D.C.’s charter school movement can learn much from Denver, Colorado

I spent perhaps two of the most exhilarating days of my life last week as I, together with 49 other education bloggers, was invited to attend the Amplify School Choice 2016 Conference held in Denver, Colorado. The event was sponsored and expertly facilitated by the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity, a public interest nonprofit centered on investigative journalism that is based in Alexandria, Virginia.  Picture this:  a full morning and afternoon of lectures about the current state of school choice in Denver and across the nation from representatives of leading organizations such as the Institute for Justice, the Independence Institute, and the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice (now EdChoice).  The program’s agenda included a site visit to a couple of high performing local charter schools.  To say that I was a kid let loose in a candy store may be the understatement of the century.

The program began with a fine talk by Dan Schaller, director of advocacy of the Colorado League of Charter Schools.  Think of his group as the Denver version of FOCUS.  From the very first sentence of Mr. Schaller’s presentation I could see that the situation with charters in Colorado is much different from the environment in Washington, D.C., and almost as immediately, I discovered that we have much to learn from their experience.  The main takeaway from his talk, and I hope you are sitting down, is that the traditional and charter schools in Denver get along.  In fact, they oftentimes share educational campuses that were built for them utilizing bond financing by the school district.  The Denver School District is the authorizer of both traditional and charter schools.

Now you may be thinking that this is only the opinion of Mr. Schaller, but in this you would be mistaken.  The same viewpoint was expressed by Colorado General Assembly House Representative Angela Williams, Stand for Children policy manager Chelsea Henkel, and Denver School of Science and Technology chief executive officer Bill Kurtz.

Before explaining the reason for the collaboration allow me to provide some background on the Denver charter school movement.  Charter schools in the mile high city started similarly to the experience in the nation’s capital.  The education system was facing a crisis.  As Mr. Schaller detailed, in the mid-2000s Denver Public Schools had the poorest academic growth of any of the mid-sized or big school districts in Colorado.  There were 31,000 vacant seats out of a total of 98,000 open spots.  Under 39 percent of high school students graduated in four years.  Parents were voting with their feet; 25 percent of kids left Denver Public Schools to attend private institutions, charter schools, or enroll in other districts.  The result was a loss to DPS of $125 million a year.

To the rescue came school superintendent, now U.S. Senator, Michael Bennet.  Some will say that his primary contribution was to decentralize decision making to the school level.  But I see his efforts concentrated in a different direction.

Mr. Bennet’s major accomplishment was to institutionalize the value of equal treatment of the charter and traditional school sectors.  In 2008 he helped institute a sophisticated School Performance Framework, similar to the DC Public Charter School Board’s Performance Management Framework, that graded all schools in a transparent manner.  The following year DPS initiated a Request for Proposal process to provide an incentive for the formation of quality schools.  Innovative Schools were created, which are traditional public schools given much of the independence charter schools possess.  Following Mr. Bennet’s appointment to the Senate, a Collaboration Compact was formed in 2010 which provided the same funding, facilities, accountability, and enrollment process to the two sectors.  This led in 2012 to a common application tool being implemented called SchoolChoice, similar to My School DC.

Since 2005, according to Mr. Schaller, “DPS has closed or replaced 48 schools and opened more than 70, the majority of them charters.”  Low performing charters have also been shuttered.  For example, during the 2010 to 2011 school year 25 percent of schools up for renewal were closed.  Today there are 55 charter schools in Denver out of a total of 223, teaching 18.3 percent of all public school students.

The results of these initiatives have been nothing short of amazing.  The Denver Public School system is now the fastest growing urban district in America.  The high school graduation rate has jumped to 65 percent in four years.  From 2004 to 2014, the proportion of students at or above grade level in reading, math, and writing has climbed from 33 percent to 48 percent.

Now don’t get me wrong, everything is not perfect in Denver regarding the state of public education.  Conflict does still occasionally arise between the regular and traditional schools.  Charters are closed much more commonly than regular schools, although there has been a renewed commitment to hold them to the same standards.  Furthermore, academically, only 50 percent of minority students and 25 percent of low income pupils perform at grade level for all subject areas.

Still, consistently throughout the conference you could feel the strong cohesion between the two sectors.  When I asked for the reason behind this emphasis on cooperation I received the same answer no matter which stakeholder I questioned.  “We are all in this together for the children,” they responded.









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