DARK MONEY Haunting Denver School Board Races Again

It spawned a Jane Mayer best selling book.  It has made its presence felt in the last six elections for seats on the Denver Public Schools Board. It is rearing its ugly head and exerting its power in the current school board races in Denver.  It has changed politics in this country for the foreseeable future and not for the better. The IT? DARK MONEY. From mostly out of state Independent Expenditure Committees.

From the most recent filings in the four school board races here is what we know and don’t know: historically involved outside organizations and people are still paying and playing, and some new ones are, too. Colorado League of Charter Schools, Education Reform Now, Stand for Children, and of course, the old standby Democrats for Education Reform (DFER) along with newbies 50 CAN, Parents for Great Schools, and Denver Students, Families, and Teachers United for Excellent Schools. What we don’t know: who are the actual donors and how much are they investing?

Four DARK MONEY organizations have participated so far in the current election cycle to support three candidates who in turn support the privatization of public schools.  These entities, while maintaining their independence from any candidate, continue to be the ultimate DARK MONEY vehicles because, unless a donor wishes to be identified specifically, all contributions are anonymous.  Citizens United v. Federal Election Committee in 2010 started the tsunami of secrecy. The DARK MONEY enterprises route and reroute money to each other to clearly support a candidate without transparency. There are no contribution limits. There are very loose reporting requirements. They also hire and rehire many of the same supporters, or place them on the various enterprises’ Board of Directors.

The active DARK MONEY players in the 2021 DPS School Board election so far are:

  1. Parents for Great Schools which has received $150,000 from a DARK MONEY group called “Denver Families for Public Schools”. Both organizations have the same registered business agent who happened to be the local executive director of Leadership for Educational Equity (LEE) which happened to be the Teach for America offshoot that employed current DPS board members Angela Cobian and Jennifer Bacon. Neither incumbent is seeking re-election.
  2. Denver Students, Families, and Teachers United for Excellent Schools  (DSFTUES) which is an I.E. for something called the Ten Collective Impact which is an offshoot of a the national reform organization 50 CAN. The local 50 CAN chapter is called TEN, Transform Education Now. It’s executive director just got married to District 2 reform candidate, Karolina Villagrana. DSFTUES has $95,000 in its coffers from just four large donors and has already given $50,000 to its mother organization, 50 CAN for future use. From its website:
    • Contributions or gifts to Denver Students, Families and Teachers United for Excellent Schools are not tax deductible as charitable contributions or as business expenses under IRS Section 162(e). Contributions will be publicly reported according to Colorado law. Both individuals and corporations may donate with no limits. My emphasis
  3. Colorado League of Charter Schools Action I.E. has received $50,000 from the Colorado League of Charter Schools (CLCS). A little bit of transparency at last. However, the CLCS connection to the national reform movement becomes clearer when you look at its Board of Directors. Two stand out:
    • 1) Pat Donovan, Managing Partner of Denver’s RootEd, which is a relative newcomer to the privatization landscape in Denver. RootEd is funded by the Reed Hastings/John Arnold foundation The City Fund and has been the recipient of a $21 million dollar grant from The City Fund to “… partner with local leaders to create innovative public school systems“, and
    • 2) Rosemary Rodriguez, former DPS School Board member, former Denver city council president, and former statewide political director for former DPS superintendent and current U.S. Senator Michael Bennet.
  4. Raising Colorado, which is the I.E. for the political action committee Democrats for Education Reform (DFER), has a bank account of roughly $90,500 ready to spend, $25,500 leftover from the last election and $65,000 deposited into its bank account from the Colorado League of Charter schools ($20,000), Education Reform Now Advocacy ($25,000) and TEN Collaborative Impact ($20,000). Its executive director is Jen Walmer, former DPS chief of staff.

Contributions to DARK MONEY groups have come from:

  1. Parents for Great Schools received $150,000 from somewhere.
  2. DSFTUES received money from the following organizations:
    • 50 CAN – $50,000
    • CLCS – $15,000
    • Education Reform Now Advocacy – $15,000
    • Parents for Great Schools – $15,000
    • Dan Scanavino – $10,000
    • Stand for Children – $15,000
    • TOTAL – $95,000
  3. CLCS Action
    • CLCS – $50,000
  4. Raising Colorado
    • CLCS – $20,000
    • ERNA – $25,000
    • TEN – $20,000
    • TOTAL – $65,000

TOTAL CONTRIBUTIONS to date from these 4 organizations: $360,000

Wouldn’t you like to know what parents and students and teachers and families have that kind of money and commitment to be able to contribute to public education races in Denver so you could thank them?  Well, because of Citizen’s United they will never happen, and as we all know, these folks are most likely not really people but rather corporations.  And again, thank the Supreme Court for that anonymity and secrecy.

