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Why is George Bush Wading Into Denver's Education Debate on the Eve of Critical School Board Elections? | The Nation

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John Nichols

John Nichols

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Why is George Bush Wading Into Denver's Education Debate on the Eve of Critical School Board Elections?

Former President George W. Bush, whose administration once made a big deal about its diplomatic engagement with Libyan dictator Muammar Qaddafi, won’t talk about the recent unfortunate turn of events for the strongman. And don’t try to get Bush started on any of those pesky questions about jobs and the economy that his administration ran into the ground. He’s not talking.

But if you want to talk about how the schools in Denver, Colorado, should be run, Bush’s has got plenty to say.

“I’m out of politics… but I still have a great passion about educational excellence,” Bush announced when he showed up in Denver last Thursday.

But the scheduling of Bush’s visit to the city’s “Get Smart Schools” program couldn’t have been more political. Indeed, advocates for public education in what has become the most intense school board election in the country are bluntly suggesting that Bush’s visit was “politically timed.”

Appearing in Colorado’s largest city barely ten days before the most hotly contested school board elections in the the community’s history, Bush talked up an education agenda being advanced by so-called school “reformers,” who have been backed by wealthy oil barons and national conservative groups that want to see Denver experiment with school charter, school choice and privatization schemes. And he did so with Denver Mayor Michael Hancock at his side.

Hancock, a Democrat, has waded into the Denver School Board competition, endorsing candidates favored by the out-of-town special interests and suggesting that if things didn’t go they way he may reverse his previous position and press for mayoral control of Denver schools.

Emily Sirota, a Denver school board candidate who has campaigned on behalf of maintaining strong public schools—and assuring that those schools are run by elected representatives of the people, rather than outside interests or powerful politicians—has been countering Hancock. “I agree with Mayor Hancock that the current school board is overly divisive and dysfunctional. In fact, that’s exactly why I’m running for school board—to finally put an end to the bickering and refocus our schools on the needs of our kids,” says Sirota. “However, the mayor only added to the current divisiveness and dysfunction when he needlessly inserted himself into the school board election. Additionally, he’s now making matters even worse with his suggestion that he may be open to trying to disband the elected school board unless his handpicked slate of candidates is successful in buying the upcoming election. Voters aren’t interested in that kind of extortion. That’s not a way to forge consensus and refocus DPS on the needs of our kids, which should be our top priority.”

When Bush showed up and appeared with the mayor, Sirota pushed back even harder, suggesting that the mayor was wrong for “praising the No Child Left Behind Act during President George W. Bush’s politically timed visit to Denver today.”

“Mayor Hancock has rightly decried divisiveness and dysfunction in our education system—but standing with George W. Bush during an election-timed visit is not the way to start fixing that problem, nor are his comments today promoting the failed No Child Left Behind policy that has so harmed our schools,” said Sirota. “No Child Left Behind is one of the most destructive education policies enacted in the last 10 years. Our mayor’s behavior today only draws unnecessary lines in the sand, while needlessly undermining the important work of Senator Bennet, who is working to finally reform No Child Left Behind. If there’s any good news out of President Bush’s visit to Denver, it is that Superintendent [Tom] Boasberg, unlike our Mayor, had the guts to speak out against No Child Left Behind. His statements suggest that he recognizes that we need to couple accountability with a reinvestment in our schools.”

The November 1 Denver School Board election has already attracted more than $600,000 in campaign donations, with much of the money coming in the form of $10,000 and $25,000 checks to candidates backed by groups that favor the school choice, charter school and privatization schemes. Sirota is running one of three races in the city. She’s being massively outspent, yet is generally seen as running a competitive race.

If Sirota wins, the likelihood is that control of the School Board will flip from the so-called “reformers” to a pro–public education majority.

Why all the attention to the Denver race? In fact, special-interest groups are pouring money into school board an state board of education races across the country this year. But the Denver race is critical, as it could shift the direction of one of the nation’s largest urban school districts and send powerful signals regarding the direction of public education nationally.

(John Nichols and Robert McChesney, co-founders of the media reform group Free Press, wrote the groundbreaking examination of the collision of big money and bad media, “The Money & Media Election Complex,” for The Nation. Their examination of the damage done to democracy by the billionaire-dollar campaigns and the decline of journalism, Dollarocracy, will be published next year by Nation Books.)

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