Editor's note: This story about the takeover of Colorado Springs School District 11 by pro-voucher advocates is the first of a two-part series. Next week's installment will examine the new board's agenda -- privatizing public education.
Stung by successive electoral defeats, Steve Schuck made a pledge three years ago.
The next battle to implement school vouchers in Colorado, he told the Independent, wouldn't be led by wealthy, influential, Republican business types like himself.
Instead, he promised, "It's going to be led by some poor single mother whose kid is stuck in some god-awful school" in public school districts in Denver or Colorado Springs.
A Colorado Springs real-estate developer turned education-policy activist, Schuck had spent much of his time and energy on two failed referendums, in 1992 and 1998, to implement a state voucher program -- in which public school districts would hand over taxpayer money to students wishing to leave public schools and attend private schools instead.
Though backers had touted vouchers as a way for low-income students to escape "failing" public schools, voters rejected the idea both times, agreeing instead with opponents who said vouchers would merely sap desperately needed money from an already underfunded public education system.
So Schuck vowed to raise his army of parents, who he envisioned would persuade Coloradans to embrace the voucher concept.
But somewhere between then and now, Schuck redrew his battle plan. Rather than relying solely on a grass-roots militia, he and fellow activists began to marshal a small cadre of sympathetic lieutenants and backed them financially as they ran for political office.
The plan worked.
In November of 2002, Schuck helped orchestrate the election of Colorado Springs Republican Ed Jones to the state Senate, enabling the GOP to do an end-run around voters by passing a voucher program in the Legislature.
And a year later, Schuck and his allies topped themselves by doing something previously unheard of in Colorado: They engineered a takeover of the state's third-largest public school system, Colorado Springs School District 11.
Taking their opponents by surprise, a slate of four pro-voucher school board candidates -- armed with record-shattering campaign contributions, anonymous attack ads and an unprecedented endorsement from Colorado Gov. Bill Owens -- defeated two incumbents and five other challengers to seize control of the seven-member District 11 board last November.
The four new board members -- Sandy Shakes, Craig Cox, Eric Christen and Willie Breazell -- elected themselves president, vice president, treasurer and secretary of the board, respectively. Sidelining the board's three more experienced members, David Linebaugh, Mary Wierman and Karen Teja, the four promised a "revolution" in how the school district is run.
Their opponents, left in the dust, said they were caught off guard by the pro-voucher bloc's massive financial backing, estimated by some to have exceeded $300,000.
"We were outspent," said Mike Coughlin, president of the Colorado Springs Education Association, which backed four other candidates. "I don't think there's any way that anyone could foresee probably $300,000 [being spent] on a school board race."
But by many indications, the coup had been long in the making.
Out of nowhere
With the exception of Breazell, the four new District 11 board members seemed to come out of nowhere.
Breazell, an engineer, formerly headed the Colorado Springs chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People but was forced from his post in 1999 when he endorsed school vouchers, which the NAACP opposes. Breazell, who is Sen. Jones' brother-in-law, also ran for the District 11 school board in 2001 but dropped out of the race due to lackluster support.
Cox, a private investigator, former FBI agent and ex-cop, had also run unsuccessfully for the board in 2001 but was far from a household name. Shakes, a former District 11 teacher, and Christen, a business lobbyist, made their first runs for local public office. (For more on Christen, see sidebar, page 18.)
Cox, Shakes and Christen, who ran for office promising "accountability," all failed to respond to numerous requests for interviews for this story. Breazell, meanwhile, downplayed the extent to which the pro-voucher candidates' campaigns had been part of an organized plot.
"I'm not sure it was coordinated," Breazell said.
Records show, however, that the four rookies enjoyed solid backing from a group of political power players that has long embodied the pro-voucher movement in Colorado. The group consists of Schuck and three wealthy Denver businessmen: oilman Alex Cranberg, investment banker John Saeman, and software pioneer Ed McVaney.
Schuck, who spent millions of his own money in an unsuccessful bid for governor of Colorado in 1986, has since devoted most of his political energy to promoting "school choice," a euphemism for vouchers and charter school expansion (for an extensive profile on Schuck, see "Citizen Schuck," Feb. 1, 2001, at www.csindy.com).
Schuck was a key organizer behind the 1992 and 1998 voucher referendums, and the secretary of state's office reports that Saeman gave $350,000 to the 1998 pro-voucher campaign, while McVaney contributed $275,000 and Cranberg donated $100,000.
After both referendums failed, the voucher enthusiasts began looking for a new plan.
They realized, "We can't win at the ballot," observed Deborah Fallin, a spokeswoman for the Colorado Education Association, which campaigned against both ballot measures. "That's when they changed their strategy to electing pro-voucher candidates."
