More Questions (and Ducking) on New Jeffco School Board

Ken Witt

Jeffco School Board President Ken Witt: Silent but Deadly?

Following up on a story that first appeared here at Colorado Pols (and Jeffco Pols), Zahira Torres of the Denver Post digs into the strange goings-on among the three new members of the Jefferson County School Board:

The Jefferson County school board's new majority may have skirted a law that requires them to conduct business openly by hiring an attorney without a public interview process, according to an open-government expert.

Thomas Kelley, a lawyer for the Colorado Press Association and The Denver Post, said the board's 3-2 decision last week to hire Colorado Springs-based law firm Miller Sparks LLC may have violated the state's open-meetings act, which requires board members to conduct business in public.

"It's not all that common for a board of a public entity to, by itself, conduct interviews, but when they do, at least when it doesn't involve interviews for a personnel position, they have to do those interviews in public," Kelley said.

Led by board president Ken Witt, the majority hired Miller Sparks to represent the school board without seeking proposals for the contract, publicly vetting the candidates or getting cost estimates. Witt and board members Julie Williams and John Newkirk — who were elected in November on a conservative platform — did not return phone calls seeking comment. [Pols emphasis]

 

New board members Ken Witt, Julie Williams, and John Newkirk continue to thumb their noses at the idea of an open and transparent government. The trio has consistently refused to speak to the media, not returning calls for this story or an editorial that appeared yesterday in the Post. From Post editorial writer Alicia Caldwell:

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New Jeffco School Board Members Already Breaking Law, Spending Money

UPDATE: There may be much more to this story than originally thought. Check out this information from Examiner.com:

Although Witt did not provide the board or the public with information about the terms of compensation, the Loveland Reporter-Herald states that Thompson School Board is currently considering a contract with Miller’s firm, Miller Sparks LLC, to represent their school board at hourly rates of $225 and $205, respectively.

The Reporter-Herald also stated that on Wednesday, Dec. 11, Thompson School Board President Bob Kerrigan told his school board that Miller Sparks was the “Colorado Springs-based law firm that currently represents Jefferson County schools.”

Kerrigan’s comment raises additional questions, because Jeffco’s contract with Miller was not approved until 24 hours later at Jeffco’s regular school board meeting on Thursday and key details of that contract are still not available to the public. [Pols emphasis]

That last sentence is a doozy. It seems that members of the Thompson School Board knew about a new attorney in Jefferson County before some members of Jeffco's school board (let alone the public).

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The three new members of the Jefferson County School Board were sworn-in just three weeks ago, but they've already managed to break the law.

Republicans Ken Witt, John Newkirk and Julie Williams were elected in November and gained majority control of the school board when they were inaugurated on Nov. 21. The pro-charter school, anti-tax conservative slate has been quiet about their intentions since Election Day, refusing to comment in a Denver Post story published one day before their swearing-in ceremony, but all three were supported by Alex Cranberg-funded pro-voucher groups — the type that have advocated for recent "reforms" similar to those that have plagued Douglas County Schools in recent years.

At last night's Jeffco School Board meeting, Witt, Newkirk, and Williams surprised fellow board members Lesley Dahlkemper and Jill Fellman by announcing that they had extended an offer to Colorado Springs-based attorney and charter-school advocate Brad Miller to represent the board on legal matters — even though the district already has a chief legal counsel (Allen Taggert is retiring at the end of the month, but the school district already had a transition plan in place for a new attorney). Witt told the board that it was important to have Miller in place before Saturday's Board Retreat, though he did not provide information about the cost or other specifics regarding Miller's offer. Witt, Newkirk, and Williams shrugged off questions about why there was such a rush to spend taxpayer funds on another attorney for the school district, and pushed the matter through by a vote of 3-2.

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Andy Kerr Replaces Hudak As Senate Ed Chair

Sen. Andy Kerr (D-Lakewood).

Sen. Andy Kerr (D-Lakewood).

As reported by FOX 31's Eli Stokols Sunday evening:

Senate Democrats are set to announce Monday that Sen. Andy Kerr will replace former Sen. Evie Hudak, who resigned her seat last month to avoid a recall election and preserve her party’s one-seat majority in the chamber, as the chairman of the Senate Education Committee…

Kerr was chosen over Sen. Mike Johnston, D-Denver, a former teacher and principal who also sits on the committee.

