The New Education Reform Lie: Why Denver Is a Warning Sign, Not a Model, for Urban School Districts

Yves here. A deep dive into charter schools, using the major shortcomings in Denver as a point of departure, focusing on how resources are diverted from education to administration, marketing, and political consultants.

By Jeff Bryant,s director of the Education Opportunity Network, a partnership effort of the Institute for America’s Future and the Opportunity to Learn Campaign. He has written extensively about public education policy. Originally published at Alternet

Scott Gilpin works in advertising, so he’s used to dealing with people in the promotions business. He’s just not used to seeing them operating a local public school.

Gilpin lives in Denver, where he grew up, graduated from high school and now has two children enrolled in the public school system. Recently, when he decided to get more involved in Denver school politics, he discovered that the most rapidly growing form of school in his community were charter schools. So he determined to check one out.

When he toured his first charter, a school in the Strive Preparatory network, he couldn’t help but take note of the school’s staffing structure, which could have supported a mid-sized promotional campaign: his guide was the chief of external affairs for the network, and the school boasted a senior director of development and an associate director of recruitment, too.

Gilpin—who sent his children to the local public school they were zoned for, as his parents had done—wondered, “What kind of local public school needs to recruit its students?”

As Gilpin would learn, lots of new Denver schools are that “kind of school.”

Across the city, Denver has opened 27 charter schools in the last five years, and plans to start up six more in the 2016-17 school year – effectively doubling the number of charter schools in the city in less than six years, according to a recent report from the Center for Popular Democracy, a left-leaning research and advocacy organization in Washington, DC. Yet this rush to expand charters is hardly justified by the performance of the ones already in operation.

According to CPD, based on the school performance framework Denver uses to evaluate its own schools, “Forty percent of Denver charter schools are performing below expectations.” And of those schools, 38 percent are performing significantly below expectations.

Nevertheless, numerous articles and reports in mainstream media outlets and education policy sites enthusiastically tout Denver as the place to see the next important new “reform” in education policy in action.

“Reformers are paying close attention to Denver,” notes David Osborne of the Progressive Policy Institute in an op-ed recently published by U.S. News & World Report. Osborne declares Denver’s education reform effort a success based on evidence of gains in “academic growth” and on-time high school graduation. He says Denver can show the rest of the nation “a way to transform … 20th-century school systems, built on the principles of bureaucracy, into 21st-century systems, built to deliver continuous improvement.”

Recent reports from other Beltway-based think tanks, on both the right and the left of the political spectrum, also hail Denver as a model for advancing “school choice” and charter schools that have the power to “transform” the education of low-performing students. Earlier this year, the Brookings Institution named Denver the second-best of the nation’s 100+ largest school districts that provide parents with options for “school choice.”

But Gilpin and other Denverites tell a different story about Denver-style urban school reform.

Instead of a glowing example, they point to warning signs. Rather than a narrative of success, their stories reveal disturbing truths about Denver’s version of modern urban school reform – how policy direction is often controlled by big money and insiders, why glowing promises of “improvement” should be regarded with skepticism, and what the movement’s real impacts are, especially in communities dominated by poor families of color.

‘Eye Opening’ Revelations

Gilpin’s initial foray into Denver school politics began in 2011 when he joined in a campaign in support of a new bond initiative to raise new funding for, “school renovations and classroom enrichment programs,” as the Denver Post put it.

The proposals passed in the 2012 ballot, but Gilpin’s plunge into citizen involvement brought him up close to the often-unseen inner workings of contemporary urban education reform in Denver.

“What I found was eye-opening,” Gilpin tells me in a phone conversation. Among those eye-openers were the intense lobbying and marketing efforts being undertaken to promote charter schools; their powerful and elite corps of backers; and the staggering amount of money, from taxpayers and private donors, that is being funneled to them.

Specifically, Gilpin saw firsthand how bond money intended for renovations and instructional programs was instead used to purchase a 13-story building downtown to house, in part, a new charter school.

Gilpin then learned that the district’s chief operations officer, David Suppes, had signed the intent-to-purchase agreement  for the new building on August 10, nearly two weeks before the board approved the bond initiative on August 23. Gilpin also saw how school leadership overlapped with the vendors and contractors used by the schools, potentially creating conflicts of interest and cronyism.

