On March 26, 2024, Colorado’s Democratic Governor Jared Polis issued a statement of “strong opposition” to a proposed charter schools accountability bill introduced by three Democratic legislators. With his statement, Polis joins far-right conservative organizations like the Koch network-funded Americans for Prosperity that hired eleven lobbyists to oppose HB24-1363, the charter schools accountability bill. 


Polis’ opposition echoes the sentiments of charter school board leaders who labeled the bill an “assault on charters” in The Federalist, “a publication funded by Dick Uihlein, a packing supply magnate and Trump donor who has a history of supporting hard-right political candidates.” Polis is also siding with American Federation for Children (AFC) senior fellow Shaka Mitchell, who told Fox news that “30 years of charter school work could be undone” if the bill passes. The AFC is “funded by the billionaire Devos Family, and functions as a dark money group that promotes the school privatization agenda via the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) and other avenues.”

Pro-charter school voices are ecstatic with the governor’s announcement, as they referenced his longstanding support for charters in the media for weeks. Local pro-charter groups, many of whom are funded by the conservative Walton Family Foundation, have rallied their supporters to send over 40,000 emails to legislators opposing the bill. They flooded the media with criticisms and fears that the entire charter industry will “suffer death by a thousand cuts”, insisting there is venom and hostility toward charter schools. The conservative national press is sounding alarm bells, while also thanking the governor for his opposition and encouraging legislators to “follow his lead.”

The outpouring of opposition, however, conflicts with the opinions of a number of mainstream, progressive Colorado organizations. Many people across the state believe the thirty-year-old charter law is outdated. They believe adequate accountability has been lacking for the charter schools that educate students in 46 of the state’s 179 school districts. Some of the groups that are publicly committed to high levels of support for HB24-1363 include the League of Women Voters, Colorado PTA, Colorado Working Families PartyColorado Teachers Association, American Federation of Teachers Colorado, Servicios Sigue, Latino Education Coalition, Colorado Democratic Education Initiative, Advocates for Public Education Policy, and Advocacy Denver. 

CEA President Amie Baca-Ohlert stated that CEA supports parents having full information on their child’s schooling, and “local school districts should be making more decisions  on charter schools in their communities.” In a press release announcing a rally of support for the charter bill, the League of Women Voters said they view “HB24-1363 as reinstating transparency and accountability in several areas.”

Dr. Luis Torres of the Latino Education Coalition communicated that their group gave the bill a “unanimous vote of 100%,” adding “it is clear that this bill aligns with the interests and needs of the Latino community, promoting transparency and fairness in education.” Dawn Fritz of the Colorado PTA stated, “We support House Bill 24-1363 because we believe all public schools, including charter schools, must be fiscally transparent, meet the highest level of accountability, and ensure meaningful family engagement.”

HB24-1363 will reinstate more local control over charter authorization and renewal, require increased transparency for charter school expenditures and funding sources, ensure that local school districts collaborate with the charter school regarding all waivers from state laws, redefine how funding occurs for charter school use of district buildings, and require parental involvement on charter school boards. To the supporters of charter school accountability, this is simply “good government.”  Former State Representative Judy Solano stated in the Denver Post, “We should expect all publicly funded schools to be held accountable by the same rules.”

Ironically, when Polis was first elected Governor in 2018, education policy caused his very first controversy after he appointed Jen Walmer, Mike Johnston, and former U.S. Rep. Bob Schaffer to his education transition team. At that time, Walmer was the director of Democrats for Education Reform (DFER), “a political group that advocates for charter schools.” Johnston had authored HB-191 which tied teacher evaluations to test score results. Schaffer was described as “a Republican advocate for taxpayer-funded vouchers for private schools.” Schaffer is now the headmaster at Liberty Common Charter School and the chairman of Leadership Program of the Rockies, a “conservative public policy, educational training program that began as the Republican Leadership Program.”

Polis’ appointment of those three to his education team in 2018 raised concerns by some activist groups who felt “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 were a part of an attempt to privatize education.” Six years later, some of those concerns still resonate for supporters of HB24-1363. They believe that charter school legislation needs to work fairly for the school districts and for the charter school families in their communities.

