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Is Denver’s Era of Education Reform Coming to an End? Outsider School Board Candidates Aim to ‘Flip the Board’ This November

By Kevin Mahnken | October 9, 2019

Denver teachers and community members picket outside Abraham Lincoln High School Feb. 11, 2019. (Michael Ciaglo/Getty Images)

Despite its mile-high reputation, Denver actually sits on a plain just east of the Rocky Mountains. To education reformers, though, it has long been a city on a hill.

Over the past 15 years, the city has become a model for urban school reform. Parents are given wide latitude to choose where to enroll their children. Charter schools have spread swiftly, authorized by a school board largely friendly to the sector. And all schools, whether traditional or charter, are subject to an aggressive rating system that measures quality.

But persistent disquiet over Denver’s reform regime, and questions about whom it has served, have grown louder in recent months. Momentum from a successful teachers’ strike earlier this year has spread to a wider movement for change across the district, and next month’s local elections will prove a crucial test of the community’s attitudes.

Two reform-minded incumbents on the elected school board are term-limited, and another is not running for re-election. That means there will be three open seats on the seven-member body — enough to swing the membership away from its long-running consensus and potentially bring an end to one of the nation’s bolder experiments in charter expansion and test-driven accountability. The situation is reminiscent of the 2017 board cycle, when candidates opposed to further reforms were able to pry away two board seats.

Collinus Newsome is the director of education at the Denver Foundation, one of the largest philanthropies in the state. Noting the changing winds around education in the greater Denver area — nearby Aurora is also electing new members to its board, which oversees a district of roughly 40,000 students — she remarked that the outcome this election season “will be either very predictable or it’s going to be a mess.”

“If the election in Denver is a full-on [reconsideration] of the reform community, it’s going to significantly change the way the district moves forward,” she said.

What’s a portfolio?

By most accounts, Denver’s era of reform has been ongoing for about a decade and a half, beginning with the tenure of Denver Public Schools Superintendent Michael Bennet. Prior to his 2005 appointment to the post by then-Mayor John Hickenlooper, the rookie superintendent had worked in finance and law, with no experience in education leadership. Both men rode their success in the city to high-level political careers: Hickenlooper, who was later elected governor, is now running for Senate after a failed presidential bid; Bennet is still pursuing the presidency while holding the state’s other Senate seat.

Under the administration of its rookie leader (and, when Bennet was tapped to become senator in 2009, his replacement, Tom Boasberg), Denver became one of America’s most prominent laboratories for educational change. The district rolled out ProComp, a merit-pay scheme that replaced the existing compensation schedule, and acted aggressively to close underperforming schools. And charter schools, authorized by the district itself, began a swift expansion.

In total, the district shifted to what is loosely termed the “portfolio model”; the idea is something of a buzzword, taking on different forms in the various cities where it is practiced. But it essentially describes a system through which families can choose among a bevy of options including both traditional and charter schools. District schools in portfolio districts are also typically granted some of the same autonomy over budgeting and personnel that charters have long enjoyed.

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The changes didn’t go unnoticed. A few years after debuting an innovative common K-12 application system to help parents navigate between district, charter and magnet schools, Denver was named the top district in the country for school choice by the Brookings Institution. And promising results followed: High school graduation rates rose across the city, and a recent study by Stanford University’s well-respected Center for Research on Education Outcomes found that, in the wake of the reforms, students in the city made gains in math and English that outpaced the state average.

Something rotten in Denver

But local sentiment didn’t always match the glowing reviews. Controversial school closures yielded some epic protests from students, educators and families, some of whom found Bennet an imperious leader. Boasberg, his successor, resigned last year amid criticism that he hadn’t done enough to curb substantial academic gaps between white and minority students.

Betheny Gross, the associate director of the Center on Reinventing Public Education, said that Denver’s transformation was typical of how the portfolio approach has played out in other cities, with more choice for families and authority flowing down from the district to school leaders. At times, however, it has also alienated parents who felt their neighborhood schools were under attack.

“One of the things that people have been concerned about is whether this portfolio has really generated the kinds of schools this community wants or needs — in particular some communities that have historically had comprehensive high schools with bands and football teams and all the hallmarks of the great American high school,” she said. “The reforms sort of shifted the focus to smaller schools, multiple schools within one building, and it seemed to some community members that they were shutting down historical institutions.”

