To listen to Heather Lamm passionately enunciate the virtues of educational choice; to hear her challenge the educational reform movement's current detractors among her fellow Democrats — it's easy to forget she was first Dick and Dottie's daughter.
She was the kid who grew up in the historic Denver mansion reserved for governors and their families at the corner of 8th and Logan streets, the little girl who looked upon the state troopers stationed in her home as members of an extended family. She is one of two children of Colorado's nationally prominent, often maverick 38th governor, Dick Lamm; and of onetime First Lady, sometime politician and longtime columnist and author Dottie Lamm.
This week's Q&A evokes both: the Heather Lamm who is the voice of one of the state's most successful charter school programs, who pulls no punches in pinpointing the teachers union as the prime mover in the anti-reform backlash — and the Heather Lamm who fondly recalls family life amid the dated decor of the guv's abode in the '70s and '80s, green shag rug and all.
Colorado Politics: Colorado’s ruling Democrats, like Democrats nationwide, are trying to bridge one of the bigger rifts in their party in years — over education reform and school choice. You work on behalf of a premier charter-school program that has helped put Denver on the national map for its “portfolio” approach to educational choice; a significant percentage of all public school kids in Denver Public Schools are now enrolled in charter or innovation schools. These reforms bear the signature of prominent Colorado and national Democrats, including of course U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet — a former Denver schools chief — as well as the last two Democratic U.S. presidents. What is your message to those in your party who have mounted a backlash against the reforms?
Heather Lamm: It’s a great question — and frankly unfathomable to me in so many ways. I don’t really think the central rift is about charters. Despite the rhetoric, the vast majority (over 85%) of charters are public schools that simply have a different governance model. It’s about public school choice. Affluent parents have always exercised choice — through private schools, magnet schools and the neighborhood in which they choose, and can afford, to live. The central theme of many of the education changes that some really excellent Democrats have led in recent years has been trying to provide choice to all parents, not just affluent, white parents. How has the party gotten so turned around on this fundamental theme?
As long as I’ve been a Democrat (my whole life), I’ve believed the party held deep and fundamental values around supporting low-income people and people of color, around equality and opportunity for all. And for too long our public education system has neglected those values. School choice is about correcting a systematic disadvantage that basically equates your zip code with your ability to get a good education. How can a party that purports to stand for equality support anything else? When someone like Elizabeth Warren states, “If you think your public school is not working, then go help your public school. Go help get more resources for it. Volunteer at your public schools…,” I gasp because what she is saying — make no mistake — is that low-income parents and people of color should go fix their own schools. She is not talking to white affluent parents — because they already can and have been exercising choice if their neighborhood schools are sub-par. She is talking to largely low-income families with district-run schools in their neighborhoods that have been failing to provide them a quality education and thus reinforcing the cycle of poverty. In this way, she’s supporting a “pull yourself by your bootstraps” mentality that is distinctly NOT Democratic.
Our neighborhood-based process of school admissions has systematically disadvantaged children of color and low-income children for years. School choice is an extremely helpful tool in addressing that disadvantage, and good charters that have a proven record of helping students of color and low-income students succeed should be celebrated and encouraged — not vilified. I wish the presumably progressive, affluent and largely white factions of our party who are standing against this could understand how fundamentally racist and oppressive this argument is.
What is really behind this stance? This faction of the party will decry “dark money” and “privatization” and “billionaires,” but anyone who really understands knows this is about catering to teachers unions. Part of me wishes we could all just come out and say that. There could be a plausible and supportable stance that the Democrats don’t like charter schools and school choice because they have impacted the teachers unions. I don’t happen to agree with that position, and would rather put kids at the center of this debate, not adults, but at least it’s an honest argument. Unions are very good at balancing the interests of competing adults and if that’s what we’re talking about, then let’s have that conversation as Democrats. But let’s not hide behind a veiled argument for “neighborhood schools” which have utterly failed the people Democrats have traditionally stood for and fought for.
- Chief marketing, advocacy and communications officer for DSST Public Schools, since 2016.
- Partner, BrushFire Sales LLC, a software and services firm focused on marketing and sales operations, 2008-2017.
- Executive vice president, MediaNews Group Interactive, 2003-2008.
- Vice president for strategic planning, The Industry Standard, 1999-2001.
- Holds a bachelor's degree in political science and history from Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, and a master's in business administration from Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois.
CP: Give us your elevator speech on DSST Public Schools. What does it offer Denver-area public school students that they weren’t getting before your program came along?