EXPENDITURES by these groups to date:

  1. Parents for Great Schools
    • DSFTUES – $15,000
    • Raising Colorado – $20,000
    • Gene Fashaw Canvassing – $17,500
    • Fashaw Digital Advertising – $19,000
    • Vernon Jones Canvassing 0 $52,500
    • Karolina Villagrana Digital ads – $19,000
    • TOTAL – $143,000
    • Vernon Jones Mailer – $61,000
    • Digital ads for Jones, Fashaw, Villagrana – $25,000
    • TOTAL – $86,000
  3. CLCS Action
    • Vernon Jones Mailer and internet – $18,000
    • Gene Fashaw Mailer and canvass – $20,714
    • TOTAL – $38,714

EXPENDITURES to date from these 3 organizations – $267,714

Here is where the DARK MONEY has gone so far:

  • Vernon Jones – $139,500
  • Gene Fashaw – $65,214
  • Karolina Villagrana – $27,000

If you follow the money as best you can, you will see one group often funds another group and that group can fund I.E’s of or other political committees who then act on behalf of a candidate.  And the players go seamlessly from one “team” to another. This can be very confusing but the bottom line is not:  $360,000 of DARK MONEY has arrived from primarily out of state DARK MONEY groups to buy three non-paying DPS board seats.  Why and who is really behind the influx of DARK MONEY and what do the privatizers hope to gain?  If history is a harbinger of the future, we can most certainly expect this to be just the first wave of money flooding these races. The 2019 races drew upwards of $1,000,000 for three seats. And in spite of the warm and fuzzy names attached to these rather insidious committees – family, parents, teacher, students, excellent schools, great education, etc. – it is rather disconcerting to see all this DARK MONEY going into buying our school board AGAIN, especially since we in Denver have seen very little improvement in educational outcomes over the past 15 year education reform reign. Look at all the interconnections. Look at proliferation of organizations funded by the same billionaires. Do you think the real goal could be jobs for friends? It certainly can’t be excellent equitable education for ALL given the track record!

Jeanne Kaplan: The Battle Against Deformers in Denver is Always Uphill

Diane Ravitch's blog

Jeanne Kaplan is a veteran civil rights activist who was elected to serve two terms on the Denver school board. She has been active in multiple campaigns to stop privatization and over-testing and energize a genuine effort to improve the public schools. She wrote this piece for this blog.


The dictionary defines Sisyphean task as something you keep doing but never gets completed, an endless task.  In Greek mythology Sisyphus is punished by the god Zeus and is tasked with endlessly pushing a rock up a steep mountain, only to have it roll back down each time he nears the top.  I will leave the deeper philosophical meanings to others.  Simply interpreted, public education advocates residing in the Queen City of the Rockies, “transformers” if you will, will find similarities to this story as we reflect on our battle to defeat “education reform.”  In…

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On November 5, 2019 Denver voters gave education reform an “F” which was reflected by the election of three new board members, none of whom was supported by the usual suspects in Denver’s education reform landscape: DFER (Democrats for Education Reform), SFER (Students for Education Reform), Stand for Children or as I recently heard referred to as STOMP ON CHILDREN. The three winners – Tay Anderson, Scott Baldermann, and Brad Laurvick, joined two other non-reform members to make what should have been an easy 5-2 majority. Taking action to undo the District’s business model of education reform should have been a gimme.  It is now four months later, and while there are members who want to see the District go in a new direction, the sense of urgency is definitely not there. The new  majority appears to be unwilling or stymied as how best to make essential change and how best to honor the voters’ desires.  I have attended various DPS events these past few weeks, and I was struck by how easily it could have been 2009 or 2013 or 2017.  Many of the same people are in charge, most of the same policies are being pursued, the same policy governance baloney is being pushed.  Education reform continues to dominate the conversation and decision making. The window of opportunity for this board to act is closing rapidly and before we know it, a new election cycle will be upon us.  Denver Board of Education – it is incumbent upon you to act now.  If you continue to drag your feet, we will lose another generation to education reform and its portfolio model. Some possibilities as how to proceed and achieve change quickly follow:

  • The Board must begin a search for a new superintendent. Superintendent Susana Cordova and all of her senior team must be replaced. For a short while I believed Ms. Cordova could stay without her current senior staff, but it has become apparent that that would be an unworkable situation.  All who are so deeply vested in the education reform direction the District has followed need to be replaced by qualified leaders who are not afraid to admit the failures of the last 15 years and who are willing to develop a bold, new direction for the District. The current leadership in DPS is wedded too heavily to the past (some might call it the status quo). Denverites want change and have said so clearly in the past two elections. The only way for that to happen is for a complete change in top leadership. In a recent post written specifically for Loving Community Schools Newsletter, The CURE, education historian and hero of the transformers’ movement Diane Ravitch said this:

The new Denver school board should use this unique opportunity to repute the failed “reforms” of the past decade. They have not closed achievement gaps; they have not improved the opportunities of all children. They have failed.  

It is time for the school board to find new leadership willing to strike out in a new direction. That means leaders who do not define schooling by deeply flawed standardized tests and who understand that a great public education system benefits all children, not just a few.  