As the Colorado Independent reports, two members of the controlling school board majority in 2013, Barbara O’Brien and Landri Taylor, headed up organizations that contracted directly with the city school district. The two consistently voted with attorney Mike Johnson, whose law firm earned $3.8 million from the district during his tenure on an advisory committee before stepping up to the board.

Taylor, who was appointed to the board in 2013 and had the advantage of running as an incumbent in 2015, was well known as a key backer of opening new charter schools. After winning the election in 2015, he abruptly resigned earlier this year for family reasons.

To replace Taylor, the board picked MiDian Holmes who, according to Chalkbeat Colorado, is “an active member in the school reform advocacy group Stand for Children,” a pro-charter organization that has made large donations to school board candidates running on a pro-reform platform. (Holmes eventually resigned when background checks revealed she is a convicted child abuser, and the board seat is, at this date, vacant.)

This tight, sometimes hidden, collusion in Denver school governance has led Gilpin to believe Denver reform is the product of “an elite circle” of people with little to no input from the public. Other careful observers agree.

“Forced on Our Community”

“They invite the community to look at plans already being put into place,” Earleen Brown tells me about the Denver school board in a conversation over the phone.

An African American grandmother from a Northeast Denver community populated predominantly by non-white, poor families, Brown sees the Denver school reform model from a very different vantage point from where Gilpin sees it. (Denver schools are majority Latino and African American, with 70 percent of students classified as low-income and nearly a third non-native English speakers.) But she shares many of his concerns.

Like Gilpin, Brown’s involvement in Denver school politics began with a bond referendum, this one in 2008. In that effort, Brown contends, there was widespread belief money would go toward paying for either a new traditional comprehensive public high school in Northeast Denver or for a substantial renovation of the existing Montbello High School.

In 2009, after the bond passed, district officials approached parents in the Montbello neighborhood, a mostly African American community, with a set of four options for the struggling high school. The options followed guidelines from the Obama administration, which ranged from changing staffing to closing the school. Parents, Brown recalls, created a petition campaign that gathered over 300 names in favor of the option labeled “transformation,” the choice generally agreed to be the least disruptive to the school.

But when district officials came back with their decision, they had picked a different option: turnaround, generally regarded as a much more disruptive process. And the next year, Montbello parents learned yet another option had been chosen for their school: closure. The last class to graduate from Montbello was in 2014, and the school is now no more.

Now the community has – instead of the traditional, comprehensive high school parents requested – an array of new charter schools. Housed in what used to be Montbello High are two innovation schools (schools that get much of the flexibility of charter schools but are not privately operated). One school has a very specialized program focused on international studies. The other is an arts-focused school that is already being scaled back due to academic distress.

Some of the new schools serving the Montbbello community are well known for enforcing the harshest forms of school discipline disproportionally on students of color. A 2015 report from a Denver-based education justice and civil and immigrant rights organization tracked Denver school discipline incidents – such as out-of-school suspension, expulsion, or referral to law enforcement – and the correlation of those incidents to race.

What the report shows, according to a review in the Colorado Independent, is that students of color in Denver schools are 219 percent more likely to receive harsher discipline than their white peers. The disparity is particularly acute among charter and innovation schools. According to the report, nine of the ten worst offenders in Denver are charter or innovation schools. The schools that replaced Montbello high are numbers five and two on the 10 worst list, with racial gaps in punishment that are 990.9 and 1,361.4 percent wider. (The worst school, a charter with a racial punishment gap of 2,991.2 percent, is now closed.)

The discriminatory treatment toward her community has led Brown to believe the whole Denver reform model has been “forced on our community.”

What Big Money Wants

While some parents see the effort to remake Denver’s schools as an agenda controlled by a small circle of local actors, others point to big money and influence coming from outside.

When Emily Sirota and her family moved to Denver in 2007, she and her husband quickly became concerned the schools their children would eventually attend were too focused on test scores and competition, and that leadership was “divorced from the desires of families,” she tells me in a phone call. Her concerns motivated her to run for school board in 2011.

The quick lesson Sirota learned about Denver education politics was that connections to big money had more to do with determining opposing forces than traditional party lines.

Sirota, who is a Democrat, aligns politically with many in Denver who participate in education advocacy and serve on appointed education committees and elected boards. But because she did not align with the reform orthodoxy of school closures and charter school expansions (a wave of reform that many trace to Michael Bennet, a former investment banker who was superintendent of the district from 2005 to 2009 and is now a Democratic U.S. Senator for Colorado), she was not on the side of big money.

