Denver's Moment of Reckoning is Approaching

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By Moira Cullen, DFER Colorado State Director

Is Denver going to follow in the footsteps of other reform minded urban school districts that saw momentum, change, and improvement fade away? Or will we be one of the few cities to sustain and even accelerate effective school reform?  

In less than two weeks, the most hotly contested and expensive school board race in the history of Colorado will come to an end. It looks like nearly $1 million will be spent by both sides in this election by the time Election Day arrives on November 1st.  

Denver has a seven-person school board with four members currently supporting the Superintendent Tom Boasberg and a broad set of reforms while the remaining three board members have relied upon Diane Ravitch to try to thwart nearly every reform initiative. Needless to say, if two of the three seats go to anti-reform candidates, Boasberg will need to look for another job and the Colorado reform community is going to have to look to some other districts for bold leadership.  

Denver has been the epicenter for reform in Colorado since Michael Bennet took the helm of Denver Public Schools (DPS). Most of the reforms, which were highlighted in Colorado's Race to the Top application and elsewhere, are dependent upon Denver leading the charge.   

Denver has been ahead of the curve with new high quality schools, school performance management, public school choice, charter school authorization, teacher effectiveness policies, school turnaround efforts and more. While many do not believe all of these efforts will work or that the district has everything needed to pull all of them off, we do believe that there is enough capacity and commitment on the part of Boasberg, the current board majority, our community, and many in DPS to make needed changes that will move the needle on student achievement.   

If the Denver school board flips, you can be assured that most of this reform work, which has taken about a decade to build, could fade away within a year. Just recall San Diego, for a hard lesson on how quickly a school board can change and do a U-turn.  

The good news is that the board races are going very well. In particular, Happy Haynes is standing out above her four competitors. The more challenging races are the other two seats, one in southeast Denver where Anne Rowe, a longtime education reformer, DPS volunteer and the DFER-CO supported candidate, is fighting toe to toe with Emily Sirota, who recently moved to Colorado and is being supported by the teachers' union, and, apparently, the Governor of Montana. The most contentious race is in NW Denver between the incumbent Arturo Jimenez and Jennifer Draper Carson, an involved DPS volunteer, DPS mom and DFER-CO supported candidate. Interestingly, Jimenez, now supported mostly with teachers' union money, was elected as a reformer with support from many of the same business leaders who are now supporting Draper Carson. But, he lost the support of the reform community when, repeatedly, he spoke and voted, against, among others, key reforms such as placement of the West Denver Prep charter schools (the highest performing schools in the district with 90% low-income Latino students), innovation schools, and Colorado's Race to the Top application. 

Taking on an incumbent is never easy, but Draper Carson is running a great race and gaining momentum. She's been clear about the problems in DPS and what she will do to support much needed reforms in what can be clearly described as the worst part of Denver for quality schools

One of the unforeseen outcomes of this contentious NW Denver school board race has been the emergence of a brand new group of Latino community leaders willing to get involved and push for school reform that will benefit all of Denver's kids. Theresa Pena, a recent winner of DFER's Brian Bennett Education Warrior Award is among the 50 Latino leaders taking on this fight and holding Jimenez accountable for his voting record.  

In addition, a Denver Classroom Teachers Association funded 527 group called "Delta 4.0" has recently flooded Denver mailboxes with pieces supporting Jimenez and Sirota. As a 527 (a political campaign fund run by interest groups and used to raise money to spend on issue advocacy and voter mobilization outside of the restrictions on PACs), we won't know how much money they have spent, or what they have spent it on, until after the election is over.  

All of these reformers, Haynes, Rowe and Draper Carson could use any support to get over the finish line. First and foremost this is a race that will decide the direction of Denver schools in the future. But this will also be a race to decide where Colorado stacks up on education reform, and in turn, influence reform around the country.  

Moira Cullen, State Director for DFER-Colorado, specializes in advocating for education reform, higher education, non-profit advocacy, and children's policy issues as a lobbying expert in Denver, CO. Read more about Moira here.