E-mail unmasks left’s education chasm

In Capitol Review, Notes by Mark Hillman

Longtime teachers union boss Albert Shanker infamously remarked, "When school children start paying union dues, that’s when I’ll start representing the interests of school children."

The recent dustup between Democrats at the State Capitol over public school choice revealed that, on certain issues, even those who seem to share common political ideologies can be miles apart.

In case you missed it, FaceTheState.com discovered a recent e-mail exchange between Rep. Michael Merrifield (D-Manitou Springs) and Sen. Sue Windels (D-Arvada), who respectively chair the education committees in the Colorado House and Senate.

Discussing how they could dismantle the Colorado Charter School Institute, which has the authority to license public charter schools when parents and school districts are deadlocked, Merrifield wrote to Windels that if Governor Ritter is on board, they should abolish the institute – despite objections from key Democrats who support public charter schools.

Merrifield then rants about a local school board recall election in Colorado Springs, calling board members with whom he disagrees "evil twins," and concludes with this gem:

"There must be a special place in Hell for these Privatizers, Charterizers and Voucherizers! (sic)  They deserve it!"

Sadly, too many Colorado children live in neighborhoods served by truly rotten schools.  Many of these children – who are disproportionately poor or dark-skinned – are likely doomed to futures filled with ignorance, poverty and, too often, prison if they are denied the opportunity of a good education.

Whether those opportunities come from government-funded alternatives or a growing cadre of generous Coloradans who pay for private school alternatives, Merrifield says those who back these alternatives deserve damnation.

That didn’t sit too well with innercity Democrats who don’t want to see their children’s futures decided by the fickle hand of fate.

Although Windels didn’t stick her foot in her mouth, her record on education is just as odious as Merrifield’s putrid comment.  She opposed giving parents a meaningful report card on their local school’s performance, and in 2003, she fought again to keep kids from low-income families locked inside failing schools.

Rep. Terrance Carroll and Sen. Peter Groff, both Denver Democrats and both solidly left-of-center, have been among the strongest proponents of giving more public school options to urban parents and their children.

Their 2004 bill to create the Charter School Institute passed narrowly but with bipartisan support.  Democrats supported it because they wouldn’t stand still and allow their children to be condemned to a future of lost opportunities.  Republicans rallied around the belief that public education exists to serve students — not bureaucrats and teachers unions.

So, what explains this gaping chasm among liberal lawmakers on such a critical issue?   Values and experience.

Groff and Carroll may be liberal, but they are not "limousine liberals" who live cloistered in subdivisions that insulate them from the people they represent.  And they are not slaves to the teachers union.

Only 13 percent of Denver Public School sophomores score proficient or advanced in math; 27 percent reach the mark in writing; 40 percent in reading.  DPS claims a graduation rate of 76.9 percent, but recent surveys have shown that only one-third of DPS students who finish eighth grade also complete high school.

If that were your kids’ school, you would demand improvement and alternatives, too.  Why can’t Merrifield and Windels understand that?

In the last two election cycles, Merrifield raised more than $10,000 from teachers unions, plus another $24,800 from their big labor cousins.  That’s bush league compared to Windels, who raked in $64,563 from union bosses in her last campaign.

After the e-mail was exposed, Merrifield issued a boilerplate apology and stepped down as House Education Committee chairman.  Or did he?

Two days later, The Denver Post reported that Merrifield’s "resignation" is effective only through the end of the legislative session on May 9 and correctly observed that it’s purely cosmetic since he remains on the committee.

Cosmetic changes merely patronize those who truly want all Colorado students to have access to a quality education.  What’s far more important is that more Democrats and Republicans stand together to make student opportunity and achievement the top consideration in education.