If the “word salad” of education jargon leaves you confused, you’re not alone. But when our children’s future is at stake, understanding education issues matters. In November, a majority of school board seats are up for election. The October Front Porch will provide information about the candidates in our distribution area. This month, to help readers navigate through words like innovation, charter, and accountability, we offer a special pullout election section that simplifies and explains choice in Denver Public Schools.
Choice: The Issues and the Basics
This year’s school board election may bring contentious debates. Among other issues, voters will hear positions for and against Denver’s system of school choice, particularly as it relates to the increase in charter schools, the accountability of charter schools, and the closure of neighborhood schools.
School choice has been prominent in the media since Betsy DeVos became Secretary of Education. DeVos champions school reform movements that include choice and charter schools and has criticized Denver for not having vouchers that allow students to use public money for private schools.
But choice in Denver isn’t the same type of school reform as is championed by DeVos and her supporters. “It’s easy to confuse these two groups of school choice advocates with one another, but in fact, there isn’t a more vicious fight going on than between these two sides,” says Van Schoales, C.E.O. of A+ Colorado, an independent, non-profit organization that uses research and data to advocate for improved educational policy systems statewide. While a supporter of school choice, A+ Colorado is wholly independent of the Denver system and often calls DPS and other school districts to task in its reports.
Schoales says the choice system in Denver differs markedly from others because there is “a high level of accountability” to ensure students are meeting academic standards at both charter and non-charter schools. Conversely, he says the brand of school choice advocated by DeVos and her supporters overemphasizes family choice at the expense of regulation and oversight. “[It’s like] letting drug companies manufacture whatever they want,” said Schoales. “People have to read and find out whether people die on that medication [on their own].”
But opponents to school reform both nationally and in Denver argue that school choice steers students – and the dollars that follow them – away from traditional schools and toward charter schools, leaving neighborhood schools struggling for talent and resources.
Critics also point to data that shows the median salary for teachers at charter schools is about $15,000 less than teachers at traditional schools, and they are often less experienced. And while statewide, charters outperform traditional schools academically, students with disabilities are underrepresented and, critics say, underserved at charters.
Choice is not just about charters in Denver, however. The last 10 years have seen a steady increase in innovation schools, which are district-run schools that have some of the autonomy of a charter school, in areas like budget, staffing, calendar, and curriculum. Originally begun as an approach to turning around low-performing traditional schools, innovation schools are increasingly found in affluent neighborhoods such as Stapleton, where the last four elementary schools to open all have innovation status. This year, for the first time, innovation schools statewide have matched traditional, district-run schools in academic performance measures.
“Choice with accountability, with an increasing focus on autonomy, allowing schools to figure out their staffing and manage their own budgets, has been a very powerful recipe [in Denver],” said Schoales. In Colorado, school achievement has been flat, but DPS is an “outlier,” posting above average growth scores, especially compared to other big school districts.
“As much as I am critical of [DPS], which I am on a variety of things,” Schoales said, “when compared to other big districts, they’ve made huge progress, and the driving force has been families getting to pick and choose.” Currently certain schools are extremely appealing, however, drawing more students than they can enroll. The challenge for DPS, said Schoales, is how to improve schools or create new schools that better meet the needs of all neighborhoods.
To make a decision about whether Denver’s choice system should remain or be changed by new school board members, it’s important to understand how it currently works. The Front Porch offers a few Q&As below and has created a graphic on the next page that explains how choice works.
How does the lottery system work in Denver Public Schools?
Unlike most school districts, Denver’s “SchoolChoice” system occurs district-wide, using one application form for all students and all schools. After a family fills out a form listing from one to five choices in order of preference, DPS runs an algorithm, that matches students to schools based on their preferences, school admission priorities and available space.
Are any charter schools in Denver for-profit?
No, there are no for-profit charter schools in DPS. For-profit charters are not permissible under Colorado charter school law.
How are charter schools funded?
Charter schools receive money from the state based on student count for operating expenses, capital reserve and risk insurance. They can also raise funds from grants and other sources.
A recent bill, HB 17-1375, co-sponsored by local state Sen. Angela Williams, was passed by the state legislature in June. It will allow charters to receive local mill levy funding for the first time, but they will no longer be allowed certain automatic waivers, such as foregoing competitive bidding and accepting donations. They will now be required to make even more financial documents available online.
What are vouchers? Does DPS advocate the use of vouchers?
Vouchers are a means of using government funding to pay tuition at a private school. Denver currently does not have a voucher system, has no plans to implement one, and DPS does not support vouchers.
What are magnet schools?
Magnet schools or programs emphasize a particular style of learning or educational need (e.g., Highly Gifted & Talented, Montessori), or serve students with a common area of interest (e.g., arts, international studies). Magnets, like innovation schools, are district-run schools. There are 27 magnets in DPS, most of which are HGT or Advanced Kindergarten programs.