  • The Board must take back power it has ceded to the superintendent. It must 
    • decide what board meeting agendas should look like.
    • direct the superintendent to direct the staff to follow up on Board Directors’ subjects of interest. 
    • consider returning to two public board meetings per month. That used to be the norm until the Bennet/Boasberg regimes. The reduction in meetings has resulted in less transparency and fewer meaningful public discussions.
    • revise policies DJA and DJA-R so the threshold for Board approved purchases is lowered from the current $1 million. 
    • reduce the number and length of PowerPoint presentations. One thing DPS has improved over the past 15 years is its PowerPoint presentations. They are now very colorful, very long, and very, very obtuse. No more “Death by PowerPoint.”   
  • The Board must change the budget and educational priorities from one based on reform-oriented tenets and expenditures to one that reflects priorities voted for in the elections of 2017 and 2019. 
    • SPF – Accountability based on data, data, data which is based on testing, testing, testing. Why is the District continuing to pursue and spend taxpayer money on a flawed, racist, punitive, inequitable accountability system upon which most of its other educational decisions are based?  While the SPF is being “re-imagined” and the possibility of using the state system is being considered, few board members seem willing to tackle real change which could result in a wholly different accountability system. Why is the Board not directing the staff to develop an entirely new accountability system focused on “school stories,” for example, based on things other than test scores? Why is the Board unwilling to make real change but instead seems satisfied to just nibble at the edges?
    • Choice – A complicated, expensive to operate, stressful system where the number of “choices” has increased from five schools to twelve schools per student. Who could really be satisfied with a number past even five?  Is this just another way for DPS to pretend a reform is working by saying “XX% got one of their top choices. Look. It’s working!” And why is the Board majority allowing the District to continue to ignore focusing on most family’s first Choice, their neighborhood schools? What are the costs of Choice from implementation to transportation and everything in between? And how could that money not be better spent in the classroom? 
    • Charter Schools – these “publicly funded, privately managed ‘public’ schools” seem to have it both ways; they are funded with taxpayer dollars, yet they are not overseen by our duly elected officials. The Board must work with the legislature to bring more transparency, oversight and accountability to charter schools in general. (See next section). Just last week in a 2 hour, 27 page PowerPoint presentation, DPS had a Focus on Achievement study session devoted to “Positive Culture Change for Educators of Color.”  None of the data reflected Charter School recruitment, hiring, demographics, retention, turnover.  Nothing. The head of Human Resources actually said, “We do not include charters in this data.  Charters are not required to provide their employee data or demographic data to the District.” (minute 39) WHAAAT?? Sixty out of 200 schools are charters.  20%.  No accountability to the Board. As for bond and mill levy monies? Same thing. DPS is touted for sharing these funds with its charters, yet once again there is no oversight and accountability for the charters.
    • Bonuses – Awarding bonuses is one of those business practices that works better in the private sector than the public sector.  As DPS has plowed forward with all things reform, bonuses have become a huge part of its model. Teachers earn bonuses based on criteria established in the 2019 strike settlement. The dollar amount per year starts at $750 and can go as high $6000 a year.  Administrators earn bonuses based on criteria established by, one assumes, by the superintendent. Denver’s Inter-Neighborhood Cooperation (INC) has engaged a financial analytics consultant to analyze salary and expenditure trends within the DPS budget. Detailed compensation data for the fiscal years ending 2014 – 2019 was provided by DPS to INC through a Colorado Open Records Act request. 
    • From this data, DPS is showing that the largest beneficiaries of Bonus Compensation were those in the “Administrator” job classification.  For the six-year period, Administrators received 82% ($3.8 million) of the total bonuses paid ($4.6 million). What’s more, the 20 highest bonused Administrators received 33%, or $1.4 million of the overall $4.6 million. Let that sink in – $1.4 million paid from 2014-2019 went to 20 Administrators. In a District strapped for cash. In a District that is asking teachers to make up a budgetary shortfall by increasing their pension contributions.




    • Pension contributions – The District must pay its moral and ethical obligations. Normal costs. Stop defunding the pension.  Stop trying to sell this defunding to the public, and especially your employees, as good financial policy.  The fact is the DPS silo in PERA has lost over 20% of its 100% funded status (UAAL) since 2008 and continues to pay exorbitant interest, financial, legal fees (close to $1 billion and counting), money that could have been put into the pension. The Board majority, all of whom were elected with the help of the teachers’ union, should not support defunding their pension.
    • Alternative Licensing Companies – The amount of money being spent on outside professional development for the alternative licensing of administrators, specifically at RELAY “Graduate School of Education” is appalling ($5 million over the past 6 years). Even more important than the money is the RELAY program itself.  Its rigidity and lack of humaneness has increased the stress levels of many school leaders and is in part the reason for the high principal turnover.  50% in five years.  Adding insult to injury, almost 20% of the several hundred expensively RELAY trained people have already left the District. Talk about waste of taxpayer dollars! A seemingly less harsh program is one out of the University of Virginia Darden School of Education, but it too is costing taxpayers a lot of money. $1.2 million over the past 3 years. The Board must re-examine these programs and their outcomes.
  • The Board must re-establish control of the District’s legislative agenda. How has the Board majority allowed the current lobbyist to keep her job with the District when 1) several Board members did not know of her existence until recently, meaning, she did not consult with them as to what legislation they wish to support nor did she ask what legislation they themselves might wish to get drafted; 2) she currently lobbies for Colorado’s League of Charter Schools; 3) she was once the Colorado executive director of the quintessential reform organization Stand for Children? How has this majority allowed the reform agenda to continue to be pushed when the voters have clearly asked them to stop this plan? Here are two pieces legislation being pursued by the District that would appear to be contrary to voters’ and seemingly the Board majority’s wishes:
    • A bill soon to be introduced which would to put some restrictions on charter schools – DPS has lobbied against; voters and majority should be for it.
    • A bill to decrease the District’s pension contributions once again (defunding a pension plan is never a good idea) as they ask the employees themselves to increase their contributions. The bill is being sold as a raise  for teachers but for our “publicly funded, privately managed “charter schools it could be a windfall, for they could use the extra money as they wished. Remember “publicly funded, privately managed” means no elected BoE oversight. As of today this bill has not been officially introduced, and given the current economic trends let’s hope the District has a change of heart. Not only does DPS support this bill but the Deputy Superintendent of Operations actually wrote most of it. What else do you need to know? DPS for; voters and Board majority should be against.

I have not addressed what is one of the most troubling issues in the DPS world, and that is what is going on with our students and employees of color.  I am not an expert on this subject, but my friend Hasira “Soul” Ashemu is. He is the  co-founder of Our Voice Our Schools and has written extensively on this subject. His posts will leave you wondering why the Board is not taking swift action.

