Denver’s longtime superintendent turned the city into a national school reform favorite

Over Tom Boasberg’s nearly 10 years as Denver superintendent, he made a national impact.

He pioneered a model of school reform that involved close collaboration — rather than hostility or solely competition — with charter schools, helping inspire a national push to bring similar policies to cities across the country.

By marshaling unusual levels of political support, donations from both local and national philanthropies, and a lengthy tenure, Boasberg was able to execute on that vision, even if the effectiveness of his approach remains the subject of fierce debate.

“What Denver realized is you could fight charter school growth or you could work with the charters to achieve your goals,” said Robin Lake of the Center on Reinventing Public Education, which studies and has supported the portfolio model, which Denver has embraced. “They’ve been at the forefront of a lot of really important developments in the field.”

Today, over half of Denver’s public schools are either charters or “innovation schools,” which are district-run schools given charter-like flexibility. The city has a common enrollment system for district and charter schools. Boasberg also led the charge to close schools deemed low-performing, even over the opposition of many in the community.

But while he championed the bread-and-butter education reform playbook of charters and test-based accountability, he pushed for school funding, more integrated schools, restorative justice, and the rights of immigrant children. He also described his approach to school choice as driven by concerns about equity, and pushed charters to accept more students with disabilities and for in-demand schools to take in more students mid-year.

During his tenure, Denver became a magnet for money from national philanthropies that support charter schools, while also attracting the attention of other school districts looking for models. Delegations from cities including Philadelphia and Washington, D.C. have trekked to Denver to examine its approach, while the head of Kansas City schools and Boston media have highlighted Denver’s tactics, too.

What enabled Boasberg’s lengthy tenure was the backing of the city’s school board. The degree of support ranged from 4-3 to 7-0, but his allies never lost their grip on the board for his nearly decade-long tenure — a sign, backers say, of his deep well of support in the city.

Many of those members’ campaigns were supported by pro-charter donors. In last year’s contentious board races, Democrats for Education Reform and Stand for Children spent hundreds of thousands of dollars combined to back pro-Boasberg candidates. Those dollars outstripped substantial spending by local teachers unions, which often butted heads with Boasberg.

Local and national philanthropies interested in education reform also saw Denver as a testing ground for key initiatives.

In 2009, the district netted well over $4 million from the Michael and Susan Dell Foundation to fund its school accountability framework and teacher performance pay system; in 2012, it took in another $4 million from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to support collaboration between charter and district schools. According to documents obtained through a public records request, the district recently received $375,000 from Dell and $335,000 from the Walton Family Foundation to support its enrollment system, touted by some as a national model.

The district’s approach has also drawn substantial support from local funders, including the Donnell-Kay Foundation and Gates Family Foundation.

(Chalkbeat is also funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates, Donnell-Kay, Gates Family, and Walton foundations.)

Advocates of the portfolio model — which posits that schools of all types will do best when they are given autonomy, are held accountable for results, are chosen by families, and have their overarching functions like enrollment overseen by a central body — have highlighted Denver as a model. (Although Denver has a “portfolio management” team, Boasberg, like many other district leaders, avoids this term, referring instead to the district’s “family of schools.”)

“Denver still has a long way to go but its progress offers hope to other urban districts with elected school boards,” wrote David Osborne in a book promoting the portfolio approach, which uses Denver as a case study. “A combination of courageous leadership, political skills, and positive results has yielded broad support for its strategy.”

Boasberg continued and expanded on policies begun by his predecessor Michael Bennet, now a U.S. Senator, creating unusual continuity of leadership. But there were still fierce local fights about the direction of the district.

Boasberg faced pushback locally both from those who wanted to slow down the expansion of charter schools and those who wanted to speed it up. Two critics of the district’s direction won seats on the school board in the most recent election.

“You have a number of people he works with that are reformers. They think he’s leaving an awesome legacy,” said Brandon Pryor, a local critic and member of Our Voice, Our Schools. “But if you come to my community and ask some black folks what Tom Boasberg’s legacy will be, they’ll tell you something totally different.”

Earlier this year, former Denver student Vanessa Quintana spearheaded an initiative at the state’s Democratic convention to condemn the group Democrats for Education Reform. She was driven by Bennet’s closure of her high school in 2006.

“When Manual [High School] shut down my freshman year, it told me education reformers didn’t find me worthy of a school,” she said. The school eventually restarted, but continued to struggle under Boasberg.

In 2015, the district adopted a new policy meant to demystify its school closure rules, then closed an elementary school for poor performance. The rollout was widely seen as rocky, and the district halted its closure policy this year.

Boasberg has faced pushback from local school choice advocates, too, including those who felt he wasn’t tough enough on low-performing schools or aggressive enough in expanding charters.

Meanwhile, last year, U.S. Secretary of Education and charter advocate Betsy DeVos criticized Denver’s approach to school choice as not expansive enough — something that charter advocates in the heavily blue city privately celebrated.

The effectiveness of Denver’s approach remains an open question. Test scores and graduation rates have improved, and students’ academic growth has outstripped that of many other cities. Still, yawning disparities between the district’s low-income and higher-income students remain.

Research on those questions is surprisingly limited for a city whose approach is so widely touted. Studies have shown that Denver’s charter schools generally outperform the district on standardized tests, but there is little if any research on how the city’s reforms have affected school performance across the board.

Lake, of CRPE, says that while other cities can take lessons from Denver, she warns leaders not to believe they can easily transport the policies of one city into another.

“Every local context deserves its own approach,” she said. “I don’t think there should be any cookie cutters.”