Johnston will continue to serve as chair of the Senate Finance Committee, a post he’d have had to give up to head the education committee.

A higher profile for Kerr will be good for Democrats generally, and for Kerr's own competitive re-election bid next year.

Stokols briefly discusses the background of Sen. Mike Johnston's education reform efforts, like Johnston's role in passing the controversial 2010 Senate Bill 191 "teacher accountability" legislation, as well as this year's defeated Amendment 66. Stokols traffics a bit more than we would in unsourced rumors from a conservative blog to raise the possibility that Sen. Andy Kerr was a contentious pick over Sen. Johnston (we haven't ourselves heard that). That said, we tend to agree that for the purposes of unifying Democrats after a tough 2013, Kerr is probably the better choice to lead the Education Committee.

Who Will Replace Hudak in State Senate?

FRIDAY UPDATE: Kurtis Lee of the Denver Post reports that Rep. Tracy Kraft-Tharp will not seek appointment to the SD-19 seat vacated by Sen. Evie Hudak. Rep. Kraft-Tharpe reportedly endorses former Rep. Sara Gagliardi.

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Democrat Evie Hudak's resignation from the State Senate on Wednesday effectively ended the attempted recall in SD-19, but it still leaves Democrats with a significant election battle in 2014.

Rep. Tracy Kraft-Tharp

Rep. Tracy Kraft-Tharp

Hudak was re-elected to the State Senate in 2012 by a slim margin over Republican Lang Sias, which meant Democrats wouldn't need to think about the seat again until 2016. With Hudak's resignation on Wednesday, Democrats don't have to worry that a recall election might swing control of the Senate into Republican hands for the 2014 session, but they still have to think about maintaining a majority into 2015. Democrats will fill Hudak's seat through a vacancy committee, but whoever wins the appointment will have to run for a full term next year.

Democrats have represented SD-19 for the last decade, with Sue Windels serving two terms prior to Hudak's 2008 victory, but the district has not been an easy seat to hold. With the 2014 election right around the corner, Democrats have a critical decision to make when the vacancy committee convenes.

Sara Gagliardi

Former Rep. Sara Gagliardi

There is certainly time for other candidates to emerge, but as of now, it looks like a potential three-way race among Rep. Tracy Kraft-Tharp, former Rep. Sara Gagliardi, and Arvada City Council member (and a former campaign manager for Hudak in 2012) Rachel Zenzinger.

All three candidates will have their share of supporters, all three have strong credentials, and all three can make a good case for why they should get the appointment. But from a purely strategic perspective — we're not going to get into any potential policy arguments here — one makes more sense than the other two. Here's why:

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Can Naquetta Ricks Help Democrats Control CU Board of Regents?

Naquetta Ricks for CU Regent

Naquetta Ricks, Democrat for CU Regent

Colorado Democrats have had quite a run of success in the past decade-plus, taking control of both U.S. Senate seats, the Governor's Mansion, and the legislature, to name a few. But despite that success, there are still two elected bodies where Republicans still control a majority: the State Board of Education and the University of Colorado Board of Regents.

There are 9 members of the CU Board of Regents; two seats are elected "at-large," meaning in a statewide race, and the other seven are elected by voters in congressional districts. There are currently 4 Democrats on the board: Michael Carrigan (CD-1), Joe Neguse (CD-2), Irene Griego (CD-7), and Stephen Ludwig (at-large). Assuming Democrats can retain control of seats in CD-2 and CD-7, that leaves one 2014 opening that could swing the district…CD-6.

Democrat Naquetta Ricks is kicking off her campaign for Regent in CD-6 tonight with an impressive list of endorsements already under her belt. Ricks is currently the only candidate for the open seat being vacated by Republican Jim Geddes, who was elected in 2008 — before redistricting — and cannot seek re-election because he no longer lives in the district (Geddes was just elected to the Douglas County School Board anyway). The new CD-6, as we all know, went from a safe Republican seat to a toss-up after redistricting; in fact, President Obama carried CD-6 in 2012 by a 52-47 margin (Republican John McCain carried the district 53-46 in 2008).

If Ricks can win her race for CU Regent, and CD-2 and CD-7 remain in Democratic hands, the CU Board of Regents would be under Democratic control for the first time in decades.