As The Nation’s John Nichols reported at the time, big money lined up with Sirota’s opponent Anne Rowe. Rowe, a former owner of a Denver publishing business, has strong ties to the Denver Public Schools’ political establishment and was founding co-chair of A+ Denver, an influential advocacy group that backs charter schools and the Denver reform model.

Nichols notes that Rowe received strong financial support from “donors who, in several cases, have ties to groups that promote charter schools and vouchers” across the country, including the Alliance for Choice in Education, Stand for Children, and Democrats for Education Reform.

That funding disadvantage – Rowe out-raised Sirota by more than $90,000 – was “one of the biggest reasons” she lost, Sirota contends. An article for In These Times points out that many of the same donors who funded her opponent also funded two other establishment candidates – Allegra Haynes, who won her race, and Jennifer Draper Carson, who lost hers by just 73 votes.

“Denver school board elections are just the latest examples of elections being bought,” says Jeannie Kaplan, an eight-year veteran of the Denver school board. Kaplan, who has lived in Denver for over 40 years and raised children in the local public schools, first ran for school board in 2005 in an open seat contest she won. Kaplan was term-limited out in 2013 and could no longer run. Two years later, deep-pocketed privatizers poured money into the school board race and swept the election to take a 7-0 majority. As Kaplan describes on her personal blog, a key to the election sweep was late money coming into the race to preserve the at-large seat held by the pro-reform Haynes.

Campaign funding reports show that Haynes outspent her opponent Robert Speth by more than 2 to 1.

An article in the American Prospect on the increasing role of big money in school board races reports that Democrats for Education Reform, a PAC founded by hedge fund managers that pushes hard to expand charter schools nationwide, ”contributed a quarter-million dollars to launch the Raising Colorado super PAC, which went on to spend $90,000 running ads and mailing flyers” in support of Haynes and Lisa Flores, another pro-reform candidate who also won. (According to the Center for Media and Democracy, DFER has poured millions of dollars of “dark money” into elections in Colorado and other states to tilt elections to candidates who favor charters and other “reform” measures.)

As Kaplan writes in a blog post,”Public education in Denver, despite what you may have heard or read about in the press, is a system in chaos. It is a system run by a cabal. It is a system where politics, pardon the expression, trumps good policy and the truth.”

‘Highly Politicized’

So how did education reform in Denver become mostly about politics and power?

“Denver school reform has become highly politicized because the ideas supporting it are highly controversial,” Chris Lubienski, an education scholar and a professor of education policy, organization, and leadership at the University of Illinois, tells me over the phone.

From 2011 to 2015, Lubienski and a team of other education researchers conducted a study to ascertain how intermediary organizations (IOs) supported by foundations and philanthropists influence public opinion on education in Denver. These organizations, which “serve a number of functions in school reform, including advocacy, consultation, policy design, alternative teacher and leadership preparation, and research,” tend to promote reforms that “are often highly contested by parents, public education advocates, and teachers unions,” the report contends. “In addition, the research evidence on the efficacy of these reforms is similarly unsettled.”

“In Denver, reform ideas emerged from a very small handful of people,” Lubienski tells me. “Reformers who work there may believe the origin of these ideas is in research and is homegrown,” but he points to influence centers outside Denver, such as Silicon Valley and Washington, D.C., as more likely incubators of these reforms.

Lubienski also questions claims from Denver reform proponents that a democratic process produced their policies. “Their origins are not as democratic as is suggested,” he shares. “Having policy decisions result from more of a consensus-based approach is admirable. But in Denver, that consensus is not as well developed as many people say it is.”

In Denver, according to the study, only three foundations – the Daniels, Piton, and Donnell-Kay Foundations – fund most of the IOs driving change in the system. “Without this hub of funding,” the report concludes, “and alignment around the importance of [these] reforms, it is unlikely that such reforms would have moved forward at the size and scope that we witness in Denver.”

The study from Lubienski et. al., also cites the influence of a small number of national foundations, principally the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, that advocate for expansions of charter schools. Other sources, such as the Denver Post, document the influence of the Walton Family Foundation, the philanthropic organization created by the wealth of the family that owns the Walmart retail chain. According to the Post, in 2011, WFF awarded Denver with nearly $8 million in grant money, “more than many of the nation’s largest cities,” because of “the strength and profile of [Denver’s] charter-school world.”

The Problem With ‘Portfolio’ Reform

Though the evidence that the reforms these foundations are pushing actually work is nowhere near as convincing reformers would have you believe, efforts to root charters deep within Denver’s educational soil continue apace.

