Twenty miles northwest of Colorado Springs, nestled amongst the conifers behind the first upslopes of the Front Range, the vanguard of a shadowy, well-funded national movement has taken over a school district. Now, the district is being used as a base of operations from which to open a new front in the right wing’s decades-old war on public education.
Some of the tactics on display in Woodland Park over the past year and a half have been taken straight from the playbook of the ongoing nationwide “parents’ rights” movement – like the banning of books by Ta-Nehisi Coates, and the general furor surrounding “critical race theory,” and “social emotional learning.” Other moves made by Woodland Park’s insurgent school board, however, suggest that the small, rural district is being used as a testing ground from which the next chapter in that playbook can be written.
The saga unfolding in Woodland Park has been covered extensively in the press, most notably by Jenny Brundin at Colorado Public Radio, who has reported the story since the slate of conservative candidates sought control of the school board in the 2021 elections. Brundin covered the story when the board adopted a set of far-right social studies standards which the State Board of Education had already deemed unacceptable for Colorado schools, and she covered the story when teachers started being fired for speaking out. Last month, the happenings in Woodland Park School District RE-2 even earned the attention of NBC’s Tyler Kingkade, who took the story to a national audience. Likewise, a group of Woodland Park parents and citizens – without whom none of these stories ever could have been written – has done irreplaceable archival work, documenting the happenings which have fallen below the notice of even the local press on the blog Support WP Schools.
Given the amount of coverage dedicated to these events, I was surprised a few weeks ago when a friend reached out and asked me if I would be interested in investigating Woodland Park. Surely that story has been told, I thought.
I was wrong.
As I started trying to get my arms around the situation in Woodland Park, I was struck by how much of the story hasn’t been told, how many questions haven’t been asked. And I understand why: after dozens of hours of research, after reading through hundreds of pages of documents, I have more questions than I started with. The what of this story has been reported – but there are whys and whos which remain undisturbed beneath that top layer of what.
Why are groups from New York, Florida, and Washington, D.C. interested in a district of a few thousand students in Teller County, Colorado?
And why do so many players in the cast of characters in this small-town drama have direct connections to politically active right-wing billionaires and the groups they fund?
And why does the town’s hyper-political religious sect – a sect which specifically preaches the taking-over of government institutions for the glory of God and the kingdom of Christ – seem to be so involved with all of it?
Thanks to my gracious editors, I have launched an ongoing investigation into those questions, which I will update biweekly until we have found satisfactory answers – until we know who is driving the Woodland Park experiment, and to where else they might export it.
One thing is already clear: what is happening in Woodland Park is not an organic political movement. At every turn, it has ties to deep pockets and long-term ideological projects. It may have been the voters of Teller County who elected the ideological school board at the heart of the matter, but it’s not the voters of Teller County formulating and executing a legal strategy to consume the public school system from within and transform it into something unrecognizable. Someone else is doing that.
But who? And why Woodland Park?
Those larger questions — about the powers and principalities who have situated Woodland Park at the epicenter of this present darkness — might take months to answer. Thankfully, I have a head start on understanding the broader context: in my “day job” as a political researcher and strategic communications consultant, I have spent much of the past year working in opposition to the fast-growing parents’ rights movement around the country. The context of that movement is critical for understanding how what’s happening in Woodland Park is not just an extension of a nationwide political strategy, but an evolution of it.
For decades the social passions of lower-caste conservatives were sharpened into the leading edge of an anti-public-education crusade which was ultimately intended to cut taxes for the wealthy at the expense of the class doing their bidding. After all, the children of the wealthy could attend private schools, and their working class foot soldiers could rest comfortably in the knowledge that they remained safe from communism, or integration, or whatever other boogeyman had been supplied for them that time. The goal was to shrink the system.
The eruption of the parents’ rights movement in 2021 – when conservative parents, hopped up on Facebook and grievances during the pandemic, descended on school boards around the country – marked a shift in that decades-old strategy. Instead of using those social passions to shrink the public education system and cut taxes, a vast right-wing apparatus has leapt into position to convert the parents’ rights movement into an effective strategy for recruiting, activating, and turning out Republican voters. While that strategy is not entirely new – even I am old enough to remember the “school prayer” wedge issue of two-plus decades ago – the extent to which it has become the dominant and sole focus of the Republican party is something we have never seen before.
Since 2021, millions of dollars of untraceable funding has flowed into the groups driving the parents’ rights movement, and the past two years of conservative media have been solidly dominated by parents’ rights topics and talking points. Remember “critical race theory?” Dr. Seussgate? The time folks got upset about Mr. Potato Head’s never-existent genitals? The Target Satanism kerfluffle? Or, much more seriously, the ever-building onslaught of genocidal rhetoric against the transgender community? Every single one of those panics has originated within this movement.
By making children and schools the sole focus of their messaging, the broader conservative movement is successfully side-stepping their wildly unpopular fiscal positions and attempting to recruit less traditionally conservative Gen-X voters into the fold.