The above list is by no means complete. Other reform policies such as Innovation Schools, Co-Locations, Testing, Student Based Budgeting need attention as well. The Board majority must show the people who supported them they are paying attention to their mandate, and they are acting on it. Many people have worked for far too many years, on far too many elections to be satisfied with the current Board’s lack of action and lack of urgency. Word on the street is there are some members pushing for policy change but they are hitting a brick wall when it comes to making substantive changes. If true, we must find a way to support these agents of change. If nothing is done quickly, the opportunity to make big changes will slip right through our fingers. We can easily lose the majority in the next election because of the Board’s lack of progress in reversing the current  status quo that is education reform.  We have worked too hard to allow that to happen. We have won the last two elections. We need to reap the fruit of our hard work now. Talk to your Board members. Write to them.

Diane Ravitch Offers Suggestions to New Denver School Board

JANUARY 2020 | VOL. 5
An Insider Guide to Denver’s Fight for Education Justice
The CURE is Powered by: Righteous Rage Institute
Dear Denver School Board, the definition of insanity is…
To those of us who do not have the good fortune to live in Denver, the results of the recent school board election were very exciting. For the first time in many years, a majority of the school board members were not funded by out-of-state billionaires and the hedge-fund driven school choice lobby. It appeared that Denver was part of the new wave of pushback against failed reforms.
High-stakes testing, written into federal law by George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind law in 2002, was embraced by Denver school officials. Almost 20 years later, we know that testing should not become the central feature of schooling. It diverts time, money and energy away from everything that is not tested, including history, civics, literature, the arts, and even recess. We now also know that the billions spent on standardized testing and Common Core were wasted, since test scores on national and international tests have barely budged in the past 20 years.
Merit pay was tried and failed in Denver, as it has failed everywhere else it has been tried. Teachers don’t respond to rewards and punishments; they are not donkeys. Teachers choose their profession because of their love of children and their desire to teach. Rewards and punishments are very poor motivators.
Denver was praised by Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos for its commitment to charter schools, but charter schools have proven to be a huge disappointment, not only in Colorado but across the nation. They lure students and resources away from real public schools, which weakens the schools that most children attend. Privatization always and everywhere produces segregation. Multiple studies have shown that charter schools don’t get better results when the same demographic of children are enrolled. Many charter operators choose their students carefully, but that is unfair to the public schools that lose their best students.
If we are to thrive as a nation, we must rebuild our public schools to provide equality of educational opportunity for all children. If parents want a private school education, that is their right and they should pay for it, not take money away from the schools that educate most children.
The new Denver school board should use this unique opportunity to repute the failed “reforms” of the past decade. They have not closed achievement gaps; they have not improved the opportunities of all children. They have failed.
It is time for the school board to find new leadership willing to strike out in a new direction. That means leaders who do not define schooling by deeply flawed standardized tests and who understand that a great public education system benefits all children, not just a few.
Take a look at Diane’s new book!
About the Author:
Diane Silvers Ravitch is a historian of education, an educational policy analyst, and a research professor at New York University’s Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development. Previously, she was a U.S. Assistant Secretary of Education. Ravitch writes for the New York Review of Books.


Elections have a purpose. Winning. Elections have consequences. The consequences of winning mean you get to be a decision maker.  You get to make policies.  You can’t even have any input into decision making if you don’t have a seat at the table.  You get that seat by…winning. That’s just a fact. And even though we are living in a somewhat factless world, facts still matter, at least to most of us.  The last ten years of school board elections in Denver drive home the importance of winning painfully clear. Clearly. Concisely. Unequivocally. That is why millions of dollars have poured in to Denver and thousands of trees have been killed to uphold a false narrative here. And over the last few days just before the election tv ads have appeared in support of the at large reform candidate, ads paid for with outside dark money from the Independent Expenditure Committee affiliated with Stand for Children. Let me repeat that: over the past 10 years millions of dollars from outside Denver have been spent to prop up a failed educational experiment. And failed it is.

But a new day has dawned in Denver, for on November 5, 2019 Denver voters said no to the outside money, no to the failure of the past ten years, no to education reform. They said it loudly, clearly and unequivocally.   The Denver Classroom Teachers Association candidates (DCTA) along with various community groups, parents, and students, supported three candidates and all three won their races. DPS parent and education activist Scott Balderman beat reformer Diana Romero Campbell and community candidate Radhika Nath 48% to 31% to21%; former DPS student and education activist Tay Anderson defeated reformer Alexis Menocal Harrigan and latecomer to the race Natela Manuntseva 50.4% to 37.2% to 12.3%; Brad Laurvick, DPS parent and community organizer defeated Julie Banuelos and reformer Tony Curcio 35% to 34% to 30%. Important to note here – the reformer came in last in this three way contest.