Why Amendment 66 Got Slaughtered, Part 1

A metaphor.

A metaphor.

FOX 31's Eli Stokols offers some solid insights into last night's biggest story in Colorado politics, the crushing defeat of the Amendment 66 school finance measure by a 65-35% margin:

After an election in which fewer than 1.2 million Coloradans — roughly 30 percent of the electorate — cast ballots, it’s hard to draw too many big conclusions about our state.

But it’s safe to say that the overwhelming defeat of Amendment 66, an income tax hike that would have funded a number of education reforms, is another reminder of the near-impossibility of raising taxes under TABOR and another rebuke to the Democrats who control the state Capitol…

Democrats trying to convince their neighbors to approve the tax hike, from Gov. John Hickenlooper with his diminished approval ratings on down, did so with a weakened hand. In some ways, the party appears to have lost the trust of the state’s swing voters, the suburban women; Tuesday’s overwhelming defeat of Amendment 66 by a two-to-one margin (the Yes on 66 campaign still thought it had a chance to win as of just a week ago) shows their message never really resonated with moderates, never mind many Democrats (even in liberal Denver, voters were split on it).

Convincing voters to raise their own taxes is going to take more than politicians, smart strategists and willing donors. It’s probably going to take a genuine grassroots movement.

In 2011, a much smaller and less-funded coalition attempted to pass a smaller tax measure to fund public education, Proposition 103. Proposition 103 failed by a 64-36% margin after spending about $600,000 on the campaign. The highest-profile face of the Proposition 103 campaign was Sen. Rollie Heath, the longsuffering 2002 Democratic gubernatorial candidate who lost by a mile to Bill Owens. In the aftermath of Proposition 103's defeat, much of the blame was laid at the feet of Heath and the underpowered coalition backing the initiative.

Today, Rollie Heath should feel a little better. Two years after Proposition 103, a ten million dollar campaign for Amendment 66, headlined by Gov. John Hickenlooper with a much larger coalition, performed even worse than Proposition 103. The question is, why?

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…But They Will Tax Weed

weedopen

The Colorado Independent's Shelby Kinney-Lang reports on the statewide tax measure that did pass yesterday in Colorado:

Coloradans on Tuesday passed a meaty statewide sin tax on pot in Proposition AA, handing a windfall to the state’s emerging marijuana regulatory regime and some yet-to be determined amount to local school budgets.

The first $40 million taken in will be set aside for the state’s BEST school construction grant program, which can be used to build new schools or improve existing school buildings. That’s the only money to be generated from Proposition AA promised to a specific program, according to state regulators at the Department of Revenue, which oversees the Marijuana Enforcement Division.

“If there is additional revenue, it has to be appropriated by the General Assembly, which can be for the regulatory structure, as well as related costs for health, education and public safety,” Daria Serna, communications director at the Department of Revenue, told the Independent in an email…

[B]ecause HB 13-1317 is not constitutional, there are no strong rules governing the revenue, which means the legislature, after funding the new enforcement division, will use the Marijuana Cash Fund as it likes. [Pols emphasis]

A major unknown question is what the actual cost of regulating the commercial sale of marijuana will be. There's a good possibility that the regulatory regime won't cost anywhere near the amount Proposition AA will collect. After a suitable period cautiously banking those excesses, it's entirely likely that marijuana taxes will provide a revenue stream above and beyond the current stated purposes of school construction grants and regulation of the industry.

We've said repeatedly that a major factor in voter approval of 2012's Amendment 64 legalizing marijuana was the opportunity for a new and robust tax revenue source. The extremely high profit margins for medical marijuana presently sold in Colorado strongly suggest these taxes can be absorbed in the market price of the product. If that's true, concern about driving consumers "back to the back market" will quickly prove unfounded.

Beyond the larger issues of justice and harm reduction, it's the money that will make commercialized marijuana a success in Colorado. Money to be made, and to be taxed. It's worth remembering that House Bill 13-1318, which referred Proposition AA to the ballot, passed the Colorado House on a party-line vote. In an election short on victories, this is a win Democrats can at least partly console themselves with today.

Gessler “Suspends Campaign” To Help In School Board Race

UPDATE #2: Colorado Community Media's Jane Reuter:

Gessler asked for support from other conservatives to knock on doors, and said he also would have some paid opportunities.