The mechanism reformers have used to seed the growth of charters across the city is the “portfolio model” — an approach that “shifts decision-making away from district superintendents and other central-office leaders,” according to the National Education Policy Center. Four strategies form the core foundation of such an approach: “school-level decentralization of management; the reconstitution or closing of ‘failing’ schools; the expansion of choice, primarily through charter schools; and performance-based (generally test-based) accountability.”

In Denver’s case, the portfolio approach has led to the rapid expansion of charters while closing supposedly failed public schools. As Osborne writes in his U.S. News op-ed, “Since 2005 [Denver] has closed or replaced 48 schools and opened more than 70, the majority of them charters.” Of Denver’s 223 schools, 55 are charters and another 38 are “innovation schools” which Osborne describes as being “like charters.”

To feed the system’s numerous new charter schools, Denver has implemented an enrollment process that gives parents the opportunity to list up to 5 schools for their children to attend rather than simply relying on proximity. To help guide parents in making their school choices, the district uses a school ranking system with color-coded labels for schools – blue at the top (for “distinguished), green, yellow, orange, and red (for “accredited on probation”) at the bottom. The rankings are used not only by parents, but also by the district to determine which schools need interventions and closure.

As Chalkbeat notes, Denver also has “enrollment zones” where students “are given a preference at the schools in the zone and are guaranteed a spot at one of them, though not necessarily their first pick. The zones are set up to encourage — some would say force — families to participate in the choice process.”

But research experts are skeptical the portfolio approach alone will yield good results.

In an op-ed for Education Week, Montclair State University professor Katrina Bulkley joins with Columbia Teachers College professors Jeffrey Henig and Henry Levin to caution, “The portfolio-management approach to urban education is a work in progress.”

NEPC adds further caution, writing, “There exists a very limited body of generally accepted research about the effects of portfolio district reform.”

NEPC managing director William Mathis, one of the report’s authors, tells me that it is, in particular, the combination of reforms that confounds research into portfolio results. “There are so many factors at play that describing causality is problematic,” Mathis notes. “Portfolios mean different things in different places.”

“If you don’t change what happens in the classroom, you don’t really change anything,” Mathis contends. And he finds little evidence a portfolio approach will necessarily result in improvements in curriculum and instruction.

Former school board member Jeannie Kaplan also questions the success of such reforms. In an op-ed published last year in the Denver Post, Kaplan spotlighted numerous negative outcomes after many years of portfolio-based reform, including growing achievement gaps between white and non-white students, a school system stubbornly segregated along racial lines, and high staff turnover rates in schools.

Her op-ed pointed to a 2015 analysis from the University of Washington’s Center on Reinventing Public Education (an organization that advocates the portfolio approach), which looked at the 50 largest urban school districts in the country that have been actively engaged in education reform. Kaplan noted that, “Of them, Denver Public Schools was dead last in both reading and math, with gaps of 38 percent and 30 percent respectively. The average for the other districts was around 14 percent for each subject.

“As for graduation rates, Denver ranked 45th out of the 50 districts.”

Whose Choice?

So far, less than 27 percent of families have opted to participate in Denver’s choice program, according to a Chalkbeat analysis. The remaining 73 percent have chosen to remain in their current local schools.

That same analysis attributes the low participation rate to the extremely small percentage of parents who opt to “choice out of” their current school when their children are not in a “transition year” – for instance, moving from an elementary school into a middle school. An older article in the Denver Post reported numerous parents feeling “stressed out” over the choice process.

That said, some parents do find there are advantages to the choice system. For instance, when Scott Gilpin looked to enroll one of their daughters in a school, they used the enrollment process to “choice into” an innovation school that offered a dual language program. Similarly, when Emily Sirota looked for a school for her oldest daughter, she found an innovation school that had an expeditionary approach more to her liking.

But there’s also evidence Denver’s system of choice leads to a lot of outcomes that look more like forced choice. For instance, Gilpin notes that the enrollment zones set up to encourage choice often result in students being placed in charters whether their families indicated that as their top choice or not.

When Sirota visited the neighborhood school her family was zoned for, she noticed extremely large class sizes and the lack of adequate facility space for the students. Upper grades in the elementary school were housed in portable buildings. No doubt, such conditions dis-incentivize parents from choosing that school.

