Denver public schools_DCIS Montbello

A student raises her hand at DCIS Montbello during a reading assignment in a classroom at the Denver school in May.

Eric Sondermann

Eric Sondermann

On most topics, my role is that of the non-aligned, down-the-middle political analyst. The one holding both sides to account and often trying to find a path between two poles.

But on educational issues, I am anything but that centrist, impartial voice. For many years, I have been an unabashed advocate of choice and schools of innovation and autonomy. Readers deserve to know where I stand in considering my assessment of what just transpired and what it means.

To begin, let’s acknowledge the obvious. The results of the Denver school board elections were decisive and unambiguous. Many observers, myself included, saw this coming. But not by those margins. Congratulations to the victors. The voters of Denver spoke clearly and all concerned must listen.

In politics, pendulums swing. After the better part of 15 years of control of the DPS Board by self-described “reformers,” this pendulum swung hard.

Voters decided, perhaps with some justification, that the reform movement had grown tired, entrenched and insular. Long in the tooth, if you will, not in terms of age but in terms of time at the helm.

Backed by supportive boards, Michael Bennet during his three years as superintendent and then Tom Boasberg over his decade produced notable change. The district became one centered on parental choice, particularly crucial in low-income communities to give students a chance at something far better than the failing school down the block. Charters and other schools of innovation proliferated — some exceptional; others well above average; and some that didn’t meet the mark.

Graduation rates improved. While achievement across all schools is not what it should be and an intractable gap persists penalizing far too many students of color, district-wide results increased during this period, propelled significantly by the performance of a number of charter schools.

The record was far from perfect. But it was a solid one, elevating the district from the preceding years of relative stagnation. And one that positioned Denver as a national leader and, rightfully, the recipient of national acclaim.

Though in Boasberg’s waning years and since, it is arguable that the DPS agenda grew stale and timid. There seemed a dwindling appetite for bold strokes and tough calls. Bureaucratic and technocratic decisions were sometimes difficult for even allies to defend.

All movements have a life cycle. If the multi-year reform agenda of DPS was running on fumes, the opposition grew full of vim and vigor. Parents became weary of constantly hearing that their neighborhood school was sub-par. Testing consumed more and more student time and often appeared an end to itself. There was no longer an availability of empty school buildings for new charters.

Of most political import, Betsy DeVos became the off-putting face of so-called education reform across the nation. Given the notable impact she had two years ago on school board elections in conservative Douglas County, it was inevitable that the consequence would be huge in liberal Denver.

Then the teacher strike last February galvanized opposition to an increasingly tentative and embattled board. Excuse me for detecting cynical calculation behind the strike. But such is politics. The union and its allies effectively used it to frame the issue not around choice or equity or even quality, but around support for teachers. That formulation, pulled together neatly under the heading of “flip the board,” led in a straight line to last week’s big wins and dramatic changeover.

So what now for reformers and their efforts?

For starters, the movement needs a reboot. It needs to get younger and far more diverse and community-centered.

It needs to enlist teachers instead of too often demonizing them. While there is no question that there exists a sub-set of teachers who ought to be in another line of work, all of the political blood spilled over teacher evaluation (dating back to Senate Bill 191 in 2010) has proven hardly worth it.

It needs to refresh the vision and concede that charters are only a piece of the puzzle. It needs to recognize that an unacceptable achievement gap remains and be open to new approaches to close it. It needs to earnestly seek out the next big, transformative idea, focusing as much on the 18 hours each day that students are not in school as on the roughly six hours there.

Above all, it requires newer, fresher voices to reengage the battle. For too long, there has been a sense that the merits of choice and of a portfolio of school options are self-evident. Wrong. That intellectual and moral case must be made over and over again. The canard that charter schools are somehow “privatized” or “corporate” must be rebutted at every turn. That may have germs of truth elsewhere, but is fake news here in Colorado.

To regain traction in overwhelmingly Democratic Denver, it must regain resonance with Democrats. In this campaign, the advocacy group Democrats for Education Reform left the playing field. Attacking or belittling DFER has become a cheap applause line at Democratic rallies. A leading presidential candidate has pledged to eliminate all federal funding for charter schools. Ten years ago, there was a robust debate within the Democratic Party on education policy. These days, it is a one-sided diatribe with few dissenting voices. Reformers must re-engage this fight instead of conceding it.

Moreover, the geography of the effort needs to expand. For too long, it has been far too Denver-centric. Two-thirds of metro-area families of poverty now live in inner-ring suburbs, not in Denver. It is overdue for the focus to shift to Aurora, Commerce City, Thornton, Englewood, and so on.

And what now for DPS?

If the new board can fulfill its promise to direct more funds to classrooms and reduce administrative bloat, hats off to them. If they can streamline the testing regimen to serve its intended purpose without abandoning it altogether, more applause. And high-fives if they take meaningful steps to heal a divided district.

However, on the flip side, if they eliminate the choice process or close high-achieving charters or gut accountability or recentralize the bureaucracy, they will face major blowback. Similarly, if they consign Denver’s neediest students to inferior schools or restore the practice of forced placement of the least able teachers in low-achieving schools or reject promising, innovative school designs, the headwinds will mount.

The implicit message of the winning board candidates was that of a return to the good, old days of little Johnny and little Susie walking to their neighborhood school and gaining a wonderful education under the tutelage of a wise, experienced, nurturing teacher. But for far too many students and families, those good, old days were a fiction and an empty promise.

Eric Sondermann is a Colorado-based independent political commentator. His column appears every Wednesday in ColoradoPolitics. Reach him at; follow him at @EricSondermann

(1) comment


I am all in favor of school choice, and somewhat lukewarm in my support of charters. My own child attends one, and our experience has been mixed. They haven't been the panacea that education reformers have hoped, and opening too many charters at the same time produces some very destructive side effects (including rampant school closures and higher student mobility). The most powerful criticism of them has proven true in my personal experience. They really do cherry-pick their students.

My daughter was on an IEP receiving less than an hour a week of intervention when she enrolled in the charter she is attending, and I was informed that she was borderline for meeting their acceptance criteria. State law allows this completely. Schools are permitted to deny students outside their boundary areas enrollment on the basis of whether there is enough room in their special education program for the student. That means that students receiving special education may have no choice at all in what school to attend, depending on school policies. Charters often choose not to provide space for students with needs. No students live within their boundary areas. Until state law makes clear that charters must accept students with special needs on the same basis as other students, the people who oppose charters have a good reason for their concern.

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