Lamm: DSST is a free, public school that is open to all students. We serve students across Denver and Aurora from all backgrounds, with 70% of students qualifying for free and reduced lunch and 65% of our students identifying as students of color. Our mission is to end educational inequity. At DSST, we believe that who you will become is just as important as what you will accomplish. We focus on character development and rigorous academics in equal measure. Year after year, our schools are rated as the top middle and high schools in Denver but our students stand out because of our culture and shared values. A strong, supportive, inclusive and small community gives students the confidence to take the lead — in their studies, athletics, activities, and personal passions. One hundred percent of DSST's graduates have been accepted to college for 12 years in a row — since the start of the DSST network.
CP: Your dad and mom not only have been an epic force in Colorado politics, but they are also both prodigious writers. Dottie was of course a longtime local newspaper columnist and is a published book author; Dick arguably has penned as many books and other works — a novel, too — as anyone who ever has held public office. We’re wondering if some of that flows through your veins, as well. Do you have a favorite book? Is there are recent published work you would recommend to others?
Lamm: Ha! I wish prodigious writing flowed in these veins. I am an avid reader, which I definitely got from my parents, but unfortunately that has not translated into any real writing skill unless you count PowerPoint decks. I follow Eric Sondermann on Goodreads (highly recommend that App and Eric as a source of awesome books) and am a big fan of history and fiction. I have to psych myself up to read books that are too directly related to the current world. I use reading (other than news) to get out of my own head. I just finished "The Overstory," by Richard Powers, am currently reading "The Nickel Boys," by Colson Whitehead, and am listening on Audible to "Sapiens," by Yuval Noah Harari.
CP: Speaking of mom and dad, both have played prominent parts in projecting their party’s voice for decades, across Colorado and beyond. Dad, however, has been more of a maverick in that regard — to say the least. Which parent’s platform comes closer to your own beliefs?
Lamm: Come on, now — I have to spend Christmas with my parents in two weeks. Why would I answer this? ;)
CP: You grew up in the Governor’s Mansion, and though you probably got tired of talking about it years ago, you have to admit few people can make that claim. To think a bigwig like the late political point man Howard Gelt once baby-sat you. What was it like spending the better part of your childhood — Dick Lamm was governor 12 years — in the rarefied air of so many pols, party players and policy wonks?
Lamm: I lived in the Governor’s Mansion from the time I was 4 until I was 16 — the vast majority of my memorable childhood. I know this sounds shallow, but for me it truly was just home. I knew nothing else. My parents were remarkably good at keeping their public lives separate from our private lives. Yes, I realized it was a bigger house than my friends’ houses and that it was not usual to have a Colorado state patrolman always on duty. But living there as long as I did, the patrolmen became like uncles — Mike, Vic, John, Darren — they truly were amazing people who I spent hours simply talking to, and they spent hours trying to correct or guide me, probably like any other extended family. You also have to remember it was a different era — media were less invasive and social media non-existent. Politics in Colorado were notably lower key than today. My dad made a point of being home almost every night for family dinner at 6:30, and we took normal, private family vacations. My brother and I weren’t expected to make many public appearances, and when we were, we did so in jeans and T-shirts.
I’m watching "The Crown" right now and was remembering that in 1982 Britain’s Princess Anne made a visit to Colorado and was hosted at the mansion for a short event. I came home from elementary school in shorts and probably a ratty Greenpeace T-shirt and one of the patrolmen told me what was happening. As my mom recounts it, I simply went up to the princess and stuck my hand out to shake hers. Clearly, propriety and etiquette were not top on my family’s list of priorities.
As for the Mansion itself, the private quarters were not renovated until Mrs. Romer and then Mrs. Owens decided, rightly so, that the place needed an upgrade. During my dad’s time, the bulk of the '70s and early '80s, the private residence was wonderfully homey and definitely of its era. We had shag green carpet and orange/yellow wallpaper in the kitchen and overstuffed bean bags like many other families around us. My parents were not, and thankfully still not, really into a house defining who they are. And to be honest that value showed in spades — perhaps to a fault. I remember this incredibly big ugly greenish chandelier in my room — an original from the time of Mrs. Boettcher. As happens with any kids in any house, inevitably things broke. Over the years pieces and parts of that chandelier came flying off as a result of typical kid stuff. It was just what it was — a half broken, half functioning monstrosity of a light fixture that became part of the family. (I think I still have a piece of that thing in one of my childhood memory boxes). All of that being said, the house is an amazing house — and an amazing historic place — and in retrospect a wonderful adventurous place for any kid to grow up. And yes, it is definitively haunted by Mrs. Boettcher.
CP: If you had your childhood to do over, but couldn’t spend it as a governor’s daughter, what would you choose?
Lamm: I would choose to have the same family, grounded in the same values — a commitment to public service, a quest for adventure and travel and a love of great books, good friends and lots of laughter. I do not think any of that was dependent upon my dad’s office. I know that if my parents had not been involved in Colorado politics they would have done something equally meaningful and adventurous — and I would be honored to be their daughter on whatever path they chose.