The perfect opportunity came in 2002, when conservative Republicans stood poised to solidify their control over state politics by taking over the state Senate, which the Democrats controlled by a one-vote majority. To do so, the Republicans needed to win Senate District 11 in central Colorado Springs, which was considered highly competitive.
The Schuck-Cranberg-Saeman-McVaney quartet threw its support behind Ed Jones, then an El Paso County commissioner. McVaney gave $60,000 to the state Republican Party and $6,000 to Jones; Cranberg donated $25,000 to the party and $1,500 to Jones; and Saeman contributed $15,000 to the party. Schuck, meanwhile, hosted fund-raisers for Jones and personally gave the candidate $400.
With as much as $2.8 million raised and spent, the Senate District 11 campaign smashed fund-raising records for Colorado legislative races. Jones squeaked by his Democratic opponent, Tony Marino, by 651 votes, giving the GOP control of the state Senate.
With Jones in place, Schuck and his friends went to work shepherding a voucher bill through the Legislature. Saeman, in an interview, said a committee called the Colorado Alliance for Reform in Education actively pushed the bill. The group, he said, included himself, Schuck, McVaney and Cranberg, and was headed by former U.S. Rep. Bob Schaffer of Fort Collins, who had been a leading voucher advocate in Congress.
Not surprisingly, Jones introduced a voucher bill during his first Senate session. Though that bill didn't pass, Jones helped tip the balance in favor of an alternative voucher bill, which cleared the Senate on an 18-17 vote.
The bill established a "pilot" program that required 11 school districts to issue vouchers to students wishing to attend private schools. Among them were Colorado Springs school districts 2 and 11.
Approved by the state House of Representatives as well, the bill was signed into law by the staunchly pro-voucher Gov. Owens, who himself had collected more than $40,000 in past campaign contributions from Schuck, McVaney, Saeman, Cranberg and their families.
Taking control of the board
Still, the pro-voucher activists were not satisfied. Within months of the voucher bill's passage -- if not sooner -- they laid plans for a school board takeover.
Their intentions were publicly revealed last summer. In a letter to its supporters dated June 5, the Greater Educational Opportunities Foundation, a pro-voucher organization based in Indianapolis, outlined a strategy to field voucher supporters as school board candidates in Colorado Springs. The Citizens Project, a Springs-based group that opposes vouchers, obtained a copy of the letter.
"Taking control of the school board will be a big victory," the letter stated. "We can have the school board hire choice-friendly lobbyists, approve more charter schools, ask the Legislature to pass school choice legislation, etc."
The foundation, which maintained a Denver office at the time, had worked actively in support of Colorado's new voucher law.
And, not coincidentally, the foundation's board of directors includes Schuck.
Though Schuck refused to be interviewed about his involvement in the District 11 election, the foundation's director, Kevin Teasley, proudly acknowledges the takeover strategy. Teasley said his foundation wasn't directly involved in the takeover but advocated it.
"I'm glad that some people actually followed through with some of our advice," Teasley said. "I think the people in Colorado who orchestrated that whole thing did a good job."
Asked whether backing pro-voucher candidates in local elections represents a new chief strategy of the voucher movement, Teasley replied, "I don't think that's any secret."
Teachers unions, which oppose vouchers, have backed candidates sympathetic to their views for a long time, Teasley pointed out.
"They're well funded and well organized," he said of the unions. "We need to do the same on our side."
Saeman, meanwhile, said his friends -- Schuck, Cranberg, McVaney and Schaffer -- had encouraged him to support the pro-voucher candidates in District 11. And, he said, he didn't see anything wrong with it.
"It seems to me that people have the right to give money to causes that they believe in," Saeman said.
Public records and campaign materials also leave little doubt that the campaigns were closely coordinated.
Schuck, Cranberg, McVaney, Saeman and Schaffer, along with members of McVaney's and Saeman's respective families, all made contributions to each of the four winning candidates, totaling more than $83,000. In some cases, they gave identical contributions to the candidates on identical dates. For instance, on Oct. 28, Cranberg gave Shakes, Cox and Christen exactly $1,770.99 each in in-kind contributions. On Oct. 23, Schuck gave each of the four pro-voucher candidates $4,000 in in-kind contributions, and between Oct. 27 and Oct. 28, he gave them another $7,000 each.
Most of the reports don't list what the in-kind contributions paid for, although one of Shakes' reports states that a $4,000 contribution from Schuck paid for "mailers." Also, Breazell's reports list no contributions from Cranberg. Asked whether the records from his campaign have been completed and are current, Breazell said, "As far as I know, everything's reported." However, he said he left the handling and reporting of contributions up to his campaign treasurer, Donald Alberts.
