This November's Denver Public Schools Board of Education election might be the most important political race you're not paying attention to. Why is it so important? Because even if it's unlikely to make headlines on CNN, it could serve as a referendum on Denver's trend of aggressive school reform and set the course for DPS and similar districts nationwide.
If the candidates who back this "reform" movement sweep the election and maintain or increase the board's 4-to-3 pro-reform majority, as they did two years ago, it will be a win for strategies such as closing and replacing failing schools, encouraging charter and innovation schools, and tying teacher evaluations to student test scores.
If not, it will signal that Denver voters have lost confidence in those tactics and want to head in a new direction, one that isn't as quick to label schools as failing, invests more money into neighborhood schools, and uses test data in a less punitive way.
Denver Public Schools
Reformers like board president Mary Seawell believe that changing directions now would be devastating for students. "I think we'd have more failing schools," she says. "I do think we would really step back in the improvement and changes we've made."
Kristi Butkovich, head of a new group called the Denver Alliance for Public Education, disagrees. She fears that district reforms such as charter schools are "privatizing" public education, and she believes that DPS should be spending its money to improve the schools in which every neighborhood child is guaranteed a seat.
"If the board doesn't turn over, we'll be nearing the end of what we've always known as public education," she says. "This is the opportunity now to save our schools."
Nine candidates are running for four open seats on Denver's seven-member school board. The winners won't face an easy job. The DPS board, known for being dysfunctional and divided, made headlines four years ago when its members, along with the superintendent, met with a marriage therapist in an attempt to heal the rifts among them.
Of the four outgoing boardmembers, one, Jeannie Kaplan, is term-limited. Two more, Seawell and Andrea Merida, are not seeking reelection. Seawell has said that her increasing family and work demands — she took a job last year as a program officer for the Gates Family Foundation — have made it difficult for her to find the time to fulfill her board duties, which she describes as a full-time job.
And the outspoken, controversial Merida, who butted heads with administrators and boardmembers alike and who first made a splash when she had herself sworn in early in 2009 so she could vote with the board minority against the co-location of a charter school, announced in August that she would not run for reelection, either. "I cannot, in good conscience, serve on a board whose only function now is to give tests," she wrote in a blog post. Two months earlier, in June, the Denver Classroom Teachers Association, which supported Merida in 2009, revealed it was not endorsing her again.
The fourth open seat was vacated by Nate Easley in January, when he became head of the Denver Scholarship Foundation. The full board couldn't agree on a replacement, so Seawell appointed reformer Landri Taylor, president of the Denver Urban League, to take Easley's place in March. Taylor is now running in a contested race to keep that seat for another four years.
Three of the current boardmembers aren't up for reelection. Two of them, Anne Rowe and Happy Haynes, generally favor the district's brand of reform, while the other, Arturo Jimenez, doesn't. If voters fill at least three of the four open seats with candidates who agree with Jimenez, DPS could undergo a big shift.
The nine candidates are roughly split along ideological lines.
Four of them — Taylor, Mike Johnson, former lieutenant governor Barbara O'Brien and former city councilwoman Rosemary Rodriguez — agree that the district is headed in the right direction.
Four others — Michael Kiley, Rosario C. de Baca, Meg Schomp and Roger Kilgore — think the district is not.
The ninth candidate, Joan Poston, is more of a wild card.
So what does school reform look like in Denver?
The discussion escalated in 2005, when then-superintendent Michael Bennet introduced the Denver Plan, the district's "blueprint for progress," which was updated in 2010 by Tom Boasberg, who had taken over for Bennet when the latter left for the U.S. Senate a year earlier.
The Denver Plan is a lengthy document. Among its goals and strategies: define what it means to be an effective teacher and hold teachers to that standard; revise the curriculum and frequently test students' progress; expand preschool and full-day kindergarten; and develop programs for dropouts and students struggling with behavior and health issues.
The plan includes more controversial policies, as well. One of the biggest is the idea of "turnaround schools," which involves making "immediate and dramatic" changes to chronically failing schools. Those changes can include firing the principal, getting rid of a majority of the teachers, or closing the school altogether. The Denver Plan also calls for creating more "promising new schools" and specifies that all schools — whether district-run or charter — should have access to district buildings and funding.
Since 2009, the district has closed sixteen schools. Of those, seven were low-performing charter schools and nine were traditional district-run schools. Ten of the schools were replaced by new-school options. In all, fourteen schools have undergone the turnaround process, including West, North and Montbello high schools, Lake Middle School and Green Valley Elementary School.
