It’s just before 7 p.m. Tuesday and conservative talk radio host Ross Kaminsky asks his producer to include 30 seconds of background music to his introduction.
“It gotta be something like ‘Hot for Teacher’ or ‘School’s Out For the Summer,’” Kaminsky’s guest, George Brauchler, a Republican candidate for governor, suggests with a chuckle. “Doesn’t it have to have an education theme?”
Brauchler, district attorney for Colorado’s 18th judicial district that includes Arapahoe and Douglas counties, was the first leading GOP candidate to speak with Kaminsky about education issues in what will be a series of telephone town halls.
The hour-long conversations, which are also broadcast live on KHOW-AM and streamed online, are paid for by Ready Colorado, a political nonprofit that advocates for conservative education reform policies.
Though it’s common for advocacy groups to try to pin down candidates on issues during political campaigns, the paid radio forum — on a media platform long favored by conservatives — is an unusual strategy for elevating education as a campaign issue.
Luke Ragland, president of Ready Colorado, said the conversations are designed to help voters better understand where conservative candidates stand on policy matters such as school choice and standardized testing.
During the first town hall, Brauchler said he favors creating new entities that can authorize charter schools, establishing education savings accounts for parents that work like vouchers for private schools, and maintaining some form of end-of-year standardized testing to measure school quality.
“I need public education to be awesome right now,” said Brauchler, who has four children in Douglas County schools.. “Not in 10 years from now, but right now.”
Unlike most other states, Colorado’s governor has little sway over public schools. Most authority resides at the local school board level, while the state legislature and board of education write and put into practice statewide policies. (The governor does hold veto power over legislation).
“The governor might have little authority in the technical sense, but the governor has great power to influence education policy and how schools are run,” Ragland said. “No one has the bully pulpit that the governor has. I do think that is a great deal of power.”
Other leading GOP candidates include former state lawmaker and businessman Victor Mitchell and former investment banker Doug Robinson. Robinson is the nephew of 2012 Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney.
State Treasurer Walker Stapleton and Attorney General Cynthia Coffman are expected to join the race to succeed Gov. John Hickenlooper, a Democrat who is term-limited.
The Democrats also have a crowded primary field. U.S. Rep. Jared Polis, former state Sen. Michael Johnston, former state Treasurer Cary Kennedy and businessman Noel Ginsburg all are running. Lt. Gov. Donna Lynne also is considering a run.
Democrats for Education Reform, a political nonprofit, said it is not planning to hold similar conversations with candidates.
“Unlike the Republican candidates that need coaching about policy that serves kids, I believe every Democratic candidate running for governor has decades-long records of policy making experience in the best interest of students,” Jen Walmer, DFER’s state director, said in an email.
Ragland acknowledged the Democrats have long voting records and policy positions, but said improving the state’s schools is top of mind to Republicans.
“There are some clear lines on the Democratic side,” he said. “But when you’re sit down with these guys, education is one of the first things that come out of their mouths.”
Chalkbeat is a nonprofit news site covering educational change in public schools.