Tuesday’s election results from across Colorado highlighted nationwide trends of increased partisan involvement in local races for school board seats, the latest battleground in the culture wars playing out in school board meetings and public debate around district policies and curriculum.

Republicans are unifying around volatile topics such as mask-wearing and policies regarding diversity, inclusion, and equity. They also have concerns about curriculum, such as the invented allegation that public schools teach Critical Race Theory (CRT) — a graduate-level view which acknowledges systemic and institutionalized racism in America — or that “woke” educators are subtly incorporating tenets of CRT are into lessons their lessons.

This year, Colorado Republicans have directly and conspicuously attached their brand to candidates in nearly every race, no matter how daunting the prospects might be for winning, thereby directly and conspicuously attaching their brand to candidates, policies, and positions which they deem popular and aligned with their base. In previous elections, some school board candidates would have no opposing candidate on the ballot.

Republican candidates for statewide offices have struggled to win elections since 2018 in Colorado, where Democrats hold the executive branch and majorities in both houses.

So, Wednesday’s post-election press release from the Colorado Republican Party, under the direction of Chairwoman Kristi Burton Brown, who has refused to acknowledge the legitimacy of Joe Biden’s election, was celebratory: “Douglas County — WE NOW CONTROL,” it stated in reference to the conservative slate’s victory for the Douglas County School Board, adding, “This was a huge win for Democrats in 2017 and shows that the suburbs don’t actually support socialists.”

It’s possible that Burton Brown’s co-opting of conservative candidates isn’t entirely welcome. While at least 3 of the candidates are registered Republicans, their campaign manager, Holly Osborne, minimized their Colorado GOP bona fides and distanced the candidates from extreme positions like Burton Brown’s, telling CPR education reporter Jenny Brundin, “They don’t want to run over anyone with ultra-conservative ideas. They truly want all sides to work together for kids first.”

For its part, the Colorado Democratic Party also released a statement following the election, spotlighting school board wins in Jefferson and Larimer counties.

“We are proud of the great wins we saw in Jefferson and Larimer County School Boards,” said Morgan Carroll the Chair of the Colorado Democrats. “… Additionally, we are very pleased that voters soundly rejected the Republican-backed measures of Amendment 78 and Proposition 120, and the backdoor voucher program of 119. … It is more obvious than ever that the Republican dark money machine is alive and well. Just like we have successfully done over the past few election cycles, Colorado Democrats will campaign on our better candidates, our better policies, and our record of delivering for working people all across our state.”

In Jefferson County, the losing slate of four conservative candidates are all registered as unaffiliated voters but were endorsed by the county GOP.

In 2015, a conservative slate of three Jeffcoboard members was ousted over a variety of issues, but one is reminiscent of today’s CRT debate: a motion to review AP U.S. History class curriculum, in order to ensure a more nationalistic treatment which many deemed as an effort to “whitewash” and spin a “patriotic” and “positive” treatment of events instead of more fact-based, objective perspectives.

This year, the Jeffco conservative slate’s losing campaign centered much more heavily on public health directives and opposing a mask mandate, as well as issues regarding the stewardship of facilities and the district budget.

The bogus CRT issue factored substantially in the Mesa Valley district, where three conservative candidates, also endorsed by their county Republican Party, advocated for curricular emphasis on “patriotism and pride.”

In Woodland Park in Teller County, four conservatives took out the incumbent school board directors on a platform of accommodating parental preferences in district policy.

Dark Money on the Rise

Along with a new focus on candidate development and on down-ballot races, conservatives and progressives also funded campaigns with dark money from independent expenditure committees and contributions from advocacy groups that previously concentrated their efforts in legislative and statewide races.

For example, Ready Colorado, a Colorado group focused on shifting education policy toward parental choice, spent $30,000 to support conservative candidate campaigns in Aurora and Douglas counties.