In the end, Shakes, Cox and Christen each raised between $24,000 and $26,000, with 87 percent to 90 percent of their respective totals coming from Schuck, Cranberg, the Saemans and the McVaneys. Breazell's reported contributions total more than $18,000, more than three-quarters of which came from the four core backers.
Their closest opponent in terms of fund-raising was Wendy Chiado, who collected $5,900, according to campaign reports.
Each of the four pro-voucher candidates also sent out similar, color-coordinated flyers, which were reported as paid for by their respective campaigns and which all came from the same direct-mail firm. And all four campaigns pitched in for a joint flyer in which Gov. Owens endorsed Shakes, Cox, Christen and Breazell.
Several people interviewed for this article said they could not recall a Colorado governor getting involved in a local school board race before. How the endorsement came about isn't clear; representatives from the governor's office did not return messages seeking comment. Breazell said that while he knows the governor, he never asked him for an endorsement, and Saeman also said he didn't know who approached Owens.
Meanwhile, voters were also flooded with negative flyers from a shadowy group called Citizens for Education Accountability, which labeled itself a "non-profit, non-partisan education committee." Under a loophole in the state's campaign-finance laws, so-called "education committees" that don't outright endorse or oppose candidates can raise and spend money without having to identify their contributors.
Citizens for Education Accountability's flyers stopped short of endorsing Shakes, Cox, Christen and Breazell, but characterized the four as "pro-parental rights" candidates while attacking several of their opponents as "union-boss endorsed" and "anti-parental rights."
Breazell said he didn't know who was behind the group, but added, "I appreciate any help."
Saeman also said the group's name did not "ring a bell."
The attack flyers do, however, bear a striking resemblance, design-wise, to the "official" flyers sent out by the four campaigns. And, they came from the same direct-mail firm.
In yet another sign of cooperation, all four campaigns reported paying for the services of Robert Gardner and Sarah Jack, two prominent local Republican campaign strategists. Gardner and Jack also worked with Schuck on Sen. Jones' campaign.
"I think this is really remarkable," commented Pete Maysmith, director of the Colorado chapter of Common Cause, a campaign-finance watchdog group. "This certainly appears to be a very strategic, conscious decision to stage an electoral coup."
Triumph for school choice
The puzzling part of it all, according to some observers, is that while the four victorious candidates are all in favor of school vouchers, they may have little influence over the issue. Though the Republican Party has long proclaimed its support for local control in politics, the GOP-backed voucher law enacted last year directed school districts to implement vouchers regardless of whether local school boards approved of it.
"That's one of the ironies about this," said Mark Townsend, president of the 30,000-member Colorado Parent Teacher Association, who lives in District 11.
A Denver judge suspended the law last December, ruling that it violates the state Constitution by stripping power from local school districts.
But as the letter from the Greater Educational Opportunities Foundation in Indianapolis indicates, electing a pro-voucher school board marks a propaganda victory. Significantly, the pro-voucher Wall Street Journal celebrated the District 11 election results in an editorial last November, stating that Breazell's win, in particular, represents "a triumph for school choice."
And while vouchers are on hold for the moment in Colorado, the new board has moved quickly to approve more charter schools, which are also strongly favored by the "school choice" movement.
The attention from both the Wall Street Journal and the Indiana-based Greater Educational Opportunities Foundation also hints at another reality: The takeover of District 11 wasn't just a local phenomenon, but part of a wider national effort.
Indeed, while Schuck and his allies masterfully executed the takeovers of the state Senate and District 11, their strategy was not their own invention. It was taken from the playbooks of voucher advocates in other states, most notably Ohio and Wisconsin.
The Milwaukee model
Perhaps the most prominent pioneer of the strategy is David Brennan of Akron, Ohio, an entrepreneur who runs one of the nation's largest for-profit charter-school chains, White Hat Management.
During the 1990s, Brennan helped the GOP take control of state politics in Ohio by giving at least $1 million to mostly conservative Republicans, according to the Akron Beacon-Journal. In 1992, Republican Gov. George Voinovich put Brennan in charge of the state's Commission on Education Choice, which went on to develop Ohio's voucher program in 1995. In the years that followed, Brennan "played a significant role in writing and revising laws related to charter schools and vouchers," the Beacon-Journal has reported.
Brennan went on to personally profit from those same laws by operating voucher-financed private schools in the mid-1990s and forming White Hat in 1998.
Brennan serves alongside both Schuck and Cranberg on the board of Children First America, another national pro-voucher organization. Shortly after the new District 11 school board took office in Colorado Springs, it approved an application for a charter school to be run by Brennan's company, and to be overseen by a local board of directors that includes Schuck.
