Educational Choice, Hell, and the 2018 Gubernatorial Race

Have you ever read a news story that made you simultaneously want to laugh and cry? That’s exactly what happened to me this morning as I perused the day’s edu-news.

One of the first articles I ran across was a Chalkbeat Colorado piece on a very interesting development in what is shaping up to be a crowded 2018 gubernatorial field: My dear friend Senator Mike Merrifield is contemplating a run for the highest office in the state. It’s fortunate that I am too young to drink coffee, or I might have spit it all over my computer screen.

For those of you don’t know, Senator Merrifield is arguably the most radical anti-reform, anti-choice politician in Colorado. A former music teacher with a deep affinity for the teachers unions, he has loudly and consistently opposed everything from charter schools to private school choice to teacher evaluation and tenure reform. He is perhaps best known for the statement that there “must be a special place in hell” for supporters of charter schools and private school choice. I hope they at least have some decent games to play down there for me and my fellow kid-focused evildoers. And will there be air conditioning available?

In fairness, this disturbing remark was the better part of decade ago. People can change, right? One would hope that Sen. Merrifield’s positions would soften following years of rapidly expanding educational choice and piles of compelling evidence that both public and private school choice can be powerfully effective tools in the march to improve student outcomes.


After discussing the importance of more closely aligning the Democratic Party with teachers unions (is that even possible?!) and following the lead of Bernie Sanders, the senator had this to say about what a Governor Merrifield might mean for Colorado education:

“It’d be a wonderful thing for public education, with a capital P-U-B-L-I-C education. It’d not be a very good thing for those who want to privatize, corporatize, ‘voucherize’ and ‘charterize’ public education.”

We can toss “privatize” and “corporatize” away right away as silly, meaningless far-left buzzwords. I think there might actually be a messaging handbook out there somewhere that requires all anti-reform activists to use those words at least once each time they speak. Neither accusation can bear even half a second of serious scrutiny, so we’re not going to waste time on them. But what about “voucherize” and “charterize”?

Here is where anti-reform and anti-choice folks who identify as progressives fall off the train. You see, both private school choice programs and charter schools can and do make a difference for the populations for whom these folks claim to be working. The overwhelming majority of private school choice programs are means tested, meaning that participating students have to come from lower-income or other backgrounds that put them at a disadvantage. This often results in these programs drawing disproportionately from minority and low-income communities desperate for new opportunity pathways.

Further, according to the Colorado Department of Education’s 2016 State of Charter Schools report, Colorado charters now serve a slightly higher proportion of minority students than non-charters. Within that overall figure are quite a few effective charter schools and networks that have made it their mission to serve low-income minority populations. And, as it turns out, they’re pretty darn good at doing that—particularly in urban environments.

Here’s a simple truth: If you’re fighting against educational choice, you’re fighting against opportunities for the most disadvantaged populations of students in the state—students who may not ever get another chance at success. That’s unequivocally wrong. If the Left is truly interested in addressing inequality, it should start doing absolutely everything in its power to open as many educational doors as possible for those at the bottom of the socioeconomic spectrum.

On a more political note, it’s probably not a great idea to alienate the hundreds of thousands of public school parents in Colorado who have chosen to send their children to public charter schools. That’s especially true if you’re going to frame yourself as the ultimate advocate for public education in the state. When you look at the explosive growth in charters over the last two decades—growth that has tapped into demand that doesn’t appear to be going away any time soon—it becomes clear that those who still oppose charter schools are on the wrong side of history. Given the graphs below, it may be time to let go of the way we did things thirty years ago and start getting with the educational times.

Whether or not Sen. Merrifield actually decides to run remains to be seen. If he does, we could see some very interesting dynamics emerge between him and more reform-minded Democrats like Sen. Mike Johnston. It could be an epic Mike-on-Mike battle. And if one of them loses, we could crack jokes about how Colorado “dropped the Mike.”

Okay, I’ll stop. But seriously, stuff’s going to get interesting on the Democratic side of the edu-house (and probably on the Republican side, too). Stay tuned. We’ll talk more about candidates’ policy positions on important education issues as the primary fields begin to solidify.

In the meantime, fellow educational choice supporters, you may as well get rid of all those winter coats and ski pants. You won’t need them where Senator Merrifield says we’re going.