Once again, Colorado is embroiled in dark money election scandals. This time, the target is the state’s Board of Education.

Dark money began pouring into Colorado’s 2nd Congressional District months ago after Democrat Kathy Gebhardt found herself with a surprising primary opponent: A charter school advocate backed by unusually deep pockets.

According to campaign finance reports, roughly $1 million has already been spent in the race against Gebhardt, a staggering figure for any off-year primary race, let alone one in local education. So where did it come from and why?

Unfortunately, due to overly lax campaign finance laws we can’t be entirely sure where the funds come from, hence the moniker “dark money.” But there are some things we do know, and voters across Colorado should definitely be on alert.

First, the dark money is heavily in support of Marisol Rodriguez, the candidate who entered the race late to challenge Gebhardt. Notably, Rodriguez worked for the National Alliance of Charter Schools as well as her own charter school advocacy firm. She also worked for the Walton Family Foundation, which donated millions to the NACS.

Second, the independent expenditure group that funded nearly $600,000 in support of Rodriguez and against Gebhardt is funded at least in part by the Colorado League of Charter Schools, a political action group that is, you guessed it, pro charter schools in Colorado.

Third, Gebhardt is said to have raised nearly twice that of Rodriguez from individuals and is endorsed by the statewide teacher’s association. Gebhardt was first elected to the Boulder Valley School District Board of Education in 2016 and boasts substantially more local experience in Colorado public schools than Rodriguez, and has supported charter schools at times, albeit with a nuanced approach.

Lastly, and perhaps most telling, Gov. Jared Polis has broken his silence to publicly endorse Rodriguez in the Democratic primary over Gebhardt. It’s a surprising move with seemingly little benefit to Polis, except that he’s one of the state’s most vocal supporters of charter schools.

In combination, the dark money mission in CD2 is clear: Charter school advocates are seeking to buy an influential seat on Colorado’s Board of Education to swing the majority vote toward unwavering state support for charter schools. And given the substantial issues with charter school accountability in Colorado as of late, it’s a worrying trajectory for state education policy.

But the CD2 race isn’t the only one being unfairly swayed by deep pockets. Mere days before the election, another super PAC tied to former DaVita CEO Kent Thiry dropped $1.1 million on 13 different races in Colorado, hoping to sway voters toward its preferred outcomes. The money could have tangible impacts as most voters haven’t gone to the polls just yet, raising even more ethical questions about our current campaign finance laws as wealthy players can have excess influence on local races, even if they don’t live in the district.

Personally, I find the larger issue of egregious money in elections sickening. Elections should be about the people’s voice, not the outsized voice of big corporations and millionaires. In CD2, for example, dark money is coming from who knows where and being spent to buy a board seat to fund alternative schools.

But imagine if that million dollars went directly to pay public school teachers and fund supplies instead. How many lives could be changed for the better by directly pouring in money to the causes we care about versus unlimited funds being spent on shady campaign finances?

The takeaway is this: It doesn’t matter what the topic is, any political organization that seeks to use the heavy hand of dark money to unfairly influence a public election cannot and should not be trusted. In Colorado, right now that includes initiatives by charter schools organizations among many others. And until charter school advocates stop relying on dark money to influence elections, voters statewide should reject such efforts to overtake our school systems.

Trish Zornio is a scientist, lecturer and writer who has worked at some of the nation’s top universities and hospitals. She’s an avid rock climber and was a 2020 candidate for the U.S. Senate in Colorado. Trish can be found on Twitter @trish_zornio

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Trish Zornio was born in the mountains of rural northern New Hampshire and spent her teens and 20s traveling the U.S. and abroad in addition to formal studies, living in North Carolina, Michigan, Oregon, California, Colorado and for extended…
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