Denver weighs the tension between school autonomy and teacher job protections

A first-grade teacher faces her students, who are seated on the rug with their backs to the camera.
First-graders participate in a phonics lesson at Willow Elementary School, one of more than 50 innovation schools in Denver. (AAron Ontiveroz / The Denver Post)

A debate about freeing schools to design their own programs, and whether teachers should give up hard-won contract rights in the process, is bubbling over in Denver.

It started last year when the Denver teachers union came up with an idea to address a longstanding problem it sees with what Colorado calls “innovation schools.”

To gain the flexibility to do things like extend the school day or hire staff early, teachers at innovation schools must approve a package of waivers from district and state rules. The premise behind the waivers is that a school getting first pick of job candidates or being able to offer an extra hour of reading instruction is good for students.

But teachers are also often asked to waive hiring and firing protections of the union contract. That’s the part the union doesn’t like.

The union’s idea? To have teachers vote on the waivers one by one, instead of as a package. That way, teachers could waive district rules without giving up their contract rights.

A school board member liked the idea so much he agreed to bring it forward for consideration. But in the months since he first aired it publicly, parents, teachers, and principals at innovation schools have flooded school board meetings in opposition.

“This proposal demonstrates a complete lack of understanding with regard to the role waivers play in an innovation plan,” Willow Elementary School Principal Amy Gile told the board in June. “Removing even one waiver would make this house of cards fall apart.”

The backlash, along with the need to address more pressing matters related to COVID-19, caused board member Brad Laurvick to reconsider his proposal. 

Last Thursday, the board approved a compromise instead: An eight-month pause on approving any new requests from schools for innovation status. The district will spend those months considering “tension points” and proposing changes to address them.

Superintendent Susana Cordova called it “an elegant solution to a really complicated problem.”

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Innovating and un-innovating

The concept of innovation schools goes back more than a decade in Denver. 

In 2007, Bruce Randolph School in the northeast part of the city had been labeled one of the worst-performing in Colorado and was under threat of a state takeover. Then-principal Kristin Waters, who now leads Denver’s George Washington High, came up with an aggressive improvement plan that included a first-of-its-kind autonomy agreement.

The agreement gave Bruce Randolph the flexibility to do things like recruit teachers outside the official district hiring cycle, and to budget based on teachers’ actual salaries rather than a district average, which Waters figured would save money she could spend on other needs. 

A majority of Bruce Randolph teachers supported the agreement, and the school board approved it. Bruce Randolph’s test scores improved, and the school got off the state’s watchlist.

The following year, Colorado lawmakers passed a bill that afforded district-run schools across the state the same charter school-like autonomy if 60% of teachers agreed.

Today, Denver Public Schools has more innovation schools than any district in the state. About a quarter of Denver’s 206 schools are innovation schools. What’s more, a quarter of those schools belong to school clusters that give them even more autonomy. 

But recently, another trend has emerged. Teachers at several Denver schools have voted against renewing their schools’ innovation plans — reverting them back to traditional schools that must abide by district rules and the union contract. The backlash has coincided with the union’s growing strength and political power.

One of the union’s biggest concerns is that many innovation plans ask teachers to give up the ability to earn “non-probationary status,” which is similar to tenure.

Teachers with that status can only be fired if the district can prove one of several grounds, such as that a teacher was insubordinate or immoral. Non-probationary teachers can also appeal the loss of their status. 

By contrast, teachers at many innovation schools work on yearly contracts without any protections. They can be fired for any reason and don’t have the right to appeal. Denver Classroom Teachers Association leaders see this particular waiver as a union-busting tactic.

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Teachers argue that not protecting their jobs can also be bad for students.

“I like my innovation school; I trust my leadership,” teacher Chris Christoff told the school board, “but I also know that leadership changes. … I don’t want to see a leadership change take advantage of some of the rights we waived in trust of our current leadership and result in a mass exodus from a school that has been doing a really awesome job.”

Promises and pushback

Last October, in the runup to a contentious Denver school board election, teachers questioned the candidates at an event hosted by a group called Coloradans for the Common Good. 

One of the questions: Will you oppose any innovation school plan that waives teachers’ ability to earn non-probationary status? All of the candidates said yes, including the three who were elected: Laurvick, Tay Anderson, and Scott Baldermann.

Three months later, in January, the school board was set to vote on whether to approve or renew innovation plans for 14 schools. Students, parents, teachers, and principals from the schools lined up to give testimony about the benefits of innovation status.

The schools explained how innovation allowed them to tailor their curriculum and teacher training to their specific mission. The principal of Denver’s sole Montessori high school said her school has a chicken coop, an orchard, and a garden, and was starting to raise bees. Students testified about school trips they’d taken to Japan and Puerto Rico. 

The innovation plan, Principal Katy Myers said, “is the central organizing force for our school.”

Other schools talked about how budget flexibility allowed them to hire full-time psychologists and social workers. Denver’s largest elementary school, with 700 students, said it eliminated all suspensions thanks to staff members hired to address student behavior. 

“The plan that was submitted to you had 87% approval from the staff at Green Valley,” said Principal Blake Hammond. “We ask that you support and honor the process that a majority of our community went through … instead of being distracted by one or two voices.”

But teachers opposed to innovation testified, too. What looks like overwhelming approval, they said, is sometimes achieved through ultimatums: If teachers don’t vote for the innovation plan, their school could lose its full-time psychologist or specialized training.

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“While many plans appear to have majority support by educators, this support has often been garnered by fear tactics and job insecurity,” said teacher Monica Hunter.

Teachers with the union’s Black Educator Caucus also argued that innovation policies disproportionately hurt teachers of color. Black and Latino teachers are more likely to work at schools that serve Black and Latino students, many of which have innovation status. It’s not right that teachers at those schools have fewer job projections, they said.

“This is insulting to me both as an educator of color and a parent of a soon-to-be student of color,” said teacher Michael Diaz-Rivera.

The school board unanimously approved all 14 innovation plans that night. But the following month, Laurvick publicly promised reform. “Teachers shouldn’t have to vote against their own needs to support the needs of our students,” he said in February.

A compromise

Then COVID-19 hit. The school board dropped most everything to respond.

In June, with schools out for summer, rumors began circulating that the board was going to vote on Laurvick’s waiver-by-waiver proposal. Innovation supporters once again flooded a board meeting.

They argued that voting on each waiver individually would be time consuming. A rejection of even one waiver could require extensive revisions to the overall plan, resulting in an endless cycle of voting and revising, they said. If certain principals are abusing the process, they said the district should go after them individually rather than “attack” the whole system.

“All educators know time is precious,” said Susannah Clark, a teacher at Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Early College, “and the more we spend going through each waiver, the fewer opportunities we have as teachers to create culturally relevant lessons.”

The board didn’t vote in June. Rather, in September, Laurvick unveiled his compromise.

It suspends new innovation plans and renewals until May. Every school whose plan would have come up for renewal will get a temporary extension.

The compromise, codified in a resolution, also calls for the district to research “key questions” about innovation schools and publicly report its findings.

Then, in partnership with the teachers union, principals, families, district staff, and others, the board will develop ideas “for addressing key tension points or challenges, including potential changes to policy or practice,” the resolution says.

“I think innovation schools are a good part of our system. I’m also a person who believes in workers’ rights,” Laurvick said. “I think you can believe in both of those things.”

The work is set to start soon.

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