“Choice sounds good,” says Earleen Brown, but “there aren’t five high performing schools in our area to choose from,” she says. Although there are some “blue schools” in Brown’s Northeast neighborhood, she argues their high ranking is often mostly due to Denver’s methodology that rewards schools for recent growth in test scores, even when the percent of students who are on grade level in the school is still quite low.

Also, many of the traditional public schools in Brown’s community have been closed or had charter schools “co-located” in them (an arrangement where a charter takes over a portion of a public school’s facility). So for some families in Northeast Denver “being able to enroll in a nearby traditional public school is a choice you don’t get,” she notes. Certainly, for parents who wanted Montbello High School to serve as a traditional, comprehensive high school, that choice was simply overruled by the district.

“We really have no choice in our community,” Brown maintains.

What Parents Want

Given all of the obvious flaws and questionable results attached to Denver’s current reform model, one can’t help but wonder why is this approach is being lifted up as a “model of excellence” to be replicated across the nation.

Of course, we’ve seen this type of bluster in support of charter schools and education reform before. For years, the New Orleans school system was held up as a reform model for other urban communities to emulate.

NOLA schools, essentially wiped out by Hurricane Katrina, provided reformers with “a clean slate” to remake an urban public school system based on their own ideas alone, which consisted primarily of converting the district into a nearly all charter school entity and turning school enrollment into a choice process.

Former Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal claimed NOLA-style reform had laid down a path for schools everywhere else to follow. David Osborne, in another of his laudatory commentaries about education reform, wrote in 2015, “New Orleans made charter schools work.” Politico reported, “Mayors and governors from Nevada to Tennessee” were in full throttle campaigns to “replicate the New Orleans model.”

Except that, for a host of reasons, the New Orleans model turned out to be impossible to replicate. In fact, in Denver today there’s little discussion of education reform being patterned after New Orleans. In Osborne’s promotion of the Denver model, in fact, he contrasts the Denver approach with New Orleans’, and lauds it for being an approach to education reform that hasn’t required state intervention or other forms of “insulation from local electoral politics.”

But it’s not clear that the form of electoral politics practiced in Denver has yet given parents what they want as much as it has delivered outcomes desired by an elite few.

In Earleen Brown’s case, what she wants is pretty specific: She’d like to see the district act on her community’s desire to have a comprehensive, public high school.

Jeannie Kaplan advocates the adoption of models she has seen work in the past that provided schools resources to stay open longer hours and provide a fuller range of services including tutoring, health care, and extra-curricular activities. “Now we call these ‘community schools,'” she explains. What Denver needs most, she believes “is the money [to fund] this.”

“We need more focus on the schools in our neighborhoods, rather than popping up new charter schools here and there,” Emily Sirota maintains. And she’d like to see smaller class sizes, guaranteed recess for kids, and a more equitable system that ensures a high level of quality curriculum and instruction in all schools, not just the ones the better-off children attend.

As for Scott Gilpin, he wants to see spending on education in Denver going more toward the classroom instead of to administration, consultants, and school board elections. He thinks less emphasis on testing would not only free up more time for instruction; it would make teachers’ jobs more rewarding — which would, in turn, lower teacher attrition rates.

What Denver parents seem to want most from education policy in their community is for leaders to find a different way to talk about these issues, and to solicit, and honor, parent input before decisions are made.

Whether they will ever get what they want in this regard remains an unsettlingly open question.

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  1. Karl_Smithe

    So why don’t we have something as simple as a National Recommended Reading List for children? How much would that cost? And technology has helped make that inexpensive these days.

    Science fiction as a factor in science education (Gross)

    Deathworld I (1960) by Harry Harrison

    Deathworld II (The Ethical Engineer) (1964) by Harry Harrison

  2. Rocky Education

    “Materials should promote citizenship, patriotism, essentials and benefits of the free enterprise system, respect for authority and respect for individual rights. Materials should not encourage or condone civil disorder, social strife or disregard of the law.”

    -2014 Curriculum guidelines from the Jefferson County (near Denver, where I live) school board who, it just so happens, also bailed out two failing charter schools at the same time.

    Also re: recruitment at charter schools, of course! Get those under preforming employees students out, and hire enroll only the best.

    1. pretzelattack

      a friend in evergreen was telling me about the charter school mess in jefferson county. one of the people involved in pushing for them got on the school board, i think, while family members were running one. i think that particular gentleman is off the board now but i’m not sure.

