Cary Kennedy, a former state treasurer now running for governor in Colorado, said she has been "blessed" to be able to send her own children to private school. But at the same time she is running on an education platform solidly opposed to voucher programs, which help move some children out of a failing public school and into a private school.
Many on the right have long criticized these kinds of arrangements as fundamental hypocrisy on education policy, something Kennedy was asked about at a recently televised debate.
"Cary, you're opposed to vouchers in education, and yet you sent your own kids to private school through eighth grade," said Shaun Boyd, a reporter with the local CBS affiliate. "What do you say to parents who want that same opportunity for their kids but can’t afford it?"
"I don't support taking public money—public taxpayer money—out of the public education system to send it to private school in the form of vouchers." Kennedy went on to say she believes voucher systems leave the overall public school system with "diminishing resources."
But Boyd pushed the issue.
"But you would understand where some people would say, ‘This isn't fair, really. You send your own kids to private school,' but you say to them, ‘No, you've gotta stay in your failing neighborhood school and we're not going to help you with choice.'"
"I feel really lucky, I feel blessed, that we were able to send our kids to a school that supported their individual learning needs. And I have worked on this issue my entire career because I believe every one of Colorado's kids deserves that great education."
Going into the election season, the presumed front-runner in the primary has been Jared Polis, currently serving as the representative to Colorado’s Second Congressional District anchored in Boulder, a Democratic stronghold. Two recent polls show him with about a 10-point lead over Kennedy, with many undecideds remaining.
According to Chalkbeat Colorado, Polis has twice claimed Kennedy was previously a supporter of vouchers, and Kennedy’s campaign has denied it both times.
However, Alex Cranberg, one of the biggest donors and leading proponents of education reform in Colorado and other states, told the Free Beacon he remembers Kennedy as a voucher supporter around 2003.
"Cary had a very supportive attitude toward my and Children’s Campaign work on vouchers for low income, poorly performing students at poorly rated schools," Cranberg told the Free Beacon via text. "She was at Childrens (sic) Campaign while the campaign worked hard with us on a legislative effort to ‘fix' some technical flaws on the basis of which the Supreme Court ruled."
Cranberg was referring to a 2004 decision by the Colorado Supreme Court upholding a lower court ruling that the voucher law in question did not adhere to the state constitution for issues related to local control.
"Cary has never supported vouchers and doesn’t believe public money should go to private schools," said Serena Woods with the Kennedy campaign. The campaign did not respond to a request to elaborate further on the debate response about private schooling.
"It's ‘choice for me, not for thee,'" said John Schilling, president of the American Federation for Children, in an email. "We applaud families with means exercising school choice because they want what’s best for their children. But the notion that choice in K-12 education should be reserved only for families with means is appalling."
Derrell Bradford is the executive vice president of 50can, an organization that advocates for charter schools and other choice options around the country. As a student, he went to both private and public schools, but says his time in private school was "life changing" and believes it may have been for others as well.
"I don't begrudge anyone the right to send their child to the school that is the best fit," Bradford said. "Parents know their children best. But you cannot hold the position that it's great for you to be able to choose but not for others to make similar choices with a straight face. In a democratic primary you'd think there'd be some acknowledgment of the positive role private schools—and scholarships, government-funded or otherwise—play in the educational development of America's kids of color. Catholic schools and an elite independent day school in Hawaii gave us the country's first black president. Underperforming public schools and opposition to private school choice might be why it took so long."
Given Polis's status as the front runner, Kennedy surprised many when she won a nonbinding straw poll at Democratic caucusing in March and then won a solid majority of the rank and file at the state party assembly in April, giving her the coveted top line on the primary ballot.
Much of that success with party activists, however, is attributed to her backing from the Colorado Education Association (CEA), the state’s largest teachers’ union, and the likelihood that many of those who are politically motivated enough to go to caucus and to the state assembly are oftentimes also members of the CEA.
This alliance between Kennedy and the CEA hasn't necessarily paved a smoother road for the candidate, either.
For example, the CEA was just busted by a local television station for sending out "blatantly false" information to its members about another candidate in the contest, former state senator Mike Johnston.
"The CEA was unable to explain why the fabricated claim was made," the report by KUSA noted.
The report held the CEA accountable for the misinformation and not Kennedy, but it still was another instance in which a news story reminded voters that Kennedy has been accused of not adhering to the pledge all the Democratic candidates made to run a clean campaign with no attack ads precisely because of the messages and advertisements of third-party supporters.
"Kennedy has refused to distance herself from negative attack ads funded by teachers' unions against her Democratic rivals, Johnston and Rep. Jared Polis," the KUSA report declared.
The same Democratic assembly in which Kennedy won top line on the ballot was notable for other education moments. Delegates there told an organization known as Democrats for Education Reform (DFER) they could no longer use the word "Democrats" in their name.
"DFER Colorado State Director Jennifer Walmer was clearly emotional as she defended her organizational and personal commitment to the Democratic Party," another report from Chalkbeat said. "She was booed throughout her remarks and stopped speaking at one point to ask to be allowed to continue."
Mail ballots were distributed earlier this month, and as of Tuesday, just over 425,000 had been returned, according to the Colorado secretary of state’s office. Voting wraps up next Tuesday.
Adding to the complexity, this year's vote in Colorado will be the first in which unaffiliated voters can participate in a party primary vote. However, an unaffiliated voter who wishes to do so can only vote in a single party primary. Yet the new wrinkle adds roughly 1.1 million new voters for Republicans and Democrats to chase, a population they’ve only had to appeal to in past general elections, but not party primaries. Unaffiliated voters outnumber both registered Republicans and Democrats, according to data from the secretary of state's office from February.
The race has lacked the dropouts and consolidation behind a single candidate through endorsements that one might typically associate with a presidential race.
A candidate must only win a plurality of votes in the primary to advance as the nominee, meaning that based on current polling, undecided or unaffiliated voters will likely have to break hard for Kennedy or for Johnston in order for either of them to steal the nomination from Polis.