The attempt to oust three conservative school board members in a Colorado county is drawing the interest of outside groups, including the the Koch-backed Americans for Prosperity, and may turn the local conflict into a national proxy fight over education issues like school choice, teacher pay and curriculum.
With the interest of Americans for Prosperity and the Independence Institute, a conservative group based on Colorado, the closely watched recall election in Jefferson County, Colorado, could take on outsize importance.
Jefferson County received national attention last year when the conservative school board majority set out to review the AP U.S. History curriculum and ensure that the course didn’t “encourage or condone civil disorder.” Even though the school board eventually scuttled the plan, opposition to the conservative majority has grown in the county among parents frustrated with the board’s actions.
Since Jefferson County is a purple district demographically, the outcome of the recall election could serve as a litmus test for the rest of the state. The surrounding school districts are keeping track of the recall fight in Jefferson County since several districts are also “under attack” from “extremists” like those who control the JeffCo school board, said Wendy McCord, a Jefferson County parent who helped found JeffCo United For Action, the group that organized the recall petitions.
“There are other school districts nearby that are interested in what we’re doing and how we’re able to potentially take back our school district,” she told TPM.
These issues have attracted attention from two large conservative groups in the state, Americans for Prosperity’s Colorado chapter and the Independence Institute, as conservatives increasingly focus on local education politics.
Americans for Prosperity, a conservative group backed by billionaires David and Charles Koch, has a reputation for spending big to support conservatives on the national and local level. Though the group is best known for its influence in national elections, the organization has chapters in numerous states and has been expanding its efforts in Colorado. In 2013, the Colorado chapter of Americans for Prosperity executed a plan to spend about $350,000 to run ads supporting conservative board members in Colorado’s Douglas County who were up for reelection, according to Politico.
It’s not yet clear just how involved Americans for Prosperity will become in Jefferson County but the group has already started efforts related to the recall. According to Michael Fields, the political director at AFP’s Colorado chapter, the group won’t get involved in the election, but has been “going door-to-door and doing other grassroots work in Jeffco” to educate residents about the “positive reforms” proposed by the conservative school board majority. Fields said that AFP is interested in education issues like school choice and teacher pay.
The Independence Institute, a conservative think tank based in Colorado focused on issues like school choice and limited government, is less well known, but is a member of the conservative State Policy Network. According to a report from the liberal Center for Media and Democracy, the State Policy Network has received funding from conservative groups like Americans for Prosperity, the Heritage Foundation and Grover Norquist’s group, Americans for Tax Reform.
Ben Degrow, a senior policy analyst at the Independence Institute, said that the think tank has started educating Jefferson County residents about some of the issues surrounding the recall.
“We want to help people understand what the Jefferson County school board has done, has actually accomplished in terms of fair funding for charter schools, pay bonuses for the best teachers,” Degrow told TPM.
Recently, the group produced a video of a Jefferson County parent, Jennifer Butts, who discussed why she supports the school board majority. And the group’s president, Jon Caldara, has been outspoken in defending the JeffCo school board majority.
— Jon Caldara (@JonCaldara) July 31, 2015
— Jon Caldara (@JonCaldara) August 3, 2015
As conservative groups gear up to educate voters, one progressive group, ProgressNow Colorado, has launched efforts to help oust the conservative board majority.
According to Alan Franklin, the political director at ProgressNow Colorado, the group only recently decided to get involved in school board politics now that the elections have become more partisan.
“Conservatives have become aware of the high political value of school boards, many years before progressives did,” Franklin told TPM.
He said that the group will plan efforts to educate voters and turn out the progressive vote for the recall election in Jefferson County.