Meanwhile, in Milwaukee's public school district, where the state of Wisconsin mandated the nation's first voucher program in 1990, major national pro-voucher groups have for years poured money into the campaigns of sympathetic school board candidates. Though teachers unions and other voucher opponents have responded with their own large campaign contributions, pro-voucher candidates have scored the most wins.
Controlling the Milwaukee School Board has served as a major propaganda advantage for the voucher movement, according to Bob Peterson, a Milwaukee fifth-grade teacher and anti-voucher activist.
"Several members of the Milwaukee School Board play an important role nationally in the movement for vouchers and privatization by writing about vouchers, speaking at national right-wing gatherings, and hosting visitors who come to Milwaukee to see the voucher experiment in action," Peterson writes on the Web site rethinkingschools.org. "To have a member of the Milwaukee School Board publicly proclaim that private-school vouchers help the public schools, adds credibility and strength to the voucher school movement."
Voucher proponents in Ohio and Wisconsin have also used their might to attack judges who stood in the way of their agenda -- the last hurdle remaining after taking over legislative bodies and school boards. In Ohio, where the state's Supreme Court justices are elected by popular vote, Brennan has raised money in attempts to elect sympathetic justices and to unseat those who have made rulings unfavorable to "school choice."
In Wisconsin, pro-voucher candidate Jon Wilcox was elected to the state's Supreme Court in 1997 with backing from a nationally funded, clandestine group that was said to have spent $200,000 on mass mailings attacking his opponent. Wilcox's election tipped the court's balance in favor of letting religious schools participate in Milwaukee's voucher program.
Again, the strategy is being copied in Colorado. After judges struck down the state's voucher program along with a law mandating the Pledge of Allegiance in schools and a congressional redistricting scheme rammed through the Legislature by the GOP, the state's Republicans have launched their own attack on the judiciary.
In January, Senate Majority Leader John Andrews proposed that the Legislature enact term limits for state judges and require the state Senate to confirm appointments to the bench, to counter what he called "judicial activism." Judges in Colorado are currently appointed by the governor and must run for retention periodically.
Also a staunch voucher backer, Andrews founded the Independence Institute, a free-market think tank in Golden. Schuck formerly served as chairman of the Independence Institute and has given money to Andrews' past campaigns -- as have Cranberg, McVaney and Saeman.
One board at a time
Mordecai Lee, an associate professor of governmental affairs at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and a voucher skeptic, says the parallels and connections between takeovers of legislatures and school boards in various states, and the attacks on the judiciary, are no coincidence.
"There is a vast right-wing conspiracy, that's extremely well organized," Lee said. "This is a fanatical advocacy organization that doesn't take 'no' for an answer."
When voucher backers lost popular elections in Colorado, "they didn't get discouraged, they didn't go home, they didn't walk away," Lee noted. "Instead, they're going to try to do it on a piecemeal basis, by taking over one school board at a time."
There's nothing wrong, in and of itself, with voucher supporters getting behind candidates who agree with them, Lee says.
"If the voters of Colorado Springs would like to see school choice, and they have a slate of candidates for the School Board who are publicly for it and a slate who are publicly against it -- and if it's a fair, transparent race, and the slate that's in favor wins -- then that's democracy," Lee said.
But the problem with school board campaigns in Milwaukee, he says, is that candidates have often had covert agendas and anonymous backers.
In Colorado Springs' District 11, the four winning candidates rarely if ever mentioned the word "vouchers" in their campaign materials, instead using terms such as "choice" and "parental rights." And the public wasn't told who was behind the flyers attacking their opponents.
Some worry that last November's race has forever changed how elections will be conducted in District 11, and perhaps in other area school districts. Local school board elections used to be low-key affairs that attracted mostly small contributions from teachers unions and candidates' friends and neighbors. Now, future candidates may need to plan on raising upward of $20,000 each to be competitive.
"That bothers me," said board member Teja, an outspoken opponent of vouchers who last ran in 2001 and cannot seek re-election due to term limits. "I won with $6,000."
With the national attention District 11 now has attracted, it might mimic Milwaukee, where, according to Lee, every school board race has turned into a high-stakes referendum on vouchers.
Indeed, following in Milwaukee's footsteps, Colorado Springs is poised to become the next national poster child for "school choice," said Teasley, of the Greater Educational Opportunities Foundation.
"The rest of the country will look at it to see if it's making some progress," Teasley said. "Colorado Springs ought to be excited."
Townsend, of the Colorado PTA, isn't excited -- but he agrees with the characterization of Colorado Springs as the newest voucher battleground.
"Right now," he said, "District 11 is ground zero."