovation to disrupt a status quo of decades-long antiquated transportation policy that no longer makes sense in 2018. In that regard, my job is mostly the same - fighting regulatory and political monopolies - except antiquated education policies go back much further and are even more outdated. Now I get to fight to empower students and families, not just riders and drivers. In many ways the taxi industry and the entrenched education system are very similar.
CP: Your new home base for education advocacy, Ready Colorado, is avowedly conservative and openly Republican-leaning. The school choice movement historically has been bipartisan - with pro-reform allies from a sharply divided Democratic Party - the aim being to engender support on both sides of the aisle. Are those two strategies at odds or complementary?
Hulse: Very complementary. I'd love to see 100 pro-school-choice legislators in the statehouse regardless of party. We get involved in primary and general elections to help see that mission succeed. It's not only our job to get votes and support for school choice in Colorado; it is also to elevate education reform as a top priority for all decision makers. It's easy for a legislator to say, "I have a 100 percent ed reform voting record," but it's entirely different when they decide to spend their personal and political capital making it a top issue in the legislature. So, while we always fight for support of student-centered policies, we also want to elevate the conversation of those same policies.
CP: You have been neck-deep in politics in general for much of your career thus far. Give us a snapshot of the politics in your new home: Is Colorado going from purple to blue? Or, is it going to get ever more independent in light of its largest - and growing - bloc of registered voters, the unaffiliateds?
Hulse: It's hard to put into words, but it seems to be getting more purple if that makes sense. The battle to go far left in the Democratic gubernatorial primary is so far from the average Coloradan it is surprising. I don't think the average Colorado voter wants to ban fracking or is in line with the teachers union agenda to limit parental choice. It gives a conservative candidate a big head start in the general election because the winner on the other side will instantly race toward the middle after the primary.
CP: What's it like living and working in Las Vegas? Is it still as exotic as it once was thought to be, or is it now just another Middle American metro area?
Hulse: You don't have to travel to see your friends or family, they all come to you - which is great. As a resident of Las Vegas you get to see two worlds in one city. The suburbs are a great place to raise a family and the Strip/downtown area has visitors from all over the world every day. It really is as exotic as ever and another Middle American metro area all at the same time. It's exciting to see changes there like the Golden Knights make a run and the Raiders stadium being built that adds a new dynamic. If you're a Broncos fan and you've never been to Vegas, I am confident that will change soon.
CP: In a recent New York Times interview, Lyft President and co-founder John Zimmer said he'd never summon Uber - no matter how badly he might need a ride. Would you ever let someone give you a Lyft?
Hulse: My favorite work at Uber was the difference we made in DUI prevention, so I always answered this question the same: Any form of transportation is better than driving under the influence, yes even a Lyft. I even used Lyft once and it was a good enough experience. Most things that are second best are typically fine - pink mustaches just aren't really my thing.