Some lessons gleaned from the November 5, 2019 School Board Election


  • Reform candidates lost by margins of 2-1 in all three races. WOW. Just WOW.
  • Denver’s teachers lead the way in the successful flipping of the board. When teachers struck in February, they energized and organized fellow teachers, parents and community members. Their activism carried over into the election cycle. Teachers ROCK!
  • Educational outcomes have NOT improved in the Michael Bennet/Tom Boasberg era despite press attempts to make it appear so.
    • The latest NAEP scores released late last month show 32% of 4th graders in Denver Public Schools can do grade level math, 35% can read at grade level. For 8th graders 29% are at grade level in both subjects .
    • Denver as usual had the largest achievement gap of the entire 27 urban school cohort in the NAEP study.
    • DPS’ implementation of school “Choice” has been criticized repeatedly because it not only is inequitable, it has been found to actually add to the inequities in DPS.
    • The highly touted Denver Plan 2020 with its lofty goals made virtually no appearance in the reformers 2019 election messaging.
  • Reformers appear to win only when they have money and candidates with high name recognition. While the amount of money spent this cycle will most likely break records, reformers ran out of big names to run this time. And the reality is at large transformer candidate Tay Anderson had the most name recognition from the beginning of the election cycle.
  • SFER – Students for Education Reform – are not as formidable as DFER – Democrats for Education Reform. The latter decided not to participate in DPS elections; the former was nowhere near as effective even though they canvassed and canvassed.
  • Candidates should be encouraged or recruited who actually have a chance of winning in the races they choose: demographics, gender, ethnicity, all come into play. When one is self-righteous and politically naive and makes candidate choices based on only one or two of these characteristics, the chances of winning are significantly reduced.



November 5, 2019. There were three open seats – no incumbents running. Two District seats and an at large seat. A real opportunity to change direction of public education in Denver the likes of which have not been seen here since 2009. Ah, 2009 – the year transformers (teachers, parents, students, community members in support of strong neighborhood schools) won the vote but lost control of the board because of a defector. 2009 was also the year Stand for Children entered the scene in Denver and “education reform” put down roots in Denver over thanks to change of philosophy of this defector. Transformers went from holding a 4-3 majority to losing control with a 3-4 minority. Since then Denver has been the quintessential reform district and reformers in Denver have been the beneficiaries of millions of mostly out of state dollars to fund the races. Simultaneously, they have been able to find “name” candidates to run, particularly for the at large seat as several former city council people, a former lieutenant governor, a daughter of a U.S. Senate candidate, a person with the same name as a former mayor have been recruited to run and win the board seats.   Money + name has been a successful formula for victory. That was until now.

In addition to money and name recognition reformers have figured out you must run only one candidate per race if you have any chance of winning the election. You can’t split the vote and win. That message resonated with transformers as well, so at the outset of this election cycle transformers were committed to the one candidate per race principle as well. All disparate groups united to form a coalition whose goal it was to “Flip the Board.”

Unfortunately, cracks within the coalition began to show early on in the election cycle, and some transformer groups decided eating their own was more appealing than trying to win the elections and start to undo 15 years of Bennet/Boasberg educational failures. The cracks became fissures. The election in-fighting quickly rose to replicate some of the behaviors we are seeing at the national level of politics: bullying, lying, racism, name calling the likes of which would never have been acceptable before the current demise of civility in the country. And the targets of this behavior were often other transformers rather than reformers! The differences came to a head when the teachers union endorsed one slate of candidates and several transformer organizations wanted a different slate. Attempts were made at compromising but to no avail. Ultimately the sides split with one side focusing most of its anger attacking the other side rather the reform candidates.  But unlike years gone by the three candidates per race did not result in reformers winning. Reformers came in a distant second in two races, and third in one race. Quite a strong anti-reform statement, one must note.


And so here we are. Ten years after the DPS transformers won only to lose, 6 years after a 6-1 board, four years after a 7-0 (!) board Denver has fought outside money and national reform voodoo reform to become a 5-2 board, we have battled our way back to a board for teachers, students, strong neighborhood schools and equity for all. We have won the fight against the privatization of public education. It is truly amazing.

The most important issue that drove this revolutionary victory was voter weariness with lack of educational improvement. But many other things contributed to this victory: long time activists laying the ground work for this day and continuing to fight, increasing inequities among schools, exhaustion from the business model with its winners and losers, great candidates willing to run positive, transparent campaigns, This is a great day for public education in Denver, but undoing the last 15 years will take time. We must practice patience with this new board as they plan a non-disruptive way to return to equitably educating all kids. Congratulations to all of us who have been fighting for so long. Elections have a purpose. Winning.










Soooooo…it appears   “The education reform movement as we have known it is over.”  This from none other than “education reformer” extraordinaire, Van Schoales,  writing in the May 6, 2019 Education Week: Education Reform as We Know It Is Over.  What Have We Learned? Along his way to becoming the president of Colorado’s own reform-oriented “oversight” committee, A+ Colorado , Van has worked at Denver’s Piton Foundation and Education Reform Now (ERN), the advocacy arm of Democrats for Education Reform (DFER).  He has also been integrally involved with starting and supporting local charter schools and drafting statewide education reform-oriented legislation. When Denver media has needed a quote to support “education reform” outcomes, whom have they called?  Not Ghost Busters!  No, their go-to guy has been Van Schoales. So his partial about face in his recent post in Education Week is quite surprising.  In his words:

 “There are three primary reasons that education reforms failed to live up to our expectations: too few teacher-led reforms, a lack of real community support from those most impacted, and a lack of focus on policy change for public schools across the board, not just the lowest of low-performing schools.” 

Gee.  Who knew?

If I weren’t so darn mad, I’d be shedding tears of laughter.  If we hadn’t fought and fought and fought against “education reform” for the last 15 years, foretelling the recent conclusions of ed reformers,” the whole education reform movement could be viewed as a bad joke.  If we the taxpayers hadn’t spent hundreds of millions of dollars and if we the people hadn’t lost at least a generation of students and teachers to the chaos and churn and complete lack of common sense of “education reform,” we could all be lifting a glass of whatever to toasting “we told you so.”  If only the past 15 years could have been a bad dream, and we could all be like Dorothy and wake up in our safe places, wiping out the nightmare. But alas, that is not the case. And even with these mea culpas coming from unexpected places, most reformers are still unwilling to fully accept the disasters they have wrought upon community after community, most of which just happen to be populated primarily by people of color.

