When DPS Becomes Understood to be “Dysfunctional Public Schools”

Good day, CharterFolk.

My regrets for not getting a post off to you this weekend. Sometimes the writing just doesn’t come together easily, and today’s post was one that required more work. I’ll hope to make it up to you with a shorter column in the next day or so.

Meanwhile, I wanted to be sure to lead off today noting the passing of former Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan.

I have written extensively about the role Mayor Riordan played in catalyzing political changes that made reform efforts in Los Angeles possible.

It is not an exaggeration to say that Richard Riordan set off a new era, not just for one school board election, but for a multi-decade effort to improve public education for millions of kids in Los Angeles, with the growth of high-quality charter schools being at the heart of the reform strategy. And the progress he catalyzed in Los Angeles became an example that rubbed off on leaders in many cities across the country who soon embarked upon their own reform efforts.

Were it not for Riordan’s contribution, we would never have made the progress that we did over the past twenty-five years in Los Angeles and beyond. For that, he deserves our respect and gratitude.

He certainly has mine.


Thanks to many of you for again checking out WonkyFolk last week. One of the topics Andy and I touched upon was the primary results for the mayoral election in Denver. I use it as the jumping off spot for today’s post.

Let’s get to it.

When DPS Becomes Understood to be “Dysfunctional Public Schools”

In Denver, we have seen two strong supporters of charter schools advance to the general election for mayor. The latest polling anticipates a close race.

Moderates advancing …

… is a clear counterpoint to what is happening in other places in the country right now.

It is also, in my opinion, a harbinger of things to come.

Because I foresee a time not too far off when people in other cities will be saying about their school district leaders what Denverites are saying about the DPS Board today.

In response to questions submitted to mayoral candidates by Educate Denver

… this is how Michael Johnston described the DPS School Board.

There was a time when the Denver School Board and the Denver Public Schools were the envy of the nation: steadily increasing performance, increased enrollment, increased graduation rates, closing achievement gaps. The current board has made the district more of a public embarrassment than a source of pride. The school board continues to distract and obstruct the efforts of those hardworking educators, making it more difficult for educators to do an already difficult job.

Here’s how Kelly Brough’s described the DPS Board.

Recent controversy with DPS School Board and Leadership Team have left many in Denver questioning if this team has the ability and commitment to turn the district around. We can’t and won’t make progress until we have re-established trust and confidence with the community …. Once we have competent leadership in place who are clearly and publicly committed to student success, my administration and I will work with the DPS Foundation and others to re-engage private sector leadership and fundraising to support DPS students.

Their comments echo criticism coming from Denver’s current mayor …

… and reflect sentiment that has now set in among the electorate.

A new poll commissioned by a group of Denver business leaders finds many voters hold unfavorable views of the Denver school board and nearly 63% believe board members care more about their own political ambitions than about improving educational outcomes for children.

And now parents are protesting en masse at school board meetings and calling for the entire board to resign.

In terms of condemnation of the current DPS Board, it would be difficult to assemble a more unanimous chorus.

As I wrote back in January …

… the reform efforts that happened in Denver over the past two decades have been identified by researchers at the University of Colorado …

… to be among the most successful in U.S. history.

But despite the success of those reforms, they were targeted for dismantling by the new DPS Board, which is now 100% teacher union-aligned …

… and which came to office with one over-arching objective:

To protect the public education establishment.

After being sworn in, Gaytán said the new board, which includes members Scott Baldermann and Brad Laurvick who were elected in 2019, is united in their call for change.

“This new 7-0 board is aligned so well with the protection of public education,” the newly elected board president said. “This is a new era for Denver Public Schools.”

Now, just 18 months later, the new board has become a national embarrassment …

… with one word being used repeatedly to describe it.




Indeed, the word is used so often it seems to have given new meaning to DPS itself:

Denver Public Schools are now understood to be Dysfunctional Public Schools.

What’s important now is to keep focused on the source of that dysfunction.

Many have focused on the disturbing personal behavior …

… and juvenile squabbling …

…and suspicious process …

… that have accompanied the board’s descent into chaos, as though idiosyncratic, personality-dependent, procedural phenomena are the root of the board’s dysfunction.

But that’s letting surface matters obscure more profound ones.

The origin of the DPS board’s implosion is not personality, but substance.

Policy substance.

The board has absolutely no idea how to move forward because its policy agenda is completely incoherent.

Like the board approving a new policy regarding discipline and school safety in 2020 …

… and then having to completely unwind it this spring in the aftermath of the tragic violence at East High School.

But substantive problems on discipline and student safety are just the tip of the iceberg.

Look at the new proposed policy the Board began considering this week on school closures, attendance boundary redrawing and school re-sizing.

