Whatever the future looks like for public education in our state, it’s a safe bet Ready Colorado will help shape that vision. The politically engaged, formidably funded, philosophically conservative advocacy group — spawned a couple of years ago by political play makers Josh Penry and Tyler Sandberg — has been aggressively positioning itself to be more than just a voice at the table. It aims to influence policy by championing its education-reform agenda up front at the Capitol and statewide, as well as by supporting state and local candidates who advance that agenda. At the helm is Luke Ragland, a Colorado native, Colorado State University grad and holder of a law degree from the University of Colorado. Ragland took the reins at Ready Colorado earlier this year after a stint as policy VP at nonprofit Colorado Succeeds. In today’s Q&A, Ragland fills us in on his organization’s political strategy; on the legal hurdles facing school vouchers; on the outlook for teacher unions — his group’s adversary — and more.
Colorado Politics: You previously helped shape policy at another education advocacy group, Colorado Succeeds; in your college days you organized and led the fight against a tuition hike at Colorado State. Why your involvement in education reform? What first inspired you?
Luke Ragland: I come from a modest background in rural southwest Colorado and was a first-generation college student. Hard-working teachers changed the trajectory of my life and opened a world of opportunity for me. Unfortunately, that’s not the reality for a lot of kids in Colorado. I work in education reform because I want to make sure that every student has the opportunity to reach their full potential — and that starts with a good education.
CP: Some other prominent center-right groups aggressively promote school choice in the state. And there’s no shortage of political money that is raised every election cycle by various groups and individuals, and spend directly and indirectly on behalf of conservative candidates who inevitable support your same causes. Were does Ready Colorado fit in? What’s the perceived need? How would you define your organization?
LR: Ready Colorado is state's leading conservative voice for education reform. There are a lot of center-right groups that support school choice, but none that have education reform as their sole focus. I want Ready Colorado to help amplify the great work being done to promote school choice by other organizations and policymakers. Republicans shouldn’t merely be supportive of education reform; they should be driving the conversation about how we can improve schools. And I don’t think it’s inevitable that Republicans will always support conservative education policies. Over the last few years we’ve seen several examples of Republicans siding with the status quo by voting against school choice and taxpayer accountability. The bottom line is that I support policymakers who work for students and families, not systems and government.
CP: Ready Colorado openly leans Republican and has spent generously from its sizable campaign war chest on partisan legislative races as well as nonpartisan school board races. Yet education reform, including some school choice endeavors like charter schools, increasingly is championed on both sides of the aisle. Are you more about electing Republicans or electing supporters of education reform? Do you work with Democrats?
LR: We are laser-focused on improving Colorado’s schools and believe that our conservative vision for Colorado’s education system is the best way to make that happen. I am a conservative Republican, but this isn’t about partisanship. I’ll work with anyone who wants to help make things better for Colorado’s kids.
CP: Charter schools have proven immensely popular in Colorado, and the movement has grown by leaps and bounds. Yet, various hurdles remain at both the state and local levels, ranging from arguable funding inequities to local school boards that simply don’t look favorably upon charters. Ready Colorado already helped lower one of those hurdles last spring in advancing a funding equalization measure for charter schools via the legislature. What more has to be done to assist charter schools, and what role will you play?
LR: The largest barrier to expanding quality school choice in Colorado is the monopoly that school districts have over opening charter schools. Each school district has the ability to block charter schools from opening in their district, regardless of how many parents want the school to open or the applicant’s track record for success. This is a top priority and we are exploring a variety of ways to eliminate this monopoly.
CP: You’re a lawyer, too. Give us your best, educated guess as to what’s next for Douglas County School District’s much-debated, still-unimplemented school voucher program—now that the U.S. Supreme Court has ordered Colorado’s Courts to reconsider their ruling two years ago that the program was unconstitutional.
LR: The provision in Colorado’s Constitution—often called a Blaine Amendment—that blocked the voucher program is on very thin ice. The US Supreme Court recently sent a clear signal that it is ready to strike down Blaine Amendments across the country when it ruled that a similar Missouri law was unconstitutional. Blaine Amendments have a nasty origin story of discrimination against religious minorities and should be erased from Colorado’s foundational document. The main snag here is whether the Douglas County School District will keep the program going after this fall’s election. There are several people running who want to end the program and moot the case. If just one of these people win, the anti-school choice slate will have the majority.
CP: What will the public education landscape in Colorado look like in 25 years? Will vouchers be a part of it? How about online learning? Other policies now considered novel or that aren’t yet even off the drawing board?
LR: I think that the main trend you will see in education is decentralization. The old top-down, command-and-control models of education simply cannot adapt fast enough to meet the needs of a future where artificial intelligence disrupts every aspect of our lives. I predict (and hope) that parents will gain more and more control over their child’s education, choosing not only the right school for their child, but also the specific courses and educators. Traditional schools will still exist and thrive, but parents will have alternative options as well.
CP: Among your most formidable adversaries, publicly speaking, are public teacher unions. Yet, their membership has been in decline across the country. Are they on the wane, and will that make your job easier? At the same time, are there ways in which teachers unions contribute positively to public education in your estimation?
LR: Teachers are the most important component of any education system. They work hard for little pay and create incredible value for society. Teacher’s unions, on the other hand, are trapped in an old-school labor mentality that fails to serve the needs of their members and act as the main impediment to improvement. I think union membership is dropping because teachers recognize this fact. The mandatory public retirement program for teachers (PERA) is the perfect example: The union defends PERA at all costs, even though it fails to put the vast majority of teachers on the path to a secure retirement. Teachers are starting to ask their union tough questions and they don’t like what they are hearing back.