Politicians from both sides of the aisle joined education reform activists to honor term-limited State Board of Education Chairman Bob Schaffer last week for his more than two decades of work at all levels of government to give parents a choice when it comes to their children’s schools.
“We come together not as politicians, but as a community, as individuals as individual parts of this community, to honor and to celebrate the work of Bob Schaffer,” said Nita Gonzales, president of the 42-year-old northwest Denver alternative school Escuela Tlatelolco Centro de Estudios, which was founded by her father, Hispanic activist Corky Gonzales.
Gonzales was among the luminaries who gathered on Dec. 5 at the downtown Four Seasons Hotel Denver for a gala tribute to Schaffer — a former Republican congressman, state senator and two-time candidate for the U.S. Senate — the principal at Liberty Common School in Fort Collins, a combined charter middle and high school he founded. She presented Schaffer with the Foundation for Academic Innovation’s Champion for Children award at the dinner.
Describing the former congressman as “a servant leader — that’s a different brand altogether, they lead by being in service to their community,” Gonzales said that Schaffer’s commitment to expanding education opportunity passes a crucial test.
“One thing that stands out about Bob, is that Bob does the work. Oftentimes you run into people in these movements who say the words but don’t walk the talk. I always respected that Bob walks the talk,” she said, adding, “The children come first. Our politics, our individual beliefs and agendas take a back seat.”
Her remarks were echoed by an entourage of Schaffer’s admirers, including Republican Attorney General John Suthers, who said that Schaffer was “in public service for the right reasons.” This became clear, he said, when Schaffer kept a pledge to limit himself to three terms in Congress.
“Bob and I can talk afterwards whether that was a smart thing to say or a stupid thing to do,” Suthers joked, adding that Schaffer would have easily won a fourth term had he spurned his pledge. “He was holding himself accountable for the promise he’d made.”
“There is no one who has pursued the types of reforms needed in Colorado to make our schools better in a more zealous fashion than Bob Schaffer,” Suthers said. “You name it, whether it was school choice or any other reform, Bob was at the forefront.”
To those critics who charge that Schaffer has an agenda, Suthers said he agreed. “What was Bob Schaffer’s agenda? He wanted better schools for our children, and that was his one and only agenda and has been throughout his tenure.”
celebrate the career of former U.S. Rep. Bob Schaffer.
Casting his gaze across the banquet, which included Democrats from the Legislature, the State Board of Education and local school boards, Suthers summed up: “The diversity of folks in this room — they may not agree with every aspect of your agenda, but they know that you’ve been a public servant that was motivated by the best interests of the children of the state of Colorado.”
Former U.S. Sen. Bill Armstrong made a similar point. Quoting an attendee from a past education conference, he told the audience, “‘If you’re really interested in education reform, somebody’s got to love the children.’ And that’s why it is so resonant for me that we’re honoring the champion for children, Bob Schaffer.”
Calling Schaffer “our education reform chief in Colorado,” state Sen. Nancy Spence, R-Centennial, said Schaffer had been there every step of the way during her 14 years working on education reform in the Legislature, and that his absence from public office would be felt.
“When Bob leaves the State Board of Education, there’s going to be a real loss, because there isn’t anyone else I can think of in the state of Colorado who has the federal experience, the local experience, to be the leader that he does. Who else could fill those shoes?” she said.
Spence added that Schaffer’s involvement in his wife Maureen’s bottled margarita business is one of the things that sets him apart as a “really cool” politician. She smiled as she recalled that there was always a bottle of Coyote Gold for legislators at State Board of Education meetings.
Delivering a tribute to Schaffer from the state House of Representatives — requested by state Rep. B.J. Nikkel, who was unable to attend the banquet — House Speaker Frank McNulty, R-Highlands Ranch, said, “The level of commitment people have tonight here for you pales in comparison to the commitment that you have for our kids. The politicians will argue, adults will argue, but what really matters is that our children get the best education we have to offer, and you have always pushed for that.”
Accepting the award, Schaffer told the crowd that he learned the lessons that led to his years of working for education reform at the knee of his grandfather, who fled the Ukraine at the start of Soviet occupation, immigrating first to Canada and then to the United States. He was pursuing “freedom and opportunity, to have rights to be in a place where individuals matter, and where you could accomplish anything you want if you have the drive and the motivation.”
“I discovered I’m attracted to revolutions. I love everything associated with revolutions,” Schaffer smiled, describing the impetus for his work as “the drive and determination to create a better world for your kids. It is the right and responsibility of parents to direct the education and upbringing of their children. That seems like something we could all agree on.”
He called his approach to education an embodiment of the principles of capitalism.
“By realizing and unleashing the ingenuity and freedom of individuals to pursue their self-interest with respect to their kids, and if we can allow those individuals to attain the highest levels of leadership in education, it provides a benefit certainly for those kids who live in those families, but I am convinced that it creates the greatest benefit for all other children whose parents might not be in a position or given the thought to what a great school ought to be,” he said. “That has always driven me to be part of this revolutionary cause to put parents in charge of their children’s education.”
Schaffer recounted how he and his wife first got involved in the school choice movement, when their young twins were old enough to attend kindergarten and the local school district officials just wanted to know the family’s address in order to assign them to their neighborhood school. The school didn’t meet their expectations, he said. “We wanted something better, and we were prepared to fight for it.” Eventually, after meeting with pioneers in the movement, “the district gave in” and like-minded families were able to secure a couple of the state’s first charter schools, he said.
“I got to see how when you empower ordinary parents who are devoted to their self-interest of raising their children and giving them the best possible academic opportunity, we did what we said, we proved what the theory said ought to happen, and that is the kids in our schools are doing quite well,” he said.
But it didn’t end there.
“The real revolution, the real value of that is what happened in the rest of our town, and that is the quality of education increased everywhere as every principal realized we’ve got to do more to keep our kids here instead of see them walk across town,” he said.
Casting his efforts as part of “an epic war for progress on behalf of our children,” Schaffer vowed to continue the fight, though he declined to answer speculation that he might seek statewide office in 2014, when a U.S. Senate seat and the governor’s office are up for election.
Armstrong offered his backing for Schaffer’s future endeavors, whether they’re in the public sector or the private sector. “Bravo, sign me up, I want to be part of it,” he said.