Now, in Woodland Park, that movement is undergoing a further evolution, where the focus is not on turning out the parents to vote for Republicans in 2024; it’s about turning out the kids to vote for Republicans in 2036 – and using taxpayer dollars to do it.
There is a well-established belief in right-wing circles that public schools and teachers unions are part of a nationwide plot to turn children into little Democratic Party voters: just last month, Darcy Schoening, chapter lead for Moms for Liberty in El Paso County, told CNN that she believes there is a coordinated, high-level effort between teachers’ unions, Joe Biden, and “a lot of funding sources” to turn kids gay in order to “break down the family unit” and eradicate “conservative values.” Earlier this week, the Southern Poverty Law Center identified Moms for Liberty as part of a hard-right anti-government movement.
Now, the movement in Woodland Park is attempting to flip the script on what they firmly believe is a tactic already being used by their opponents. They think you want to indoctrinate their kids, so they’ve hatched a plan to indoctrinate yours instead.
As a 2022 op-ed in the hyper-conservative outlet The Federalist put it, “arguing against an adversarial educational ideology places conservatives 13 or more years behind the power curve in a campaign.”
“Schools are a key long-term way to turn this cycle around,” the author wrote. “It won’t be fast. It has taken the nation about a century of increasing government control of education to get to this point. But we need to break the indoctrination of the young. Otherwise, we’ll continue to be forced into retreat.”
It is the belief expounded upon in that Federalist piece – that schools can be turned into mills churning out conservative voters – that is animating the struggle in Woodland Park more than anything else.
How do we know? Because, two years ago, the author of that piece co-founded the school at the heart of much of the furor in Woodland Park: Merit Academy, whose controversial charter the school board unanimously advanced little more than a month after taking office.
Since its founding as a contract school in 2021 – before moving into physical space in WPSD as a charter – Merit Academy’s founders, friends, and boosters have debarked into the Woodland Park School District like a landing force, the first wave of what was to follow. Merit’s former lawyer now serves as the lawyer to the Woodland Park school board, a spouse of one of Merit’s co-founders is now vice president of the school board, and the man who runs the organization which granted Merit Academy its contract in the first place is now the district’s superintendent.
The story of Merit Academy is not the whole story of what’s happening in Woodland Park – and the story of what’s happening in Woodland Park is nothing so simple as a squabble over school choice. It is much more than that.
Nevertheless, Merit Academy is important to the story, not because it’s a charter school, but because of the role it seems to play in the larger story of Woodland Park – as a Trojan horse, meant to infiltrate the legal framework governing education in Colorado and transform it from within.
But who wheeled it up to the gate?
At some point after the excitement of a new investigation wore off, and the daunting scope of what I’ve signed up for had become clear, I was overcome by the realization of how this must feel to the families on the ground, families trying to pay bills and put food on the table, families who in many cases have been left with no choice but to send their children to a school where their tax dollars are being transmogrified into state-subsidized right-wing grievance politics. I cannot imagine the helplessness, the rage.
But I don’t have to imagine it: I am already in touch with members of the determined resistance in Woodland Park – already pursuing certain lines of inquiry which I will eventually present to you here, but cannot yet risk exposing – and already in awe of how they have turned that helplessness, that rage, into resolve. In the coming weeks, I will introduce you to some of them and tell you about some of the work they have done. And with their help and guidance, which has already exceeded my expectations, I believe we can shine a light in some corners which so desperately need illumination – because what’s happening in Woodland Park isn’t just about Woodland Park. It’s about your town. It’s about every town. What is happening in Woodland Park is a well-funded effort to create a playbook which will allow small groups of determined right-wing activists to turn local public schools into conservative indoctrination factories. The movement which spent decades attempting to claw every last tax dollar back from the education system is now experimenting with ways to create taxpayer-funded free-market madrasas with the explicit intent of churning out future conservatives.
The forces behind this effort – the dark money groups, the think tank fellows, the folks whose names have not yet been reported anywhere in conjunction with Woodland Park – have dedicated a great deal of effort to remaining in the background. All that tells me is that it’s worth dedicating an equal amount of effort to bring them into the light.
So let’s give it a go.
This is part one of an ongoing investigative series into the takeover of the Woodland Park school board, the sources of money and influence behind that takeover, and what can be done to protect democratic institutions in towns around America from similar takeovers. The next two installations will look at the controversial “American Birthright” curriculum the school board is pushing – and the groups behind it – and the myriad ties the district’s legal counsel and superintendent have to an array of right-wing dark money groups. Further installations will examine connections between the board takeover and Charis Bible College, and, ultimately, will document what is discoverable about the streams of funding breathing life into the whole effort.
If you are connected to the Woodland Park school district, school board, or any of the entities mentioned above – or if you have information about those groups, or other information which you believe would be useful to this investigation – I would love to hear from you.