The district has also opened fifty new schools in that time, not all of which were the result of turnaround. Thirteen of those fifty are traditional, 22 are charters and fifteen are innovation schools, which means they are district-run but can request waivers from certain district policies; an innovation school may seek to increase the length of the school day, for example, or to employ its teachers on a year-to-year basis rather than follow the hiring-and-firing procedures in the teachers'-union contract.
Those who champion reform say DPS's strategies are working. As proof, they point to statistics. For instance, DPS enrollment has steadily increased, from 72,500 students in 2005 — a time when families were fleeing the district's failing schools — to more than 85,000 this year. The number of graduates has increased, too, from 2,664 in 2006 to 3,493 in 2013. In addition, more kids are taking and passing Advanced Placement tests, and ACT scores are rising.
Reformers also focus on the district's academic growth rather than its raw test scores; DPS boasts that it's gone from having the lowest growth rate among the state's twelve largest school districts in 2005 to now having the highest growth rate.
But those who question the reform agenda say those statistics mask serious failures. The district's graduation rate is still only 59 percent. As for ACT scores, the average in 2013 was 18.0, which is below what's required for admission to most four-year colleges. Of the graduates who do go to college, 60 percent take remedial classes.
And while DPS students may be growing academically, that growth has been slow. In 2013, DPS students' scores increased by just 2 percent in reading, 3 percent in math and 1 percent in writing. And considering that only 54 percent of students are proficient in reading, 46 percent in math and 42 percent in writing, the district has a long way to go. Furthermore, non-reformers point out that the achievement gap between free-lunch and paid-lunch students is actually widening; in other words, middle-class students are gaining ground faster than poor students.
As for the district's turnaround schools, the results are mixed. Charts compiled by the advocacy organization A Plus Denver show that while some turnaround schools are experiencing above-average growth, others are failing to catch kids up.
"Denver is all over the map," says A Plus Denver CEO Van Schoales.
One way to separate the two groups is by looking at who supports them.
Reform groups, including Stand for Children and Democrats for Education Reform, have endorsed O'Brien, Rodriguez, Johnson and Taylor.
"The folks we've endorsed represent an opportunity to bring the board to a different level," says Sonja Semion, executive director of Stand for Children Colorado, which contributed tens of thousands of dollars' worth of canvassing support to reform candidates in the DPS board election two years ago. (This year's campaign-finance reports aren't due until mid-October.) "If we can get these four elected, the conversation won't be should we or shouldn't we go forward with reform policies, but it will be debating the details of those policies."
Those four also enjoy support from past boardmembers Theresa Peña and Bruce Hoyt. "Because everybody's been a parent and everybody went to school, they think they're an expert," Hoyt says. "But that in and of itself doesn't qualify you to become a boardmember. I would look at the (candidates') professional credentials, and here's why: It's a seven-member board that manages a budget of almost a billion dollars."
Hoyt also points out that the district has received millions of dollars in grant money from national foundations over the past several years "because people have such confidence in our reforms." If the district switches directions, "I could see a lot of that money drying up and causing budgetary problems for DPS," he says.
The Denver Classroom Teachers Association has endorsed an entirely different slate of candidates: Kiley, de Baca, Schomp and Kilgore. The union believes its candidates are best because they're connected to the community. "All of these people are authentic voices from the field," says union head Henry Roman. "True community activists that truly, truly care about Denver Public Schools."
Jeannie Kaplan, who regularly votes with the minority, agrees. "One of the main differences between the two sides is truly grassroots candidates versus selected candidates with great name recognition," she says. "The so-called reform candidates have a national agenda at stake here, and they're willing to keep going a myth that we're actually on the right trajectory."
The rhetoric in this race is another way to sort the candidates. Reform candidates often say they want to continue the direction of DPS but accelerate the pace. They talk about how we "can't let schools fail another day" and believe that swift action is needed. They believe that if the district truly explains how a school is failing, parents will come to see that it should be closed or turned around. They're big fans of school choice and frequently talk about how every child learns differently and should have the opportunity to go to a school that best meets his or her needs.
Non-reformers are disillusioned with DPS's direction and emphasize that it's not working. They often talk about the "privatization" of public schools, and although they're not necessarily opposed to some charter and innovation schools, they believe that every child should be able to go to a high-quality school in their own neighborhood rather than have to drive or take a bus to a better school somewhere else. They think that DPS has ignored parents' wishes, and that in order for drastic changes to work, the district must have the support of the community. Parents can help find solutions for failing schools, they say, if DPS would just ask them.
Westword interviewed all nine candidates. Click on a name below to go to that candidate's profile.
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