A Special Place in Hell

Terrence Moore

April 1, 2007

The vast majority of visions offered of the afterlife, whether that of Dante or the ordinary man on the street, figure that the fires of Hell will be reserved for murderers, thieves, rapists, and other malefactors, while a rather better fate awaits faithful saints, brave warriors, and the caretakers of children. The Democratic education leadership of the Colorado state legislature apparently has greater insights into such matters than the rest of us. Among them one will find the new Dante: State Representative Mike Merrifield, until a couple of weeks ago chairman of the House committee on education. In a private e-mail to Sue Windels, the state Senate education chairwoman and long-time choice opponent, Merrifield proclaimed, “There must be a special place in Hell for these Privatizers, Charerizers [sic] and Voucherizers!” Thus Merrifield condemns to their own circle in the Inferno parents and public-spirited men and women who want to give children a chance to leave a failing public school system and enter schools in which they will actually learn to read, write, do math, and think about important things. Due to public uproar, Merrifield resigned his position as chairman. However satisfying that resignation may be for the moment, the legislator’s opinions are hardly unique to him. Rather, they finally bring to light the true animosity and contempt the educational establishment has for school reform and not a little about the establishment’s methods as well.

The venomous statement against school reformers was made in the context of Merrifield’s and Windels’s plans of abolishing the Charter School Institute, a board created under bipartisan leadership to authorize charter schools in the state, especially in districts hostile to the formation of charters. Not surprisingly, the hostile districts constantly invoke the deceptively Federalist-sounding watchword “local control of schools.” Translation: groups of parents and school founders wanting a better education for children who are constantly rebuffed by local school boards controlled by ed-school professors, union activists, and retired public-school teachers and administrators.

Just how hostile those districts can be is well illustrated by the heavy-handed tactics used by the Poudre School District of Fort Collins against the charter school of which I am principal. Though boasting a steadily growing enrollment, a substantial waiting list, a strong financial balance sheet, and the unique advantage of being ranked as the number-one public high school in the state, Ridgeview was treated to a grueling re-chartering process spearheaded by a notoriously anti-charter lawyer who attempted to revise in every place he could the original charter contract that had been working for five years. Particularly egregious was the district’s attempt to change our governing structure and the funding system used by every district in the state of Colorado, of course to the financial disadvantage of the charter school. Only after a successful appeal to the state board of education was the school able to obtain a contract even slightly to its liking. Throughout the process the school knew it had the option of seeking a charter though the state Charter School Institute, an option that at least allowed our teachers and parents to sleep at night during the months of unnecessary “negotiations.”

Should the Institute be abolished, the writing will be on the wall for charter-district negotiations. Local school districts will be able to bully charters even more or deny their applications altogether. Not surprisingly the PSD board, in league with two other districts in the state, has sued to have the Charter School Institute abolished. This same board has at another time voted illegally to limit the number of students who may attend charter schools in the district, a de facto limitation on the formation of any new charter schools that could be countered only by the existence of a state chartering authority. Thus far the attempts on the part of hostile districts to limit the scope and number of charter schools have not met with much success. The 2006 state elections that put Democrats in control of both houses of the legislature and the governorship have given local districts reason to hope that they have powerful allies at the state level.

Every school reformer in the state suspects that the Democratic assault on the Charter School Institute will be only the first battle in a war to undo the impressive school-choice legacy of Governor Owens and his fellow Republicans over the last decade and a half. Representative Merrifield’s revealing e-mail suggests that those fears are far from paranoia. The continuing battle over charter schools in Colorado should offer a lesson to the rest of the nation in the 2008 elections. Anyone who assumes that the gains made by “charterizers” and “voucherizers” will remain safe with Democrats at the helm (with a few notable exceptions) would do well to remind themselves of the words the real Dante placed above the entrance to Inferno: “Abandon Hope, All Ye Who Enter Here.”

Terrence Moore is the principal of Ridgeview Classical Schools, a K-12 charter school in Fort Collins, Colorado. Ridgeview’s high school has been ranked the number-one public high school on the annual State Accountability Report for the past two years.