Why the Denver school board ‘flipped’ and what might happen next

Carried by momentum from February’s teachers strike and a broader backlash against the status quo, candidates opposed to the policies that made Denver Public Schools a national exemplar for education reform now control the school board for the first time.

Instead of five members backed by pro-reform organizations and two backed by the teachers union, the seven-member board will now feature five members backed by the teachers union: Jennifer Bacon and Carrie Olson, who won seats in 2017, and Tay Anderson, Scott Baldermann, and Brad Laurvick, who won seats this week.

The question now is what this “flip” will mean for teachers, students, and parents.

Those who have supported the district’s approach to school improvement fear that families will have fewer choices and schools won’t be held accountable for how well they serve students. Backers of the new board majority say the previous approach still left too many students behind. They’ve pledged to put more dollars in the classroom, make faster progress against achievement gaps, and not close neighborhood schools.

“Schools are reflections of the community,” said Tiffany Choi, a high school French teacher who recently became president of the Denver Classroom Teachers Association. “If we call a school ‘failing’, it’s almost like we’re calling the community ‘failing.’”

Denver Public Schools is Colorado’s largest school district with nearly 93,000 students. Once the lowest-performing large district in the state, Denver’s student test scores have improved to within a few points of the state average. But the district is still plagued by persistent problems of equity. For example, 74% of white students, but only 29% of black students, in grades three through eight met expectations on the state literacy test this spring.

The strategies employed by the district, which included fostering a “portfolio” of different school types, encouraging families to choose between them, and closing or replacing schools that don’t make the grade, helped raise achievement. But they also fueled a growing discontent among some community members and teachers, which in turn fueled February’s strike.

Van Schoales, CEO of the pro-reform education advocacy organization A Plus Colorado, points to a “disconnect” between the school district and the community. For several years, he said, the community has felt the district “had tin ears around a number of issues.”

“The common sense was that the district has community meetings, but they don’t really listen,” Schoales said. “So I think this is a natural backlash from that.”

Others, including Choi, credited the strike with raising awareness among Denver citizens who may not ordinarily pay much attention to Denver Public Schools that teachers were not happy — both with their pay and with reform policies.

Strikes “are transformative because they compel conversations that would never normally happen,” said Wendy Howell, deputy director of the Colorado Working Families Party, which supported the strike and two of the three union-backed school board candidates. “The power of those conversations outweighs any [campaign] mailer.”

Some see the election results as a rejection of big money. For several years, deep-pocketed donors and national organizations with local chapters, such as Stand for Children, have outspent the teachers union to support candidates more favorable to reform.

“Voters are tired of seeing outside influence manipulating local politics like our school board,” said Elsa Rocha, executive director of the Padres & Jóvenes Unidos Action Fund, a new political committee opposed to reform that grew out of a longstanding Denver advocacy group. “This is a way for voters and community folks to be like, ‘Enough is enough.’”

Still others tie the defeat of reform-backed candidates to voters’ distaste for President Trump and his education secretary, Betsy DeVos. While the Denver candidates soundly reject things like private school vouchers, the idea of reform is now tainted with some Democratic voters, which the union capitalized on with mailers linking their opponents to Republicans.

Krista Spurgin, executive director of Stand for Children Colorado, chalks the election results up to a general recoiling from the status quo. Stand for Children endorsed a slate of candidates — Alexis Menocal Harrigan, Diana Romero Campbell, and Tony Curcio — that lost. Though none were incumbents, the candidates were supported by current board members.

“I think there was a national wave that wanted a change,” said Spurgin, whose organization spent more than $300,000 in the race. “When you have a ‘flip the board’-type slogan, that feels like change. … I don’t think we can now say the whole community doesn’t like reform policies.”

The union-backed candidates campaigned on a platform of a smaller district bureaucracy, more dollars flowing directly to classrooms, higher teacher pay, and more mental health services for students. The reform-backed candidates promised the same things. But the union-backed candidates also pledged an end to school closures and a halt to approving new charter schools.

The union-backed candidates also questioned the merits of Denver’s school choice system, which they said creates winners and losers: those who are lucky enough to get into a good school and have the transportation to get there, and those who don’t.

Spurgin said she’s worried the new union-backed board will dismantle the systems she believes have helped the district improve. That includes cultivating a “portfolio” of school models, including charter schools, and allowing families to choose the best one for their child.

“We work with families in all [school] models and they all love their schools,” Spurgin said. “I don’t want to take that away from them.”

Schoales, of A Plus Colorado, said his biggest fear is that the new board won’t set goals for student achievement. For the past five years, the district has had a goal that 80% of third-graders would be reading on grade-level by 2020. Though it will likely fall far short — 39% were on grade-level last year — having a target has helped the district focus, he said.

“Will reading be important?” Schoales asked. “And if so, will there be a measurable goal around it? For better or worse, Denver has set itself apart from other districts in that they actually set out a goal you could benchmark against, which I think is critical.”

Reading is important, said Bacon, a union-backed board member elected in 2017. But she expects the new board majority will question whether standardized tests are the best way to measure whether students are succeeding and schools are high-quality.

“I’m not going to say, ‘Let’s lower our standards,’” Bacon said. “The interesting thing about having new voices [on the board] is that we have an opportunity to say what it is we want — and figure out how to build it, rather than use old tools.”

None of the newly elected board members have called to end Denver’s school choice system. State law allows students to choose a school other than the one to which they’re assigned, and Denver’s unified enrollment system makes it easier to do so. Bacon and others acknowledge that Denver’s landscape of charter and district-run schools would not be easily undone.

Even before the election, the board had backed away from closing low-performing schools, instead giving them more time to improve. Faced with flat enrollment, it had also slowed the pace at which it approved and opened new schools, including charters.

Those shifts are part of the reason board Vice President Barbara O’Brien, who first won election in 2013 with backing from pro-reform organizations, doesn’t expect a wrenching change when the new board members take office next month.

“The reality of the board is so different from what a campaign is like,” O’Brien said. “A campaign is all about you, you, you, what you’re trying to communicate, how you distinguish yourself from the other candidates. Then you get on the school board and you’re one of seven.

“I believe that everyone who just got elected wants the same things the current school board members want. We all want education to be better for all kids.”

But those who supported the newly elected board members hope some things do change.

“I’m looking forward to seeing immediate change,” said community activist Jeff Fard. “I do not want to see a flipped board going into an old system saying, ‘Now that we are here, we need to go slowly, we need to accommodate.’ We need them to go in and do the work boldly.”

Rocha, of the Padres & Jóvenes Unidos Action Fund, said she wants to see the board eliminate racial disparities in student discipline and invest in school-based mental health workers.

Choi, president of the teachers union, said she wants to see more transparency in how the district spends its $1 billion budget. Rather than focus on “turning around” failing schools, she wants the board to give schools the resources they need.

Where to get those resources is a question the new board will have to tackle. The district’s ability to raise new dollars is limited.

But regardless of what happens next, even supporters of education reform admit that a new era is dawning. Paul Hill, founder of the Center on Reinventing Public Education, said the new board members face a challenge: showing that their approach will do more for student achievement than any reform policies they may discard.

“It’s fair to say that the people who thought new schools and autonomy were the wave of the future, that is slowing down,” Hill said. “But will the people who reject those things be able to accomplish anything? Or will the same problems come back to haunt them?”