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Friday’s announcement by Gov.-elect Jared Polis of who would work on his education transition team is generating controversy among some Colorado public education advocates.

The team will be chaired by former Colorado State University President Al Yates and Elaine Gantz Berman, a member of the Colorado State Board of Education.

But it’s other members picked for Polis’ education transition team who have some public education advocates seeing red.

The Polis education team — one of seven teams whose members were announced Friday — includes Jen Walmer, director of Democrats for Education Reform (DFER), a political group that advocates for charter schools. Some education-policy liberals accuse the group of seeking to restrict teacher unions.

Another is former U.S. Rep. Bob Schaffer, a Republican advocate for taxpayer-funded vouchers for private schools and formerly a member of the state board of education.

Schaffer also is chairman of the board of the Leadership Program of the Rockies (LPR) a Republican-leaning organization that provides training on conservative principles and leadership. Its graduates include three of the former members of the Douglas County Board of Education who approved a controversial private-school voucher program in 2011. Schaffer advocated for the state board of education to endorse the voucher program.

The Dougco program led to lawsuits, including a trip all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. It was dismantled last year after voters elected an anti-voucher school board.

LPR also counts among its alumni conservatives elected to the Jefferson County Board of Education, the Thompson Board of Education and the CU Board of Regents, as well as dozens of conservative candidates for other elected offices in the past decade.

In a press release on Friday, Schaffer said: “Every Coloradan wants good schools, healthy communities, and more opportunity for the next generation. I am proud to serve on the Polis administration’s transition committee to work towards our shared goals.”

Another appointee to Polis’ education transition panel is Mike Johnston, a former state senator who ran for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination and lost. Johnston, like Polis, is a charter schools advocate.

Among those objecting to some of the transition-team appointments is Diane Ravitch, a Democrat who served as assistant U.S. Secretary of Education in the George H.W. Bush administration.

“Colorado’s new governor-elect @jaredpolis packed his transition team with pro-privatization allies, like Michael Johnston, who wrote the state’s harsh, failed teacher evaluation law. And charter champion Bob Schaeffer,” Ravitch tweeted Saturday.

“By choosing … voucher king Schaffer, @PolisForCO has just angered many, many, already active Public Ed. Supporting suburban women,” tweeted education activist Patricia Crowley. “Bad move! Game on!”

Some activists see certain school-district charter schools operated by outside groups, voucher programs to fund private schools, merit pay for teachers and other changes to public-education norms as part of an attempt to privatize education.

During the campaign, Polis — who has founded charter schools for homeless and immigrant children — expressed support for charters. In Congress, where he represents Colorado’s 2nd District, while serving on the House Education and Workforce committee, he advocated for additional federal funding for charter schools. But Polis also said as a candidate that he opposed using public funds for vouchers going to “unaccountable” private schools and also spoke out against for-profit education.

Along with the announcement of the transition, the Polis website — Boldly Forward — put out a call Friday for an additional 60 volunteers to help the seven transition teams with their tasks in the coming two months.

Polis’ transition team website on Friday listed a requirement that those who wish to volunteer should not be an executive director of an organization that employs a lobbyist.

That would appear to have ruled out both DFER’s Walmer and Colorado Education Association President Amie Baca-Oehlert, another transition team member. The CEA employs lobbyists.

The wording of Friday’s announcement was “inadvertent,” said Polis spokeswoman Mara Sheldon. It has since been changed to say that people who are registered lobbyists themselves should not volunteer.

But does that still affect Walmer? A complaint was filed against her last year for lobbying at the state Capitol without being registered as a lobbyist.

In a May 16, 2018 letter to Walmer and former DFER research director Jack Teter, DJ Davis, deputy director of business and licensing for Secretary of State Wayne Williams, said the pair should register as lobbyists anyway because the office just isn’t sure they aren’t engaging in lobbying activity.

Teter is no longer with DFER; Walmer has still not registered as a lobbyist, although she testifies regularly at committee hearings and she can be found regularly in the lobbyist scrum outside the House and Senate chambers.

Last April, the Colorado Democratic Party approved a resolution demanding that DFER stop using the word “Democrat” in its title. Polis, in a text message at the time, agreed with part of the resolution although he declined to sign onto it.

Polis’ text message said that he doubted he would sign the resolution but that he would look at it. “If I were to sign I think that would overtake all my messages about 100 percent renewable [energy], etc…There is something that doesn’t sit well with me for calling out a particular organization by name. I get that others are, but I’m not sure it’s a good role for a gubernatorial candidate.”

Sheldon, the Polis spokeswoman, pointed out that Walmer is not a registered lobbyist and that the campaign was unaware of the previous complaint. It was not publicly posted on the Secretary of State’s website, nor was the agency’s decision.

DFER made campaign contributions, totaling $5,350, to 15 Democrats running for the General Assembly in the 2018 election season. But DFER’s fundraising arm, Education Reform Now Advocacy, had a much bigger impact, to the tune of $1.8 million, almost all of it on behalf of Polis and Democrats running for the General Assembly.

Education Reform Now Advocacy is a dark money group that doesn’t disclose its donors.

The beneficiaries:

  • $650,000 to Good Jobs Colorado, who backed Polis in his gubernatorial run;
  • $190,000 to Coloradans for Fairness, the independent expenditure committee (IEC) that backed Democratic candidates for the state Senate;
  • $350,000 to Our Colorado Values, an IEC that backed Democrats running for the state House;
  • $350,000 to Raising Colorado, DFER’s own IEC. The committee spent a total of $702,000 for advertising on behalf of Democratic House candidates.
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