If I hear how much academic progress Denver has made one more time, especially when no corroborating data is provided, I may just scream.  Van repeats this myth (“This is the fundamental paradox we are left with at the end of this ed. reform era: How do we reconcile tangible progress with the massive systemic gaps that remain?”) and cites Denver along with Washington, D.C. and New Orleans as examples of progress. Now, if you have followed education reform at all over these past 15 years, there is one thing you can be assured of.  You don’t want to be in a “public” school in New Orleans, the first all charter school district in the nation, and you only want to be in a very select few public schools in D.C.  As for Denver, what data could he possibly be seeing that the rest of us are not privy to?  Proficiencies of 32% in math, 42% in English Language Arts, achievement/opportunity gaps between white students and students of color registering at the highest level nationally. Seriously, the only way anything positive can be honestly taken from these data points is if you are comparing DPS with the state.  Yes, that gap has closed significantly but only because the state has fallen so significantly since the implementation of CMAS.  State proficiencies are 34% in math and 44.5% in ELA. But even this statistic says more about the state dropping than DPS improving. 

This post is not intended to be an attack on Van Schoales personally, but it is meant to call attention once again to the false picture of success “reformers” like him have repeatedly painted for public consumption for the past 15 years:

  • “reform” has been successful;
  • “reformers” know what’s best for other people’s children, even though they themselves have come from a very different educational system and for the most part have demanded a very different educational system for their own children;
  • those who dare question the “reform” agenda want to return to the status quo (whatever that may be after “reform” has dominated the education scene for the immediate past).  

Even though we have always hoped for a truthful assessment of the “education reform” experiment, the importance of this partial admission should not be overlooked or underestimated.

Several other “education reform” oriented events have been taking place that give sway to the scenario “education reform” is in retreat and weakening its hold on public education. The first is a national report on the effectiveness of Common Core State Standards followed by the Houston Independent School District severing its ties with alternative teacher licensing Teach for America followed by several national studies illustrating the false promises of choice and charters regarding equity and educational outcomes.

Nearly a decade later, did the Common Core work?  New research offers clues analyzes the first national study evaluating the educational outcomes of implementing Common Core State Standards CCSS).  CCSS you will recall has driven much of the data driven reform agenda: high stakes testing, teacher evaluations based on test scores, school closures based on test scores, school rankings based on testing.  While studying Common Core at a national level has proven to be difficult, the study suggests “that even in the best case scenario, the academic shifts led only to modest gains for students, falling short of the far-reaching ambitions of Common Core advocates.”

In April 2015 I wrote about Teach for America in Denver, concluding that TFA had little effect on learning in DPS but did contribute to the deprofessionalization of the teaching profession.  TFA also cost the District a lot of money in finder’s fees.  Now, just this week the Houston Independent School District, citing similar reasons, especially the high costs of the program, severed its ties with TFA, demonstrating another withdrawal from “education reforms.”

Finally, two of the main tenets of the “reform” movement, charter schools and school choice, are seeing some of the air coming out of their balloons as they have come under more and more scrutiny and criticism.  Long time educator Peter Greene  exposes several of the most recent challenges facing these policies, some of which are due to their close connection to trump/devos education policies, others of which are due the lackluster educational outcomes from charter schools. And in Asleep at the Wheel The Network for Public Education documents fraud, waste, and lack of oversight and accountability within the federal charter school grants totaling nearly one billion dollars and counting.

Coloradoans in particular have been affected by one more reform related event.  Former Denver Public Schools Superintendent Michael Bennet’s announced his candidacy for the president of the United States.  Michael Bennet left a complex mark on Denver Schools.  Now he’s running for President explores some of the controversial legacy left by the former superintendent  as he pursues the highest office in the land as yet another “education president.”  “I think we need an education president,” he told the Des Moines Register. “There’s no public good that’s more important than education.” But as superintendent Bennet orchestrated the beginnings of “education reform” in Denver, including school closures and teacher pay for performance, two highly controversial tenets of reform. And let us not forget the risky and costly pension swap deal he and his successor Tom Boasberg crafted.  On April 24, 2008 DPS borrowed $750 million in taxable pension certificates of participation which have ballooned to over $1.5 billion today.

We who have been watching failure after failure unfold in public education are a bit miffed when Van asks “what’s next, how do we more forward?”  Communities have been clear in what they want:  Honesty in the assessment of where we are and how we got there. Collaborative decision making where decisions are made with and not to communities. No more divisive, punitive and authoritarian decisions and decision making. Replication of what works for most kids:  small classes, enriching curriculum, resources, safe learning environment.  It’s what all parents want for their kids. Let us return to making every neighborhood school a great option, because in spite of what “reformers” want you to believe, most parents want to be able to choose to walk their kids to their neighborhood school.  Finally, let us return to educating because we all know that testing is not educating. BTW this does NOT mean no assessments. 

For the last 15 years “education reformers” have pushed and pushed and pushed their vision and version of public education on unwitting subjects.  It is difficult not to be angry and suspicious of the recent admissions of failure when much of what education reform has wrought is actually still in place and will take years to undo. But if we can believe Van’s realization of what went wrong, there is hope to make the civil rights issue of our time work for all.  We do need to look forward and try to work together to make public education the equalizer it MUST be. 