    2. Louis

      Whether the guidelines you mention were the defining event that triggered the recall is hard to say. The recall may have been more the result of a series of events–in addition to the guidelines, the Jefferson County School Board didn’t seem to do the world’s greatest job of listening to their constituents (to say the least).

      What happened after the recall was very telling. One of the members who was recalled went quietly and respectfully, taking a “the people have spoken” mentality”, while another spouted incoherently about how the voters had been brainwashed by the teachers unions, or some nonsense.

  3. Robert Dannin

    “school choice” … what a crock! charter operators have a single objective, to get their hands on as much public money as possible. i conducted a three-year funded research project on the ohio charter school system beginning in 2003. one day i was chatting with one of cleveland’s rogue “mom & pop” charter operators. as we watched students filing into school, he remarked, “these kids are walking checkbooks.” the charters i studied in cleveland and dayton were a complete mess, there was zero oversight until the big educational management corporations wanted to seize the real estate. once the small charter operators performed the sweat equity work to bring the buildings up to code, the state would decertify the school and transfer the charter to the big boys. if you look at public education budgets globally, the urge for profits is irresistible, and all you have to do is serve up the promotional literature to convince parents to opt for “choice” as if it’s the same quality of upper class private schools. morally these practices are worse than the subprime mortgage scams. charters are abominations. they insult the long tradition of american public education. ps – the russell sage foundation refused to publish my study, offering further proof of the corporate seduction of the policy sector.

        1. Robert Dannin

          The research was never published. I presented my findings at the 2008 Law & Society Conference in Montréal. Abstract below. How can I send it without revealing our email addresses? Is there a site where it can be posted?

          The Social Conflict Over School Choice in Ohio

          Robert Dannin
          Adjunct Professor of History
          Suffolk University
          Boston, MA

          Recent inquiries by the Ohio governor and attorney general into the misappropriation of scarce public funds by charter school proponents are only the tip of an iceberg when assessing the irreparable damage to public education done in the name of school privatization over the past decade. Ethnographic research from 2003-05 focuses on a statewide charter school district and documented instances of collaboration and conflict among different actors in the school ‘choice’ process. Further inquiry explains the behavior of Ohio charter school proponents as an effort to manipulate minorities to support an enterprise dedicated more to commercial real estate interests than education. What happens when the local community is determined to play this system to its own advantage anyway?

          1. TheCatSaid

            Thank you for posting the abstract. Even just the abstract brings important aspects into the discussion–that the financial gain can be about real estate value or real estate speculation, and that local communities (or maybe key players in those communities?) can try to play this game.

          2. TheCatSaid

            Or to put it another way, the assets involved might be different than what one assumed.

  4. Knifecatcher

    I’ve lived in Denver for the last two years and have 4 kids in Denver Public Schools, from 9th grade down to Kindergarten. I can confirm that the district’s emphasis on “reform” and “school choice” borders on the pathological. And the district has shown time and again that they have no interest in listening or responding to parents’ concerns. Just from my own personal experience, and apologies for the long rant:

    – We moved to a particular area because the local elementary school had an excellent, well established program for kids on the autism spectrum like my boy. We then found we weren’t guaranteed entry to the school despite buying a house 1/2 mile away. I went to the district choice office and was assured he would be placed in our preferred school. When the assignment finally came he was assigned to a brand new elementary school that hadn’t even hired staff yet.

    – Our local enrollment area is rapidly running out of spaces for middle school students. Parents overwhelmingly wanted a new traditional middle school. DPS instead built a new Denver Schools of Science and Technology (DSST) charter school, even though there was already a DSST school in the enrollment area.

    – Because of “choice” there is no way to coordinate start times between schools. Next year I’ll have kids in an elementary school 2 miles to the West, a middle school 3 miles to the East, and a high school 4 miles to the North. All of which have starting times within 10 minutes of each other. The closest bus stop is over a mile away. Keep in mind, this is in urban Denver.

    – The new traditional high school that the “choice” system placed my daughter in is not far from the Montbello school mentioned in the article, and has absorbed some of those students. The launch has been ugly, with the original “reformer” principal summarily fired after dragging a tiny 14 year old black girl out of the ladies room and putting her in zip tie handcuffs. Her crime? Wearing a purple headband to school.