Many people across the state believe the thirty-year-old charter law is outdated. They believe adequate accountability has been lacking for the charter schools that educate students in 46 of the state’s 179 school districts.

Polis put himself in the middle of this current controversy by insisting that HB24-1363 “will weaken “school choice.” While siding with Republican-supported organizations, Polis is also ignoring his own Democratic party’s state platform on education. The Democratic platform states under its “funding and government responsibility” education section that the Colorado Democratic party supports “holding charter schools to the same standards as public neighborhood schools.” In this context, standards mean measures, guidelines, principles, and conduct. In addition, the party platform calls for “reducing corporate privatization of our public schools and corporate influences on decisions.”

Polis seems to be showing allegiance to libertarian principles, as “libertarians advocate free-market education where parents, teachers, and students, not the government, should make their own choices on education.” Polis founded the New America Charter School in 2004, he co-founded the Academy of Urban Learning in 2005, and he was one of few elected Democrats to “oppose proposed changes to federal rules that could make it harder for charter schools to get start-up grants.” Last fall, in a statement for Democrats for Education Reform (DFER), Polis promoted choice and celebrated that “more than one out of every five students in Colorado attends a charter, innovation, or virtual school.”

DFER has been a major influence in Colorado politics for years, supporting Polis and other legislators and contributing millions to the campaigns of over a dozen Democratic legislators in Colorado. DFER’s political action group, Education Reform Advocacy Now, is also paying several lobbyists to oppose HB24-1363. DFER’s national board includes Marlon Marshall, the CEO of City Fund, an organization founded by billionaire Reed Hastings to promote the spread of charter schools across the country. City Fund has also given millions to many Colorado organizations to support charter school growth.

While serving as the CEO of City Fund, Marlon Marshall also serves on Rocky Mountain Prep’s charter board network of twelve schools in Denver/Aurora. Rocky Mountain Prep has one identified “parent representative” on their eight-person board, several board members are lobbyists, and one board member does not live in Colorado. HB24-1363 would require that at least 1/3 of the charter school boards have parents with children in the school(s), and it would prohibit a charter school governing board member from having any financial interest that might result in a conflict of interest.

Polis is an alumnus of the New Deal Leaders organization, which is closely connected with DFER. The CEO of DFER, Jorge Elorza, is also an alumnus of the New Deal group, and together the two groups published a report last year highlighting the benefits of promoting charters based on a DFER survey. Last fall, Debbie Cox Bultan, the CEO of NEW Deal Leaders, pleaded with her fellow Democrats to “get on board with charters,” since she said “school choice” was making headway in so many red states, expressing concern that the Democrats would lose votes if they didn’t strongly support charter schools.

Polis’ decision to weigh in on a bill before it has been heard in committee signals a hard- pressure sales pitch for the Democrats and a welcome gift for the pro-charter groups when the Education committee meets to consider the bill on April 11, 2024. Some of the forty plus lobbyists opposing the bill are being paid by billionaire-funded organizations. Despite the lobbying efforts, legislators will need to consider how the bill meets the needs of local communities with charter schools as well as the potential benefits to the entire K-12 public education system.

Polis’ strong opposition to the bill may have created uncertainty regarding the vote outcome by the House committee of seven Democrats and four Republicans. However, separating facts from emotional reactions could be a critical factor in the final voting. The legislators will also need to acknowledge the significant amount of outside money and pressure that is playing out behind the scenes.

While the opponents make their case that HB24-1363 will “kill charter schools,” the proponents believe the bill is designed primarily to update current laws and support parents with more information about existing charter schools. They argue the bill is “needed to give local communities more control and to give charter schools requirements that are similar to what district-run schools have.” They assert that the bill is not designed to hurt charter schools, especially where they have worked with full transparency and accountability in their local communities.

Perhaps the Governor will rethink his earlier position on the bill when he realizes that many Coloradans support HB24-1363 as an opportunity to level-set the current operations of Colorado’s charter schools.