Reap what you sow and the chickens come home to roost. The elephant in the room. Aphorisms appropriate to describe what is happening in public education in Denver.
After 20 years, more than 5 superintendents, and 11 different school boards, the results of education reform in Denver have become clear, and they aren’t pretty. After opening 72 charters in the last 20 years, 22 of which have closed, the declining enrollments in neighborhood schools have forced the prospect of school closures. Who knew opening 26 privately run elementary charter schools in competition with district-run schools would ultimately force the district to make some hard financial decisions? And who knew that ignoring its own 2007 data showing stagnant population growth would lead to less demand for elementary school seats in the 2020s? Apparently, not those with the power for the last 20 years. And, as an ironic aside, many of the same people who were the decision-makers in the past and who were unable to make substantive change then, have now decided they will somehow make these previously unattainable changes from their outside “oversight” committee, EDUCATE Denver. In fact one of the co-chairs, Rosemary Rodriguez, was a DPS board member when on March 16, 2017, a Strengthening Neighborhoods Resolution passed, stating:
NOW, THEREFORE, BE IT RESOLVED, that a citywide committee be formed to review changing demographics and housing patterns in our city and the effect on our schools and to make recommendations on our policies around boundaries, choice, enrollment and academic programs in order to drive greater socio-economic integration in our schools.
BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED, that in the face of the sharp decline in the number of school-aged children in gentrifying neighborhoods, the committee is also charged with how to think about school choice and school consolidation to ensure that our schools are able to offer high-quality, sustainable programs for our kids.
These former school board members and former and current civic leaders have formed a “shadow school board” to evaluate and oversee the current superintendent and school board. Why? It appears they don’t like what they are seeing being proposed by the current superintendent. What don’t they like? It appears they have determined the current superintendent is not committed enough to their reform agenda. You know – the one that has been in place when they were in power, the one that has produced the biggest gaps in the nation, more segregation, and more resource inequity.
As school closures have risen to the fore this week Chalkbeat disclosed these statistics:
“Over the past 20 years, Denver Public Schools has added a lot of schools. It has added students, too — but at a much slower rate.
- The number of public schools in Denver grew 55% between the 2001-02 and 2021-22 school years, while the number of students grew just 12%.
- Denver went from having 132 schools serving about 72,000 students in 2001-02 to 204 schools serving nearly 89,000 students in 2021-22.
- The number of elementary schools in Denver grew 23% over the past 20 years, while the number of students grew just 4%.”
Through expensive marketing and often false narratives, charter schools have had free reign to prey on susceptible families resulting in DPS losing 7400 elementary school students who would have otherwise most likely attended a neighborhood school. Then add in:
- a state law that prohibits a district from shutting down low enrollment charters,
- a district that has ignored demographic information predicting declining enrollment,
- a district that employs “attendance zones” and a secretive CHOICE system to often force place students into heavily marketed, often unwanted CHARTER SCHOOLS, and
- a competitive financial model called Student Based Budgeting (SBB – money follows the kid) to fund schools, depending on student needs, the goal of which is to close the achievement and resource gaps. The 2010 Denver Plan/ Strategic Vision and Action Plan describes SBB this way:
- Established student-based budget formulas that increase dollars for middle and high school students, special education, English language learners, gifted and talented programs, and students living in poverty. Resource distribution is now more closely aligned with the costs of serving these students. p. 51
- Refine Student-Based Budgeting formulas to ensure they are best meeting the needs of all of the district’s students. Continue to evaluate and adjust student-based budgeting formulas to 1) meet student needs, 2) make progress on closing the achievement gap, and 3) grow the number of high school graduates and college-ready students. p. 53
No one should be surprised the DPS superintendent is saying schools must be closed (new word is UNIFIED but it still means CLOSURE), given the quagmire he entered. What would you expect to happen when 72 new charter schools are opened in a landscape of stagnant or declining population growth? Who should be held responsible for the chaos and churn caused by this over-expansion of new charter schools?
I know, I know. One isn’t supposed to talk about charters any more. But it is the elephant in the room. Education “reformers” want you to believe charters are an irrevocable fact of life in public education, stare decisis if you will. But as we have recently witnessed, that precedent is non-binding. So let’s use it to the advantage of neighborhood school advocates. Let us not assume charters are inevitable, especially given the chaos and poor academic outcomes charters are producing. Denver isn’t the only place experiencing the madness of so many charters. Just this week lifelong educator Arthur Camins wrote:
It is time for Democrats–voters and the politicians who represent them–to abandon charter schools as a strategy for education improvement or to advance equity. Charter schools, whether for- or non-profit, drain funds from public schools that serve all students, increase segregation, and by design only serve the few.
It is worth repeating that in 20 years, DPS has added 72 charter schools, 22 of which have closed. As students of public education repeatedly attest to, charters have been particularly harmful to neighborhood schools for they gut these schools of resources. Charters have also been disruptive to communities and have contributed to increasing inequity and segregation in our schools. It is not possible to have an honest conversation without addressing that elephant in the room. Charter schools along with their partners – choice and competition – have had their chance in Denver and their biggest accomplishment has been to pressure neighborhood schools to close.
Let us not overlook the demographic projections DPS has been aware of since the mid 2000’s.
“It’s really simple, we’ve seen a slow down in births,” said Elizabeth Garner, demographer for the state. “Starting back in 2007, that was our peak birth year, we’ve seen a slowing in births ever since. So with fewer kiddos, that means lower school enrollment.”
Let us not overlook who was supporting and approving this unchecked expansion. DPS had strong indicators from as early as 2007 onward the population of the city and the number of school-age children was flattening, and yet the district with the strong support of many of the aforementioned “oversight committee”, EDUCATE Denver, pushed for this proliferation of new charter schools without giving demographics its proper due.
Loss of students = loss of funding (SBB) = loss of programming and supports = closure
Superintendent Alex Marerro has been charged with improving student outcomes and reducing gaps by implementing his strategic plan. School unifications are one way he has chosen to start this process. He inherited a district suffering from years of “feel good” oversight from boards and the nonprofit world determined to paint a rosy picture of reform education success, a district more focused on good public relations stories than actual educational outcomes. Now he has to try to provide solutions to problems that have not been dealt with honestly for years. And yes, “unification” has raised as many questions as it has provided answers such as how transportation and language services will be provided and what will be done with these empty buildings. And there is the elephant in the room – again. Charter schools. Why are they not included in his recommendations? Again, he has no authority to recommend closing them, even though several are also suffering from declining enrollment. Given this reality, it will be interesting to see how he chooses to address this issue. In the end, how can the board fairly evaluate him according to measures both they and he just agreed on, if it rejects his operational ideas?
As for what neighborhoods these closures would most heavily affect – What would one expect to happen when new charters are opened in neighborhoods heavily populated by families of color and families struggling economically? Why is there any surprise that most of the schools on the “unification” list affect these neighborhoods? How could it be otherwise when these are the sites of uncontrolled, privately run options to public schools. Sadly, it only makes sense that these are the neighborhoods that would suffer the highest impact of school closures.
Few like to close schools. It is a heart-wrenching, disruptive, negative process. But given the lack of thoughtful planning and oversight for 20 years, what is the better option? Keeping schools open without the financial ability to provide necessary services and supports, or providing unified schools with the money to provide language support, art, music, nurses, librarians, psychologists, speech therapists?
Imagine a great school district that had paid attention to population warnings and hadn’t opened so many charter schools over the last 20 years. Imagine all those charter school children filling those neighborhood schools.
The chickens have come home to roost.