Dark money independent expenditure committees, or IECs, are not required to reveal their donors and there are no limits on how much donors can contribute. While IECs have historically campaigned on behalf of candidates in statewide, big money races where Republicans have struggled to win recently, their shifting priorities to local races has driven campaign spending up significantly, to record levels, as reported by the Colorado Sun.

Some of the dark money IECs that tried to influence voters in this year’s school board races include Parents for Great Schools, Raising Colorado, Denver Students, Families and Teachers United for Excellent Schools, CO League of Charter Schools (CLCS), and Forward Progress.

The IEC Students Deserve Better, founded by the Colorado Education Association (CEA), supported the campaigns of candidates endorsed by the state’s largest teachers union.

“CEA did have an IEC entity, Students Deserve Better,” Amie Baca-Oehlert, president CEA, told the Colorado Times Recordeer. “I think the contrast I would make between that entity and [other IECs is that] all of the dollars that go to it are small voluntary contributions from educators across the state. It’s not money from corporations or, you know, … these big anonymous donors [whose] money is flowing in from out of state.”

GOP versus Dem Donations

Baca-Ohlert saw increased involvement and donations by the Colorado Republican Party in the 2021 school board races.

“I do think in this year’s school board elections, we saw the Republican Party being more … out front on their support of candidates,” said Baca-Oehlert. “They actually made dollar contributions to candidates and school board races in various places across the state, and school boards are nonpartisan races. But there certainly was a very open partisan view from the Republican Party in many of the races across the state. But we did not see the kind of financial contributions and putting the party name behind candidates on the Democratic side, the way we did on the Republican side.”

David Pourshoushtari, Communications Director for the Colorado Democratic Party, says that candidates do not receive donations from the party.

“To my knowledge, no, we did not donate to any candidates,” Pourshoustari said. “As the state party, we didn’t endorse in these races because they are nonpartisan races. …. What a lot of county parties did, which we worked with them on, was they would have voter guides. And they would say, if folks asked who are the Democrats in this race, we would say, ‘Here are the Democrats here and here are their websites. Take a look at them and see which ones you would prefer to support.'”

Pourshoushtari also elaborated on rival Republicans’ strategies in this year’s local races.

“The Republicans are clearly using this Critical Race Theory straw man argument to really just gin up anger among their base,” Pourshoushtari explained. “And they’re taking advantage of it. It’s really concerning that we’re seeing this level of partisanship with these races that are meant to be nonpartisan.

Asked whether this year’s down-ballot local races portend an increased partisan role for the parties in the future, Pourshoushtari said that Democrats will likely remain focused on recruiting and developing candidates to run in every race, allowing their platforms and policy ideas to speak for themselves and their progressive values that are representative of the party.

“We don’t have a position necessarily when it comes to whether these municipal races or local races should be partisan or not,” Pourshoushtari said. “We haven’t taken an official position. … We’re going to have to look at that, We’re going to have to consider it.”

Baca-Oehlert also worried about highly politicized and divisive local races in the future.

”It’s certainly hard to predict and we certainly are in unprecedented times where we have not seen this level of … rancor and vitriol and stuff showing up in our our school board meetings,” said Baca-Oehlert, “But I would certainly hope that we are not moving in a direction where we would have very divisive, partisan school board elections. It’s not beneficial to the students, it’s not beneficial to the profession of public education. We have a common goal of educating and serving students, and that should not be a partisan, politically divided issue. And you know, it was we did see — heavily in this election cycle — candidates who are running on very politically backed issues [versus] candidates who were running on, you know, supporting our educators, our students and our public schools. There was certainly a a distinction there. And my hope is that we do not get to a place where our school boards become very politicized and partisan.

Getting to a nonpartisan normal could be a trick, however.

Even before this election, and previous to the past 19 months of pandemic upheaval in schools across the state, public education in Colorado witnessed contentious debate around funding, student achievement proficiency rates, and gaps among demographic groups, reform effort, and school choice and models of school governance.