    – The same school just had a huge parental outcry for having changed the start time from 8:45 to 7:45 AFTER the choice period was completed. They held a meeting to inform parents – after the fact – and one parent asked the district scapegoat if there was any way to bring an actual decision maker to discuss parents’ concerns. His response? “Well, you’re not going to get Tom Boasberg to come here if that’s what you’re asking for.” Tom Boasberg is the district superintendent. He was a tech exec with no educational background. Keep in mind, this is the first new comprehensive high school Denver has built in 35 years. But apparently the superintendent is too busy to deal with minor problems like, you know, education.

    TL:DR version – DPS can go to hell with their reform, charter school, school choice garbage.

    1. Knifecatcher

      And just to add a little color, the enrollment zone I live in is a very well off area, full of upper middle class professionals. In fact Gov. Hickenlooper (he of the Hillary fundraiser with the white noise generators) lives in the zone. One of my kids had classes with his. I can only imagine how badly the poorer areas of town have it.

  5. NOLA veteran

    “If you don’t change what happens in the classroom, you don’t really change anything,” Mathis contends. And he finds little evidence a portfolio approach will necessarily result in improvements in curriculum and instruction.”

    First time I’ve read this most obvious thing every time NC covers schools.

    Folks on the right want to break the NEA/starve the beast. Capitalists want to profit from the public coffers.

    The Left is pathologically against both. The parents in these stories are also very short sighted, only thinking about their own school aged children

    The actual education of children is rarely discussed.

  6. Gee

    The linkages are quite clear : especially the law enforcement approach, which feeds the prison industrial complex while the private education industrial complex (EIC) is erected. Meanwhile, it becomes similar to health care, in that twice as much money goes in, but the performance is substandard and the money ends up in administration, PR consultants, and shareholder/owner interests, rather than being used on like, say, education, or healthcare.

    The really sad part is that erection process of the EIC will last far more than four hours, and yet no doctor will be called. All the bad symptoms will merely be papered over, and only once the system is far too cemented in place will it be common knowledge that parents were duped in the first place into participating. Of course the few, like some that have spoken up here, the ones that get it, will be laughed at, scorned, called conspiracy theorists, etc, so that none of the reality is ever brought to bear on policy.

    Late stage capitalism. Truly an ugly thing to behold.

  7. Ranger Rick

    If you’re not familiar with the state of education funding in Colorado I invite you to read up on that wonderful piece of legislation named the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights, sponsored by convicted tax fraud Douglas Bruce.

    Combined with another piece of legislation usually referred to as the Gallagher Amendment, which was a well-intentioned attempt to limit the exposure of homeowners to property taxes that led to a situation much like California’s, the funds available for education were gutted.

    Kind of funny when you consider all the sales taxes for recreational marijuana are going to the state’s education budget…

    1. Louis

      It is also worth noting that TABOR, Gallagher and Amendment 23 all came from the ballot box–the initiative and referendum process should be, if not entirely, eliminated, at least made more difficult as the current one makes it relatively easy to pass even constitutional amendments–but good luck with that.

      The conflict between TABOR, Gallagher, and Amendment 23 has placed Colorado on an unsustainable path–it’s difficult to raise taxes or keep a rainy day fund thanks to TABOR, and a certain level of education funding is mandated per Amendment 23.

      There was a report out of the University of Denver a few years ago projecting that if nothing changes, the day would come when Colorado would only be able to fund K-12 education, prisons, and Medicaid. Whether these predictions are accurate remains to be seen; however, the fiscal train wreck is coming if nothing changes–something has to gave.

      1. TheCatSaid

        And/or make sure the referendum ballots are on paper and hand-counted in public view, ideally in the location where cast (or with iron-clad observable chain of custody if transported to another location for counting). NOT vote by mail. NOT using voting machines. NOT using optical scanners–unless a photo image of all the physical ballots is made straight away in the location where they were cast, AND made accessible to the public (and there is iron-clad observable chain of custody of the paper ballots if transported to another location for photographing).

  8. Tom

    There’s another insidious side to the reforms that Denver and the state have enacted in the past decade or so – online education. Both public and charter schools have signed up for online offerings from often shady companies that allow students to take courses for credit. In theory, this is supposed to realize the ideal of distance learning where students can take individualized classes that small rural schools would never otherwise offer.

    In practice, the schools are able to warehouse kids in a computer lab supervised by unaccredited (read cheap) staff. In more egregious cases, students never set foot on campus, but the school is able to pad its head count for funding purposes. Needless to say, the quality of the online courses are almost uniformly poor.