As Secretary of State, Gessler is charged with overseeing and administering Colorado’s election code, voter registration and campaign finance laws.

Gessler’s political director did not respond directly when asked if the Secretary of State’s involvement in the board election was appropriate, given the office’s stated mission to “ensure the integrity of elections.”

Gessler “is not afraid to lead when the future of education in Colorado is at stake,” Rory McShane responded through an email, adding that election integrity is Gessler’s top priority. “If not Scott Gessler, then who? Where are the other candidates with the courage to fight for the future of education in Colorado?”

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UPDATE: The Denver Post's Lynn Bartels reports:

“We are currently following and will continue to follow all campaign finance laws,” [Gessler political director Rory] McShane said.

Campaign finance laws prevent a candidate committee from accepting contributions or making donations to another candidate committee…

McShane said groups supporting the conservative school board candidates are paying the walkers, not Gessler’s gubernatorial campaign but that’s not how critics read the missives.

In fact, there's nothing in the messages posted by Scott Gessler's campaign clarifying that at all, but there's your answer on the legality question.

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Scott Gessler.

Scott Gessler.

An "important update" from Colorado Secretary of State Scott Gessler's gubernatorial campaign today:

I’m a firm believer that we conservatives need to be team players. That means sometimes we do something that’s inconvenient or difficult because it advances the cause of liberty that we all believe in. As you know, Conservative Education is one of my top priorities, and I’m proud that it’s a front-and-center issue in my campaign.

Nowhere in this country is the battle for conservative reform more pronounced than in Douglas County, just south of Denver. If we’re able to defeat the union-funded liberals there, we have hope for defending education across Colorado.

Against the advice of the Denver political elites, I’ve ordered my campaign for Governor to shift focus for the next week until the Douglas County elections, to ensure that conservatives are victorious this year. [Pols emphasis]

We’re actively recruiting door-knockers to get out the vote. We also have paid opportunities – but we need you if we’re going to be successful as a team.

First of all…"Denver elites?" He's the Colorado Secretary of State.

Moving past that, according to the announcement on Gessler's Facebook page, he's hiring "walkers" for the Douglas County school board races at the competitive rate of $11 an hour. One the one hand, there's not a lot to lose by spending time in conservative Douglas County as a Republican gubernatorial primary contender. On the other, why would he hire staffers to help campaign for Douglas County school board candidates? The upside of ingratiating himself to those involved in those admittedly hot races just doesn't seem like it's worth funding a field campaign. It's not the first time that Gessler has behaved in what seems to be an erratic and tangential way on the campaign trail, but perhaps it will pay off beyond our visible horizon.

One possible explanation might be the support Gessler has received from former U.S. Senate candidate and state board of education chair Bob Schaffer. The "voucherization" scheme at the heart of the controversy in these school board races is one of Schaffer's pet issues, and apparently Gessler's as well–to the extent that he capitalized "Conservative Education" for emphasis.

And of course, this must all be legal, because it's our own Secretary of State doing it (pregnant pause). Right?

GOP Too Extreme? CU’s “Conservative Thought” Prof Says No

Dr. Steven Hayward, CU's

Dr. Steven Hayward, CU

Sarah Kuta of the Boulder Daily Camera reports:

The University of Colorado's Steven Hayward says the Republican Party served Americans well when it pushed back against President Barack Obama and the Affordable Care Act.

"Is the Republican Party too extreme?" Hayward asked. "My answer is, 'I certainly hope so.' It may not have chosen the best tactics in recent weeks, but it's doing us a service in making a fight about these matters."

"A lot of liberals these days have contempt for our democratic form," Hayward said. "Many of them, if they could work their will, would throw out the Constitution entirely. But somehow it's the Republicans who are called extremists." [Pols emphasis]

Wow! And just so Steven Hayward, the University of Colorado's "visiting scholar in conservative thought and policy," is in no way misunderstood, the recent government shutdown/default drama in Washington is exactly the way the Founders intended our government to operate:

Hayward, who is teaching two classes this semester at CU, pointed to James Madison and his Federalist Papers, which he said more than 150 years ago correctly predicted the state of today's government.

"James Madison is saying, 'Of course we're going to have some really ugly fights like this.' So why the liberal freak-out [Pols emphasis] over our government operating exactly as Madison understood that it would?" Hayward said.

