Denver public schools_DCIS Montbello

A student raises her hand at DCIS Montbello during a reading assignment in a classroom at the Denver school in May.

I’ve grown cynical about the prospects for meaningful compromise between Democrats and Republicans.

For Republicans to matter in this state again, my friends on the right need a playbook, and it’s time to get back to the basics on issues, because it’s evident who’s losing the culture wars in the West.

That's why Colorado Republicans would be wise to stay out of this critical race theory imbroglio that's simmering. The pejorative term has been applied to teaching Black history, and in the culture war inflamed by George Floyd's murder and Black Lives Matter protests — in addition to a desperate need to change the subject — the possibility of kids learning about Harriet Tubman and Malcolm X in school is a bridge too far.

NBC had a report Monday that quoted former Trump adviser Steve Bannon from his May podcast: “The path to save the nation is very simple — it’s going to go through the school boards.”

In Colorado, Republicans are already paying a high price for being on the wrong side of public sentiment. They should sit this one out, even though U.S. Rep. Doug Lamborn of Colorado Springs has convinced some a book on a suggested reading list is exposing sailors to a "woke, Marxist ideology."

Lamborn has five military installations in his district (none of them are run by the Navy), and he sits on the House Armed Services Committee. He hashtagged his tweet with #CriticalRaceTheory.

Attacking school curriculum and what sailors might choose to read won't dig the GOP out of the hole they're in in Colorado. Showing bipartisan success, however, will be a leg up.

When I arrived on the scene 20 years ago, the Colorado Democratic Party looked a lot like the Colorado Republican Party now: lost.

The comeback was led in part by a millionaire florist from Boulder named Jared Polis, who stepped onto the public stage as a member of the state school board before he won a seat in Congress.

When he became governor in 2019, he was joined by Democratic majorities in the state House and Senate. Only one remaining Republican elected statewide is in office, University of Colorado Regent At-Large Heidi Ganahl.

Yet this session, as the General Assembly swerved hard to the left, statehouse Republicans managed to protect and even expand school choice, helping beat back a proposal that would have given school boards more latitude to reject new charter schools. 

They also worked with Democrats to raise the cap on the "moral obligation program," to reduce the cost of loans for charter schools. Both parties worked like they always should on helping schools recover from closures and programs to increase tutoring and job training.

What was best for kids and families shined through, which will show people the right way, said another of my friends, Luke Ragland, the president of the right-leaning Ready for Colorado education advocacy outfit.

“Coloradans of all stripes value choice in education as part of their broader commitment to the spirit of Western individualism,” he told me Monday. “That’s why you see strong support among swing voters for school choice, legal marijuana and tax cuts. They believe individuals and families can make better decisions for themselves than bureaucrats and politicians sitting in Denver can.”

Colorado conservatives on education are on the right side of public opinion on schools, from where he sees it.

“It’s a point of major contrast with large swaths of the current Colorado Democratic Party,” he told me. “Some Democrats are beholden to the teachers union and other status quo forces who fund their campaigns and staff their ground games. Those defending the status quo in education focus on control of systems rather than students. They want control over curriculum, control over parents' choices, control of resources and control of power.

“They are fighting for a one-size-fits-all system that is anathema to core Colorado values.”

He went on.

“Conservatives should use every opportunity they have to remind voters that they want to empower families to have choices in education, while the left wants to take those choices away,” Luke said. “That is a very powerful case to make.”

There are thoughtful and bright GOP lawmakers who deserve a better-positioned seat at the table. State Rep. Colin Larsen, a talented young Republican lawmaker from Littleton, and GOP Sen. Paul Lundeen of Monument sit on the House and Senate education committees, respectively, and they're among the assembly's most bipartisan members when it comes to doing what's best for students, over politics.

Former Sen. Owen Hill of Colorado Springs is another smart Republican cookie on education policy, and Sen. Bob Gardner, another Springs Republican, helped found a charter school. The legislature will long miss term-limited Rep. Jim Wilson of Salida, a former coach, a teacher, a principal and a superintendent who shaped state policy for eight years like he shaped young minds. His motives were above question.

Meaningful input is not in short supply on the right side of the aisle, but it won’t be heard if the messengers bear torches and pitchforks instead of the open hand of allies. Kids deserve no less.

It’s time to focus on the three Rs — raising standards, reaching across the aisle and rethinking the politics of the greater good.

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