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Is the 2019 Denver School Board Election a Harbinger for What's Next?

Van Schoales is the president of A+ Colorado and the go-to on Colorado education policy and politics. He has more than 30 years of experience in education advocacy and analysis. Before his tenure at A+ Colorado began, he taught high school science and founded a number of nonprofits, including the Odyssey School, the Denver School of Science and Technology, and Democrats for Education Reform Colorado. Van will be writing about education standards, whether early-childhood-education programs deliver, and Denver's closely-watched and very expensive school board election.

Denver's recent school board election results are a powerful sign that we are leaving one era of education reform and entering a new phase.

All three "reform" candidates (more on that word below) lost their races in favor of candidates who were endorsed by, and, at least to some extent, financially supported by the Denver Classroom Teachers Association. This week's winners join two other current Denver Public Schools (DPS) school board members who had also been endorsed by the teachers' union during their election in 2017.

This election was the sixth consecutive election cycle marked by a division between teachers' union-backed candidates and "education reform"-backed candidates. However, this was the first election where the teachers' union-backed candidates swept the election.

This was also the most expensive school board race ever in Denver, marked by vicious negative efforts on all sides.

Based on the newly elected board members' campaign promises, the new board is likely to have a dramatic impact on a number of DPS policies, and we will likely see significant shifts in 2020. While the board will not be able to completely stop or reverse the growth of charters (state laws protect them), the board can dramatically slow their growth by not providing district facilities. Innovation schools and innovation zones will not likely get more funding, and there may be no new zones. The universal school choice enrollment program and the district's school performance framework, praised nationally, are also likely to be dramatically changed or possibly dropped altogether. The district's practice of resource allocation through student-based budgeting may also be on the chopping block.

Another big question is how the board will approach its work with Superintendent Susana Cordova, who is the board's sole employee. Superintendent Cordova has shown she is a master at navigating change, demonstrated by her navigation of the teacher strike and subsequent organizational restructuring earlier this year. I doubt the new board will fire her given her broad community support, but the question is whether she will stay, given the likely shift in focus of the school board.  We will know more in the coming months as the board elects its own leadership and works (or doesn't) with Superintendent Cordova.

All told, this is clearly the end for a particular flavor of education improvement strategies that began in the early 2000s and has evolved nationally over the last 20y years, over both the Bush and Obama administrations. "Reform" is increasingly hard to define given how the word has been used by proponents and critics. In Denver, reform has meant center-left-leaning Democrats that support more funding; school choice; innovation within the system; effective public schools whether district, charter, or innovation; and no vouchers. It has been an approach that embraced a particular vision of urban public education from the center-left with a strong coalition of business and civil rights leaders. U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet, Lieut. Gov. Barbara O'Brien, former Denver Mayor Federico Pena, Tom Boasberg, and former Gov. John Hickenlooper epitomized this orientation.

Locally, candidates and leaders who pursued these "reform" strategies won most elections since 2001. Since that time, Denver has seen significant gains in achievement, moving from amongst the lowest-performing districts in the state to at or above average. As improvement has happened faster for white students and more affluent students, Denver is also home to some of the largest gaps in academic outcomes between groups of students. The city has some of the highest-performing schools in Colorado and some of the lowest-performing schools. The electorate this cycle saw this evolution over the past decade-plus as glass half-empty, as opposed to glass half-full.   

The newly elected school board members called for a reform on the reform. The new "reformers" could undo many of the strategies pursued by Bennet and Boasberg. We can hope that redirecting the district's strategies will better address the city's enormous achievement gaps and abysmal reading levels (only one-third of low-income students are reading at grade level). We will see.

Here are my primary takeaways from this historic election:

  • Money matters, but it doesn't always buy you love: Mailers and campaigns cost a great deal of money when trying to convince thousands of voters to pay attention. One of the school board candidates running in southeast Denver, Scott Baldermann, self-funded his campaign to $300,000 plus, and he won solidly. On the other hand, the reform-oriented, independent expenditure committees spent more than twice the amount as the teachers' union independent expenditure committee, and the candidates they supported still lost. 
  • National politics can trump local policy debates: It's increasingly difficult to separate the national political waves from the local context. Candidates tried to differentiate themselves from Republican-style education reform while negative mailers and attacks that tried to conflate the Trump/DeVos camp with Democratic education reformers a la the Obama administration. 
  • Nasty is the new norm: Education politics will continue to get nastier, though good reporting on the facts can help curb the spread of hyperbolic assertions on all sides (I'd like to think the work of A+ Colorado, Chalkbeat, and other community groups have helped Denver not become as toxic as Los Angeles or Chicago in terms of the public debates over public education).
  • Great narratives and campaigns always win: Compelling stories with lots of door knockers beat a great report or data showing something works or does not. Tay Anderson demonstrated that a solid campaign, with a great narrative and less resources than his competitor, can propel a 21-year-old with a compelling vision (and who lost an election just two years prior) onto the Denver school board.
  • Reformers lost the left (and maybe center-left): National polling has shown that charter support among Democrats has dropped precipitously. But nationally, there is also a divide amongst voters: 38 percent of Democratic white voters see charter schools favorably or somewhat favorably, compared with 69 percent of black Democratic voters and 70 percent of Hispanic voters. I am guessing this is the same in Denver. Denver charters have historically enjoyed strong support, but it appears that does not translate into school board votes.

While I find it depressing that it was much harder than in previous elections to get school board candidates to clearly articulate what they will actually do to improve Denver's public schools given resource constraints and all of the tradeoffs, I am encouraged by the continued level of voter engagement. It may be too much to ask for thoughtful policy debates about what to do to improve Denver's schools, but I'll keep asking.

This year's Denver school board election had about a third of registered voters participate, which is far better than many districts. Now the trick will be to activate more voters, while ensuring voters have a better understanding of the issues and tradeoffs for how to improve our schools. The only way to do this will be through honest and regular community conversations about the district and schools between election cycles.

This pendulum swing is a great reminder that far more must be done to educate the public about how our schools are working and what can be done to improve public education so that boards and voters do not wander too far apart. Additionally, elections are a helpful reminder that regardless of who wins, the work continues. The educational opportunities for nearly 100,000 students are dependent on what this school board does.

— Van Schoales

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