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Stacked with school-choice advocates, People's Education Network claims neutrality

At the height of the public education debate in Colorado Springs, a new organization has risen with the lofty goal of advocating for a better public education system. The People's Education Network has hosted three forums since its inception last winter, with the stated intention of sparking a dialogue between the area's most polarized education proponents.

PEN aims to provide information on national education issues, and seeks to do so through an unbiased lens, according to executive director Forrest "Chip" Ecks.

"As an organization, we are not pro-anything," he says. "We are neutral, so that people can make up their own minds."

But PEN, which plans to change its name to Citizens Education Network, includes some familiar players in the school-choice debate. And some members have a vested interest in School District 11, long known as a staging ground for the battle between pro- and anti-voucher activists.

PEN began with the help of D-11 board member and vociferous voucher proponent Eric Christen, though he is no longer a part of the organization. PEN's board of directors includes Carla Albers, who ran for D-11 school board and lost in 2005. She was funded in part by voucher king Steve Schuck, the local businessman who brought Christen, Sandy Shakes, Willie Breazell and Craig Cox to power on the D-11 board in 2003. PEN's board of directors also includes Don Schley and Paul Richardson, both of whom have publicly criticized former D-11 Superintendent Sharon Thomas.

Ecks admits that his board of directors might tend to one side of the school-choice debate. But he, and other board members interviewed, insist that their personal affiliations do not affect their goal of healthy dialogue in Colorado Springs.

"It is not what we think that matters," says Ecks. "The only way people can make a decision is to hear both sides. Certainly, you wouldn't think that if we were all pro-voucher that we could not hold a neutral debate."

PEN has hosted three events in Colorado Springs over the past four months. In May, PEN showed a taped report from ABC's "20/20" at the East Library. "Stupid in America," as reported by John Stossel, is an account of the country's public education system that promotes school choice as a remedy for the system's ills. Albers says the newsmagazine piece helped initially inspire PEN.

The organization also has hosted two debates. One, a 5th Congressional District forum, was held in late April. The other, a debate about the District 11 recall, took place last Monday, July 10. Ecks maintains the debates were even-keeled, with PEN carefully crafting a list of nonbiased questions for each.

But the recall organizers declined to participate in the D-11 debate. Mary Ellen McNally, who has suggested that PEN has connections with pro-voucher board members, said before the debate that she believed it "would be stacked against us."

In their absence, a PEN director acted the part of recall organizer, reading from newspaper clippings and printoffs from the recall Web site to debate D-11 board member Craig Cox.

PEN commissioned Peggy Littleton, of the State Board of Education, to moderate both of its debates. Littleton, a known school-choice advocate, says PEN has been fair in its dealings.

"The questions were reasonable and nonbiased," she says. "From my perspective of stating and asking questions, it does not matter whether I am for choice in education or not."

The fledgling organization has yet to file for non-profit status, but Ecks says he hopes to have the paperwork done by summer's end. He has fronted the money for most of PEN's minimal costs. Ecks hopes that PEN will eventually expand throughout Colorado.

Ecks says that PEN is still too new to incorporate a diversity of viewpoints into the board of directors. But he hopes to do that in time.

"There would be nothing greater than to have those questions on the board itself," he says.

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