*(Oh My God, In Case You Missed It, Shaking My Damn Head)



On April 24, 2008 the Denver Public Schools agreed to borrow $750 million dollars from some of America’s top financial institutions for its outstanding pension debt. As I write this blog this morning February 12, 2019 Denver’s teachers have entered the second day of their first strike in 25 years. The amount of money being contested is somewhere less than one-half of one percent of the overall DPS budget.  0.04%.  Less than $10 million out of $1.4 billion.  The following tells some of the complicated story that connects these two events.

The $750 million taxpayer debt was divided this way: $300 million was to pay back already existing pension debt, $400 million was to fully fund the DPS retirement fund.  The remaining $50 million went to legal and financial fees. By the time this transaction was “fixed out” in 2013 a veritable Who’s Who in the Wall Street world was involved:  RBC Capital Markets, Goldman Sachs, JPMorgan, Citibank, Wells, Fargo, Bank of America. Part of the incentive to borrow this money was so DPS’ stand alone retirement fund could join the statewide retirement fund (Colorado Public Employees Retirement Association or PERA for short) which would in turn allow for more employee mobility into and out of DPS and would reduce DPS’ annual retirement contributions which would in turn provide more money for classrooms.  Because of previous financial miscalculations DPS was paying more per pupil for its retirement fund than any other school district in the state. Had this deal not been executed, the dollars paid to banks and lawyers could have been put directly into the DPS retirement fund itself. The DPS Superintendent at the time:  Michael Bennet. The Chief Operating Officer: Tom Boasberg. 

Bennet and Boasberg came from the business world and were heralded as financial wizards. (They were boyhood friends growing up in Washington, D.C. together). Bennet had worked for billionaire Phil Anschutz and had already demonstrated a skepticism toward public pensions.  Boasberg arrived at DPS from Level 3 Communications, “an American multinational telecommunications and Internet service provider” where he was a mergers and acquisition guy.  Long story short they, along with bankers and lawyers concocted this very complicated and risky transaction using taxpayer money.  They were convinced that despite what was happening in the financial world at the time, DPS was going to save millions of dollars in pension costs.

Remember back to 2008. And remember we are talking about public, not private, money.  In February the auction rate securities froze.  In March Bear Stearns went under.  There were many indicators that something big could be going on in the world financial markets.  Nevertheless, in April the DPS board was encouraged to proceed with the high risk transaction which relied on the weekly LIBOR rate (it is the primary benchmark, along with the Euribor, for short-term interest rates around the world. Libor rates are calculated for five currencies and seven borrowing periods ranging from overnight to one year and are published each business day by Thomson Reuters.), swaps, (A swap is a derivative in which two counterparties exchange cash flows of one party’s financial instrument for those of the other party’s financial instrument. The benefits in question depend on the type of financial instruments involved.), bonds that were auctioned weekly.  And here is the headline from that deal.  In 10 years that $750 million loan has ballooned into twice as much debt  ($1.8 BILLION) and only for the past two years has the district begun paying any principal.  And simultaneously,  Bennet and Boasberg were able to convince the Colorado legislature that DPS should get the equivalent of “pre-payment” credit to deduct the PCOPs fees and interest from what would have been their normal pension contributions.  Because of these actions DPS employees have witnessed their pension fund drop about 20% fromfully funded on January 1, 2010 to a little under 80% funded in June 30, 2018. But as Bennet and Boasberg would say as this defunding is occurring, “we are making our legal contributions, ” to which one must add, “Legal, but is it ethical?”

This story has become very relevant today because after 15 months of negotiations the district and the teachers have been unable to reach an agreement. Denver’s teachers have gone on strike over a compensation system called ProComp (Professional Compensation).  And the ProComp fight comes back to the pension.

In 2005 Denver voters approved a $25 million tax  (adjusted for inflation) for teacher pay-for-performance incentives.  A few thousand dollars was awarded for teachers who worked in hard to serve schools and taught hard to teach subjects.  The awarded dollars ($500-$2500) was intended to permanently raise base salaries.  It was reliable raise and it was PENSIONABLE.

In 2008 – hum, is this a coincidence? – the ProComp “bonus” went from a completely base building system to a yearly one-time bonus system.  And to further complicate matters, new bonus criteria (based primarily on high-stakes testing) have since been added. The result has been teachers cannot tell how much they will be making from year to year.  Some have said they can’t even tell how much they will make from paycheck to paycheck. Oh, and of course, these bonuses do not contribute to a teacher’s PENSIONABLE income resulting in…less retirement money  for retiring teachers, and simultaneously smaller demands on a dwindling pension fund.

While all this business bonus mess has been imposed in Denver, surrounding school districts have far surpassed Denver’s base pay scale, resulting in very high teacher turnover for DPS and a dwindling number of long serving professionals. Teachers are retiring earlier, teachers are leaving the district, and sadly teachers are leaving the profession. And because Denver is the quintessential reform district, DPS has been very welcoming to the reform idea of hiring short term, unlicensed educators with non-traditional training.  Think six week training programs.  The result of all this brilliance: fewer long serving employees resulting in less demand on a pension fund.  So the conflation of financial wizardry and education reform has hit Denver: businessmen Bennet and Boasberg take over the finances of a public school district, concoct a complicated and risky scenario during an unstable financial time, get the legislature to allow the defunding of the pension, implement a bonus based pay system to replace base-building, and voila – a strike by Denver’s teachers for a fair, reliable, sustainable pay system. 