As readers know, we've taken a dim view of the years-long quest by University of Colorado President Bruce Benson to achieve "ideological balance" on the state's flagship university campus by recruiting politically conservative professors. With that in mind, we've defended the particular choice of Dr. Hayward for this position despite the fact that we consider the position itself needless and kind of silly. Whatever "affirmative action" may have been needed to bring Dr. Hayward to the CU campus, he is academically well qualified to be there.

But as for the argument Dr. Hayward making about Republicans and the recent shutdown, all we can say is that the public does not agree with his assessment. A recent poll shows that fully 77 percent of the public, including 3 out of 5 Republicans, disapprove of the GOP's handling of this latest round of budget negotiations. Hayward may be able to find some bit of rhetoric in the Federalist Papers to theoretically justify the GOP's recent fiscal brinkmanship, but the polls say he is arguing a minority opinion even among his fellow Republicans.

And with all due respect, that would seem to have limited educational value.

New video exposes “Amendment 66: The PERA Fiction”

(Promoted by Colorado Pols)

The Yes on 66 campaign released a video on Monday dubbed “The PERA Fiction” in response to the latest instance of an opponent repeating a widely discredited claim about how money raised for schools under Amendment 66 might be used.

The claim was recently made by political consultant Laura Carno during an appearance with Amendment 66 supporter Laura Chapin on The Denver Post’s video program “The Spot.”

“Colorado voters are smart enough to see through the scare tactics opponents are using,” said Yes on 66 Campaign Director Andrew Freedman. “New money raised for schools under Amendment 66 is constitutionally and statutorily prohibited from being used on anything but education reforms and program enhancements, and we’re happy to make that clear to voters.”

“We’re not agreeing to disagree. We’re saying that our opponents are wrong, period.”

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Denver Post Helps Partisan Pollsters Fool You

The Denver Post's Kevin Simpson reports on a new poll from GOP-aligned polling firm Magellan Strategies. Not surprisingly, this poll shows this year's school finance initiative, Amendment 66, in "serious trouble."

A survey by Louisville-based Magellan Strategies found that only 7 percent of 600 likely voters said they were "extremely informed" about the proposed amendment, which would revise the way education funds are parceled out to school districts and put more money toward expanded kindergarten, preschool, at-risk students and English-language learners.

Focusing on the tax ramifications, which would provide for a two-step state income tax increase, the poll asked two questions. First, it asked one with minimal information about the amendment and then a second question with more detailed information about the proposed new tax structure.

To the general question, 44 percent indicated they would oppose the measure, compared with 38 percent in support and 18 percent undecided.

The margin against the measure widened with the more detailed question, as 52 percent said they opposed it to 38 percent in support and 10 percent undecided. [Pols emphasis]

Sounds pretty bad for the school finance initiative, doesn't it? That's in large part because the Post didn't tell its readers anything about who made this poll, or what it actually asked in the way of questions. For that rather vital part of the story, we must turn to FOX 31's Eli Stokols:

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Amendment 66 is committed to providing access to early childhood education

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(Promoted by Colorado Pols)

Making new friends, trying new things, discovering interests and abilities — we remember preschool and kindergarten as a time of fun and exploration. What you didn’t realize at the time was that spending your days in a preschool or kindergarten classroom was setting you up for success for the rest of your life.

Why is early childhood education important?

  • Students who complete preschool and full-day kindergarten are more likely to graduate from high school and are better prepared to enter the workforce. Win for them, win for our communities.
  • Preschool and full-day kindergarten give students a head start to tackle critical skills like reading — and when kids are proficient in reading by the 3rd grade, they are much more likely to be successful throughout their entire learning careers.

Where we stand:

  • Colorado does have a state program for preschool. That’s a good start, but we spend less than almost all other states that have a statewide pre-K program: 38th out of 40, and the lack of funding shows. Districts have lengthy waiting lists for many kids who are eligible for the Colorado Preschool Program.
  • Colorado funds only half-day kindergarten, and relies on parents and taxpayers in each school district to cover the cost of full-day kindergarten.

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DelGrosso falsely claims Amendment 66 would increase taxes on small businesses

(We suspect there will be a high demand for fact checking this fall – Promoted by Colorado Pols)

On a Sept. 5 show, KFKA talk-radio host Tom Lucero told Colorado House Minority Leader Brian DelGrosso that government shouldn't be an obstacle to small business.