The policy stipulates that …

… no elementary school in Denver will be allowed to have fewer than 300 students or more than 600. In order to bring about that goal, the district will redistribute kids across campuses and will redraw attendance boundaries every four years, somehow gerrymandering catchment zones to achieve new levels of racial, ethnic and socioeconomic diversity in the shuffle. Not stated in the staff report but something that will clearly be needed if the policy is to hold together is the dismantling of the district’s school choice program which not so long ago prompted Brookings to call DPS …

… “the #1 school district for school choice in the nation.”

A perusal of websites listing enrollment levels of district elementary schools suggests that 30 out of 95 are either below the 300-student or above the 600-student thresholds, and another 15 schools are so small they will likely fall below the 300-student mark in the next few years, meaning that approximately half of all elementary schools in the district will need attendance boundary adjustments. From a practical standpoint, it means that attendance zones will have to be redrawn district-wide on an ongoing basis subjecting the district’s youngest students to the prospect of having to switch elementary schools at least once, if not twice, before entering middle school, where even more redrawing would await.

In terms of lack of coherence, CharterFolk, think of it:

The DPS Board actually thinks that, in the context of the district right-sizing schools and redrawing attendance boundaries, literally thousands of Denver parents are going to sit idly by and let their kids be kicked out of larger, higher performing schools in order to be forced to attend smaller, lower performing ones.

Or look at the district’s recent school consolidation and unification policy which states that, should the district ever have to close a school that it cannot keep above the 300-student minimum, the district would be prohibited …

… from taking into account academic performance when determining which schools to shutter.

Got that, CharterFolk?

The Board actually thinks that communities across Denver are going to be fine about the DPS Board closing higher performing schools in order to keep lower performing ones open.

Or look at the new school dashboard the Board is working on.

It was first advertised as a tool that would give parents more information about the performance of schools, but last week it was revealed …

… that the new dashboard will in fact give parents even less.

Got it?

The Board actually thinks that parents are just going to let the school district hide how schools are performing academically and will be willing to enroll their kids in schools without having any idea how well those schools are performing academically.

Or look at how the district is considering sunsetting its transparent, student-based budgeting system that directed millions of dollars to schools serving higher need students …

… meaning that the Board actually thinks that stakeholders across Denver are going to let the Board terminate budget rules so that it gets the power it needs to spend money on whatever pet projects it may come up with.

Or, finally, look at the Board’s decision earlier this month to close down and take over several Innovation School networks …

… despite the strong parent and community opposition that was expressed at the DPS board meeting …

… where incredibly … what rationale did the DPS board use to justify its revocation decision?

The schools’ supposedly low test scores, even though, in all other instances, the DPS Board is railing against and terminating the use of test scores to evaluate the performance of schools. It was a contradiction so glaring that DPS board members themselves called out the hypocrisy of it all …

Marrero justified his recommendation during a meeting Monday, citing concerns over the zone’s budget and poorer academic outcomes.

Board Vice President Auon’tai M. Anderson pushed back, raising several issues including the data Marrero presented and whether academic performance would become the new standard for judging a school’s viability. The question is particularly poignant as the board continues to consider closures in the wake of declining enrollment.

“Is this a standard that we are now holding for all schools?” Anderson asked.

…. Marrero’s Beacon recommendation comes as the board is set to adopt a policy to exclude standardized test scores from the district’s dashboard, which will provide performance information on each school.

… showing once again that the origin of the DPS Board’s dysfunction is not personality, but incoherent substance.

Fortunately, recent changes in state law afford Innovation Schools the chance to appeal the district’s decision to the State Board, and the schools’ parents are clearly not giving up …

… because they, like thousands of other parents across Denver, are feeling new urgency to do whatever it takes to make sure their kids do not have to attend Dysfunctional Public Schools.

Which leads me to conclude this post surfacing what is, in my view, the most important thing to keep in mind about the instructive example that is Denver right now.

The incoherent policies that defenders of the establishment are attempting to advance in Denver are not unique to Denver.

They are the same ones we are seeing establishment-aligned policy makers try to advance in school districts across the country these days: policies that attempt to return to a bygone status quo where the system itself dictates where students go to school; where the system allocates resources to serve its own needs above the needs of those it is supposed to serve; and where transparency and accountability for results is utterly dismantled.

It reveals that, in contrast to the nearly unanimous chorus of community voices in Denver who are calling the DPS school board a national embarrassment, establishment defenders see it to be a national prototype!

Making plain their ultimate DPS objective:

Bringing Denver Public School incoherence to every District Public School in the country.

Which, if allowed to happen, will lead to District Public Schools becoming Dysfunctional Public Schools right when the need for improved public education has never been higher.

Confronting circumstances such as these, it’s natural that CharterFolk would look to keep our heads low amid the implosion

But we also know that vast numbers of kids and families and communities are being fundamentally disserved, and soon it will become incumbent upon our movement to bring forward our vision for coherence.

A good starting point would be crafting a more forceful argument in support of the coherent policies that for two decades made Denver Public Schools the envy of the nation, policies that, if revived and refined and doubled-down upon, have the potential to catalyze historic progress in virtually every major city in this country.