Op-Ed: Protecting Families' Choices in Education

Op-Ed: Protecting Families' Choices in Education
Denver Public Schools
click to enlarge DENVER PUBLIC SCHOOLS
Denver Public Schools
Among the most consequential decisions that Denver voters face on November 2 are the four school-board seats up for election. No institution impacts the future of a city, and its residents, as much as the public education system. The school-board members determine the direction of a district that serves 90,000 students and manages 15,000 employees and a budget that is now (with federal COVID funding) at $1.2 billion. Fortunately Denver has established a track record of success that has earned it distinction as one of only three urban school districts in the nation that has achieved steady improvement over a decade in the three critical measures: academic achievement, high school graduation and college attendance.

A critical element of this success — and necessary in the efforts to continue improving — has been the fundamental value of empowering families with the choice to determine the best education option for their students.

Educational choice means different things to different people. To us we are speaking about unified enrollment, the Denver model that offers students and their families the opportunity to seamlessly select the best educational option for them, whether it be a traditional school program, Montessori education or a school focused on the arts.

As seen in community forums like the candidate forum hosted by African Leadership Group, several of the candidates now running for the Board of Education in Denver want to limit choice for families. But to retreat from this legacy would be to go backwards, to undermine a critical ingredient of our district’s success while ignoring additional efforts we must undertake to battle systemic racism and unleash the extraordinary potential of students experiencing poverty in our community.

This is why voters matter so much in this election.

Denver Public Schools’ mission is “to provide all students the opportunity to achieve the knowledge and skills necessary to become contributing citizens in our diverse society.”

It would be antithetical to this mission to reduce and eliminate opportunities that our families choose for their students simply because the choice they make in some cases is not a traditional public-school program.

DPS also emphasizes family engagement as a fundamental value: “Research has continually found that family and community engagement in children’s learning directly and positively impacts children’s academic achievement and well-being.”

Families are engaging at DPS. And one of the most important areas of engagement is in exercising choice. Families are more likely to exercise choice than attend the district’s default option. In 2020, 52 percent of families decided to participate in the school-choice process. Of the families who participated in school choice, many chose district-run schools over other options like charters.

And students of color are exercising and benefiting from school choice at a higher rate than their white peers, outpacing white students in choosing schools outside their boundary or zone.

School choice provides families more of a voice in the process and creates new communities centered around the arts, STEAM curriculum or dual language. These opportunities didn’t exist when families' only option was the school the district automatically assigned them to. Indigenous families in Denver, for example, can now select an option such as the American Indian Academy of Denver, where educators are revitalizing tribal languages, learning Dineh and Lakota in middle and high school.

Schools must be able to adapt and change as the city changes. School choice enables parents to be actors in the most important thing they can do for their children: to select the school that best matches their child’s learning style and interests. Choice compels schools and the DPS central office to respond to family needs and preferences. Transportation is important to ensuring choice is truly equitable, so that high-quality options are within reach for everyone and that choosing the highest quality and best fit is easy for all families.

As a community, we should be focused on making choice work better for families and empowering parents and guardians even more, rather than undoing the progress made to date. Children are more likely to be successful if they’re in a school that matches their interests and learning style. Fair and easy school choice improves outcomes for kids.

Happy Haynes served from 2011-2019 as an at-large member of the Denver Public Schools (DPS) Board of Education. John Johnson is a parent of a current DPS student and another who graduated from the system.

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