The Denver Foundation’s Newsome went further, saying that while minority and low-income communities welcomed the introduction of greater choice, they were just as often angered by what they perceived as a revolution from above — one that sometimes smacked of racism.

“I hardly ever hear people complaining about choice,” she said. “You definitely have a better sense of what a high-quality school should look like. … But when it comes to [leaders] plugging into communities, it’s almost as if it’s been an afterthought. I wouldn’t say everything was bad, but there are definitely certain communities in the city that feel like things have been done to them.”

Tiffany Choi was a French teacher at Montbello High School in northeast Denver when the school board voted to shutter the school for poor academic performance in 2010, breaking it into five smaller programs run in the same building. In an interview with The 74, she said the decision reflected a lack of community input in policy that affected thousands of families.

“There was really a lot of pride around that school,” she said. “[The closure] was fought hard by the students and teachers in that community, who said, ‘This is a central meeting point in our community for sports and for arts and music.’ And it was very heartbreaking to be in that school while it was closing.”

Gradually, the anguish engendered a backlash. The 2017 races for school board, in which candidates backed by teachers unions defeated two pro-reform members, were seen as “combative,” with dark money sponsoring mailers that tied incumbents to Donald Trump and Betsy DeVos. And this February, 2,600 teachers walked out of their classrooms — partially in protest of a merit-pay system that many felt subjected their earnings to uncertainty.

The strike was settled within days when the district approved a pay raise. But in the months that followed, a movement spread with the aim of “flipping the board” — voting out another two or more reform-oriented members to break their long-held majority.

Choi, who served as a strike captain in her high school, was elected president of the Denver Classroom Teachers Association, the local union, in September after vowing to “fight against corporate reform policies” and end school closures. The 10-year incumbent she defeated was viewed by some as responsible for the spread of the ProComp system.

“We have two teacher-friendly members on the board, out of seven,” she said. “Now we have an opportunity to take back the schools that are rightfully ours, and if we get two or three positions on the board, we’ll be able to make some changes.”

The shape of the race

The question is whether opponents of the status quo can make good on their momentum.

In all three races, candidates exist who might attempt to chip away at the portfolio model. But this summer, a broad range of community groups pushing for change failed to endorse a unified slate of contenders after disagreeing on whether to back two union-backed men or a pair of minority women.

The best-funded of the insurgent candidates is Tay Anderson, a 20-year-old recent Denver schools graduate who also ran in 2017. Though he campaigned on a district-wide charter school moratorium last cycle, he is now organizing primarily around racial equity.

That’s a live issue at the moment, as Denver’s civil rights activists loudly complain of what they describe as the district’s unwillingness to confront school segregation. A blue-ribbon commission submitted a report last year on how to address the issue, but Newsome, who served as a co-author, says that it has spent months “sitting in someone’s office, and I’m not sure anyone’s even looked at it.”

It’s difficult to tell, however, whether outrage and impatience will translate to electoral wins. David Flaherty, a local Republican pollster, pointed to recent statewide survey data showing that most Coloradans were satisfied with the quality of their schools, while a significant minority said that more should be done to expand school choice. Although all the candidates for school board in Denver could be described as progressive, he suggested that a reform-friendly message could win the support of potential swing voters.

“If you’re a Democrat and want to pick up soft Republican or independent voters, talk about school reform in any manner,” he advised in an interview. “I’m not talking about full-blown vouchers or defunding public school districts. But any education reform is appealing to Republicans and some independents, who believe that changes can be made to public education in Colorado.”

And even if outsider candidates manage to flip the board, the changes made over the past 15 years will be challenging to undo, noted CRPE’s Gross. Even in cities like New York and Newark, where anti-reform challengers won power promising to turn back the clock, charter schools and principal autonomy haven’t disappeared, she said.

“Do they think that telling families, ‘No, those choices aren’t available to you anymore’ is the direction forward? It seems implausible to me that they’re going to suggest or even move on an effort to shut down the charters that exist — there’s a lot of students in them already, and many families are really happy with their schools. There would still be very strong elements of the principles of portfolio that seem pretty institutionalized at this point.”

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