Agreed. But talk-radio hosts shouldn't be an obstacle to small business either. Or to educating our children.

But Lucero established himself as such an obstruction by failing to correct DelGrosso when the new Colorado House Minority leader claimed that Amendment 66, which would raise income tax to support education, would be a burdensome tax on small businesses:

DelGrosso: Well, the reality is, I think it’s mid- to upper eighty percent of all businesses in Colorado are small businesses. And close to eighty percent of those small businesses are set up either as a sole proprietorship, an LLC, or an S Corp., which means that their taxes that their business makes flows through onto their personal income tax. So, you will see about 80% of businesses in Colorado see a tax increase as a result of this. [Listen here.]

But Amendment 66 doesn't affect Colorado taxes on businesses. It's a tax on "individuals, estates, and trusts."

It's true that some business owners (like me) choose to take profit from their businesses (e.g., in the form of dividends) and account for it on their personal income tax filings. But that's because it's their income! So they pay personal income tax on it, just like they would income from any other source or employment.

If you make income from a business, whether you own the business or not, you pay income tax. The individual would be taxed, not the business, under Amendment 66, and no one will be taxed twice. 

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Amendment 66 Heads To The Ballot

FOX 31's Eli Stokols reports, an autumnal battle royale awaits after the recalls:

The proposal to raise income tax rates to generate nearly $1 billion annually to fund a new public education financing model will be on the November ballot, the Secretary of State’s office announced Wednesday.

Initiative 22 will allow voters to decide on whether to approve a two-tiered rate hike to help fund full day kindergarten statewide, along with a number of other reforms.

Moving forward with the blessing of Gov. John Hickenlooper, Amendment 66 is quickly shedding any remaining stigma attached to 2011's failed Proposition 103. Proposition 103 failed in part due to concerns that it wouldn't raise enough revenue to address the longstanding problem of adequately financing education in Colorado. Amendment 66 is not a "band aid," but the most ambitious and comprehensive attempt yet to settle the problem of school finance for the long term. And even after passage, Colorado would remain a low-tax state compared to much of the nation–that fact alone should give voters an idea of the hole the state needs to dig out of.

And in case you didn't know already, no one in Colorado politics gets vacations until mid-November.

Even More Pity For Oppressed CU Conservatives

CU Regent Jim Geddes (R) wants to rescue oppressed conservatives on campus.

CU Regent Jim Geddes (R) wants to rescue oppressed conservatives on campus.

As the Boulder Daily Camera's Brittany Anas reports–didn't the "conservative affirmative action" professorship do enough to make the University of Colorado a safe zone for academically oppressed students of a rightward persuasion? Apparently not:

The University of Colorado Board of Regents later this month will decide whether to expand the school's nondiscrimination policy to include political affiliation — a proposal born out of some regents' concern that there's a pervasive liberal bias, especially on the Boulder campus.

A subcommittee of regents on the laws and policies committee on Tuesday gave approval to the resolution that will go before the full board at its meeting Sept. 16-17 in Boulder.

A few months ago, we noted the University of Colorado's selection of a new "visiting scholar in conservative thought and policy," Dr. Steven Hayward, formerly of the American Enterprise Institute and Ohio's Ashland University. Notwithstanding the amusement of this act of "conservative affirmative action," Dr. Hayward actually does bring significant academic qualifications to the job. We haven't heard anything to suggest that Dr. Hayward is a regrettable choice of a scholar, however one might feel about the underlying "concerns" of Republican CU Regents and CU President Bruce Benson regarding oppression of conservatives on campus.

But apparently "conservative affirmative action" is not enough. Now it's time for political affiliation to be enshrined with race and gender as a protected minority!

Now folks, if we really believed that there was any sort of legitimate discrimination on campus against College Republicans–or for that matter, the Green Party, Libertarians, or LaRouchies–we would be the first to call for a remedy. What we think is going on here has more to do with certain students, perhaps trending conservative but whatever their particular worldview, running up against something we call "reality." This might feel a little like discrimination at first, but in our experience what higher education "discriminates" against more than anything is…well, you know, ignorance.

Hopefully we got our point across here without hurting anyone's feelings.