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Fact-checking a pro-reform Denver school board mailer making claims about choice and pollution

A mailer from a pro-reform political committee seeks to raise fears that a union-backed candidate would take away school choice.
A mailer from a pro-reform political committee seeks to raise fears that a union-backed candidate would take away school choice.

A late-hour campaign mailer from a pro-education reform political committee accuses the teachers union-endorsed candidate in Denver’s at-large school board race of wanting to take away school choice and blaming students for pollution.

Better Schools for a Stronger Colorado is associated with Stand for Children, which supports school choice. Stand has endorsed Alexis Menocal Harrigan in the at-large race. Union-endorsed Tay Anderson has been critical of the district’s embrace of school choice. The mailer’s rhetoric speaks to the stakes of the election, which could see the board majority shift away from support for certain education reform policies for the first time in recent history.

Chalkbeat has been fact-checking mailers that voters are finding in their mailboxes and providing additional context on candidates’ positions.

This mailer both features positive information about Menocal Harrigan and compares the two candidates in terms unflattering to Anderson. It repeats several claims that the political committee has also made in recent Facebook ads: that Anderson “wants to take away parents’ rights to decide the best learning environment for their child” and “blamed Denver students and families for pollution and traffic congestion.”

Colorado state law allows any student to enroll in any public school that has room for them, and no school board or school board member could take away that right without changing state law.

Denver’s single enrollment system for charter and district-run schools makes that process easier for parents than in most districts and reflects years of district policy.

Anderson, who used school choice as a student, has said the current system creates winners and losers and that Denver needs to make sure students have good options close to home. Anderson said Saturday he would not make any changes to Denver’s enrollment system.

“My plan is never to make it harder for a family,” he said. “I would just like to say, look in your neighborhood, and you should have great options in your neighborhood.”

The pollution claim is based on Anderson’s answer to a question at a televised forum. During a “lightning round” in which candidates were asked to give a thumbs-up or thumbs-down, Anderson, Menocal Harrigan, and the third candidate in the race, Natela Manuntseva, were asked whether they thought increased traffic and pollution were an “unintended consequence” of students using school choice to travel outside their neighborhoods to attend school.

Menocal Harrigan and Manuntseva gave a thumbs-down. Anderson gave a thumbs-up. The candidates were not given a chance to clarify their answers.

In an interview, Anderson said he doesn’t blame families for traveling outside their neighborhoods, but rather blames a system that doesn’t provide good schools where families live, thus pushing them to go elsewhere. Anderson has also said that he would work with the city and RTD to improve transportation options for students.

During his unsuccessful 2017 race, Anderson called for a moratorium on charter schools, but he said he no longer supports that idea. In this race, he has said the district should not open new schools until it shows it can adequately fund existing ones.

Independent expenditure committees are prohibited from coordinating with candidates, and Menocal Harrigan has said she condemns negative ads.

Pointing to Anderson’s repeated statements that the current system “isn’t working,” Krista Spurgin, executive director of Stand for Children’s Colorado chapter, defended the mailer and Facebook ads in an email.

“We work with families who use the choice system, families who are passionate supporters of the school in their neighborhood, and families who love and feel passionate about their charter, innovation, and traditional schools,” she said. “Because of our work with parents, we know changes to the portfolio model that [Denver Public Schools] uses are a real concern for parents.”

This story has been updated to include a response from Stand for Children.

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