    The worst offenders are charter schools that are essentially fronts for ed corps that never really educate anybody, the school existing simply to sign up parents and their kids and funnel tax dollars into their sponsors’ pockets.

  9. TheCatSaid

    With charter schools offering a major financial incentive for key players, as documented in this post, school board elections deserve closer scrutiny. They are just as vulnerable to election fraud as presidential races–or maybe more. In a talk filled with understatement (humour to make the shocking facts more palatable?), Bev Harris said when she started investigating election fraud she decided to start with local elections that were known to be corrupt , because the lack of scrutiny made it easier to uncover fraud.

    The latest discoveries are coming to light–a way that any number of races across multiple counties and states can be altered in highly specific ways with only seconds of access to a central tabulating computer. The software patch that makes this possible–and never authorized as required by law–is currently in use in 26 states and possibly many more. It has been in use since 2001. There is evidence that it has impacted the results of the 2016 primary elections.

    Corruption can easily take hold at the most local level. School board elections can be attractive targets when charter school opportunities are part of the picture.

      1. TheCatSaid

        The 7th part of the report is titled “Whodunnit“. That will probably answer your specific question, in relation to the fractionalized vote code exploit.

        Have you read the first 6 parts yet? They are laying out the evidence trail for a particularly powerful exploit in a step-by-step way.

        Harris’s book Black Box Voting is a good introduction to the overall topic. It is richly referenced and can be downloaded for free. It includes many examples of proven election fraud by officials & others who are named.

  10. Benedict@Large

    A community will pay for its children to be educated. No matter what. Pay no matter what is triple-A. We have a shortage of triple-A instruments. Wall Street is trying to turn your kids’ schooling into a triple-A instrument.

    This is the sum total of what the school reform effort is about. Creating triple-A instruments. And if some kids get rolled in the process, well, it won’t be the kids of Wall Street brokers, who will be tucked away safely in the elite end of the private school system.

  11. EoH

    “[R]esources are diverted from education to administration, marketing, and political consultants.”

    Legions of new administrative vice presidents and chiefs of staff have launched dawn raids on many a college and university, depleting general and endowment income. Their campaigns continue to advance. Conversely, tenured faculty are fast becoming an endangered species and deans of students have to “justify” their position by being named “managers” of such essential services as student snack bars. Chartered schools are the arm of neoliberalism that invades the elementary and secondary school segments of the commons. Pity those don’t normally have unrestricted endowments to raid, too.

  12. H. Alexander Ivey

    “It is a system where politics, pardon the expression, trumps good policy and the truth.”

    Oh happy day – The punning possibilities! A reason to vote for The Donald. (haha).

  13. H. Alexander Ivey

    This posting presents quite an eyeful, for those who are new to this particular party of ‘education reform’. Lots to chew over. But what leaps out to me is how compromised the author and his argument really is. He and the people he quotes really seem unable to see the water they are swimming in. Conflicts of interest are not called out; falsehoods and BS ‘science’ and research are not labeled as lies; university professionals weasel around their own supposed area of expertise; and the entire foundation of the reasons for having public education in the country is assumed away and replaced with education for the making of money only.

    One more point: unlike environmental damage, financial fraud, and political corruption, education screw-ups can not be repaired. A kid only has one shot at elementary and secondary education. There is no repeat of those years of learning. And don’t try to quibble about individuals can ‘go back to school’, blah, blah, blah. You know what I mean. Bill Gates and the Waltons have ruined many a life here. They really should be ashamed.

  14. Loraine F.

    The Denver experience so replicates the narrative of The Prize, Dale Russakoff’s account of how three men, each with his own agenda–Mark Zuckerberg, Cory Booker, and Chris Christie– decided to “improve” Newark’s public schools, and in come the high paid consultants–some for a grand a day–to tell the communities what they need– in Christie’s and Booker’s case charter schools– all the while ignoring the explicitly stated desires of parents, teachers and students.

    The book is, like Denver’s story, depressing as all get out and another instance of highly touted education reform that appears to be no reform at all. But the grit, determination, and smarts shown by teachers, parents, and students will elicit your admiration even if it leaves you wondering yet again, as this article did for me, how the hell these greedy sharks got so much power over our public school system. Arne Duncan, backed by Obama, played a huge role, but members of the corporate education crowd were trolling the waters before the administration started its, ugh, “Race to the Top.” Is their presence on the education scene like the bloody chaos in the Middle East, another Bush legacy?

    Kudos to Gilpin!

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