Advocacy group aims to expand its political power, starting with the Denver school board race

3 min. read
Corrine Rivera-Fowler, organizer with Padres & Jóvenes Unidos, holds a live stream of protesters occupying Sen. Michael Bennet’s office as ralliers gather outside, Feb. 7, 2018. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

By Melanie Asmar, Chalkbeat 

A prominent Denver parent and student group has formed a political committee that will allow it to endorse and support candidates in November's school board election.

Padres & Jóvenes Unidos has for more than 25 years advocated for better bilingual education, less punitive student discipline policies, and healthier school meals in Denver Public Schools. The group, many of whose members are Latino, has also pushed to change education and immigration laws at the state and federal level, racking up a list of wins here in Colorado.

But as a nonprofit organization, it had never endorsed political candidates. That will change this year.

"We just felt like it's time for us to expand our political power," said Elsa Oliva Rocha, a longtime employee who is now executive director of the new Padres & Jóvenes Unidos Action Fund.

The Action Fund is a type of group known as a 501(c)(4), named after a section in the Internal Revenue Service code. Such independent groups are playing a bigger role in local elections across the United States, including in Denver's recent mayoral race.

But 501(c)(4) groups have drawn criticism for being secretive because they don't have to disclose as much financial information as the candidates themselves do.

An email announcement about the Action Fund says the purpose is to "make sure we fight for people who will be champions for immigrant students, black and brown students, and will fight to dismantle inequitable systems in Denver Public Schools."

Ten candidates are running for three open seats on the seven-member Denver school board, though it's possible the field could grow. Candidates must file by Aug. 30, and the election is scheduled for Nov. 5.

It's an important election that will shape the direction of the district, which for years was known for its adherence to education reform but has softened its approach in response to community backlash against decisions such as closing struggling schools.

The establishment of the Padres & Jóvenes Unidos Action Fund is another sign that the players in Denver school board politics are changing. Democrats for Education Reform, which spent more than $400,000 two years ago to elect candidates who would maintain Denver's specific brand of reform, announced earlier this year that it would not deploy money in this year's races.

While the Action Fund will make its debut in Denver's school board election, Oliva Rocha said the long-term plan is to participate in elections statewide at all levels.

In addition to endorsing candidates and spending money in races, she said the Action Fund envisions helping to cultivate candidates and prepare them to run, with an emphasis on female candidates, candidates of color, and those from working-class backgrounds.

"We really want candidates who uplift the community, and who are accountable to the community, and who are advocating for true equity," Oliva Rocha said.

The Action Fund is still developing its process for endorsing candidates in the Denver school board race and deciding what type of support it will give its chosen slate. It will announce more details at an Action Fund kickoff event July 25, Oliva Rocha said.

Chalkbeat is a nonprofit news site covering educational change in public schools.

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