One more important headline. ProComp bonuses for teachers range from $500-$3000 per category per year. Last month a list of administrative bonuses without a rubric as to how the money has been awarded became available:  the current COO (Boasberg’s first job in DPS) received a $34,000 (!) bonus on top of his $198,000 salary, an “IMO executive principal” got $36,900 on top of his/her $130,000.  An IMO executive principal is the newest layer of reform administration.  He/she oversees a network of innovation schools (non union schools overseen by the district) and makes two to three times as much as a DPS teacher.  There are approximately 10 such positions with each person gathering around $20,000 in bonuses. These bonuses are not part of the ProComp agreement but rather come out of the DPS general fund.  Just imagine.  You could save almost half of the 8 million dollars they two sides are bickering over if you just eliminated these positions and the bonuses.

We must never end any story about Denver Public Schools without a reference to educational outcomes, for isn’t the first priority of a public education system educating its students? After 15 years of education reform brought by Michael Bennet and Tom Boasberg, 42% of Denver’s students are proficient in English Language Arts and 32% proficient in math.  Bennet and Boasberg  financial actions have also contributed to the doubling of the pension debt, and their policies have resulted in the first teacher strike in 25 years in Denver.  Quite a legacy left by the boys from D.C. 

Déjà Vu All Over Again: The Skeletons in the Closet Updated

I have not weighed in regularly as the Denver Public Schools’ superintendent search has been happening. Other education warriors have done an excellent job documenting its twists and turns and have been very loud and strong in their advocacy for accountability and transparency. But now as the process has seemingly devolved into a one and only candidate being put forth, I feel compelled to weigh in, for the similarity to the last superintendent search in 2009 is ringing loud and clear. A cover-up of sorts. In both instances DPS has had to choose an insider with the hope that “the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth” is covered up to some extent. And I was there in 2009 as Tom Boasberg was pushed across the finish line.


Flash back to the first weekend in January 2009. Colorado Governor Bill Ritter named Denver Public Schools Superintendent Michael Bennet to fill the Senate vacancy created by President-elect Obama’s selection of Ken Salazar to become Secretary of the Interior. On that first Saturday of 2009 the DPS Board of Education met in executive session to discuss who should become Bennet’s successor. Michael Bennet was present for much of that session. Like today’s search there was a push from some Board members and the Denver community at large to at the very least interview outside candidates, and candidates who looked more like DPS’ students, i.e., someone of color. Few, if any board members, realized that while we were able to expand the pool somewhat, the decision to hire Tom Boasberg, Michael Bennet’s lifelong friend who had been serving as DPS’ Chief Operating Officer had already been made. It had to be Boasberg because unbeknownst to many, a very risky financial transaction, the now famous $750 million Pension Certificates of Participation (PCOPS), was deeply under water. Remember September 2008? It had to be Boasberg because he and Bennet along with their Wall Street bankers knew what trouble this deal was in, and while some of us on the Board asked how this deal was going, no real data was ever provided. Instead, we received platitudes like, “things are okay,” “perhaps not as good as we had hoped but it will be all right.” Meanwhile, DPS was paying upwards of 18% PER WEEK on its $750 million bet. There could be no other choice because any new person entering the DPS world would most likely have ordered a thorough examination of DPS finances and neither Tom nor Michael could have survived this revelation. Politics. After many executive sessions and much political pressure Tom Boasberg was unanimously selected. Obviously, I was a yes vote. It took over a year of investigating and prodding for the financial debacle to become uncovered and thus a rational explanation for Tom’s selection.  I know about that kind of pressure.


Fast forward to December 2018, almost exactly ten years later. After a torturous months’ long process where diverse communities across Denver spent hundreds of hours to determine what the most important characteristics DPS’ next superintendent should have, we have a somewhat similar situation: only one candidate being put forth. This time the candidate appears to be current Assistant Superintendent Susana Cordova. The similarity to 2009 should not be overlooked: this District is trying once again to elevate an insider who is deeply vested in keeping some current DPS condition from being fully examined and exposed. Ms. Cordova must be selected because much like Tom Boasberg in 2009 the District needs someone at the helm who will continue massaging the truth,  only this time the coverup involves educational outcomes, not financial malfeasance. My guess is at least four current board members – Anne Rowe, Barbara O’Brien, Happy Haynes, and Lisa Flores – are equally vested in Ms. Cordova because their legacies, too, are at stake. Even as the facts stare them in the face – the third largest achievement or opportunity gap in the nation, educational proficiencies of only 32% in math and 42% in reading , the highest teacher turnover in the Front Range, a Choice policy that is resegregating our schools – they cannot afford to admit 15 years of education reform have failed our students, particularly our students of color. I am going to go back to the proficiencies just cited because isn’t the first responsibility of any school district to educate its students? Even if you don’t believe high stakes testing tells the educational stories of our schools – and I do not – if you are going to live and die by the results of these tests, you had best have something good to show for 15 years of these education policies.


So you tell me.  Do educational results showing three out of 10 DPS students performing at grade level in math, and four out of ten in reading indicate a school District should continue down this path? These outcomes are the result of 15 years of education reform in Denver!  With Ms. Cordova as the head of DPS one can be assured the District will continue down this path, for she and the majority of the board of education are deeply vested in pretending these outcomes are just fine. They continue to tout growth figures as evidence of great success, while our students, particularly those of color, languish with few grade level skills.  No wonder folks who follow public education in Denver are so irate. The status quo must go.


In February 2016 I was asked to give a history of DPS education reform to the Boston Teachers Union. In that address I referenced a CABAL. I am going repeat this portion because it is so relevant to what is happening in Denver today. To those of you who have received my posts over the years this will be redundant. I repeat myself because this is very important today in Denver’ s political landscape.

The dictionary defines a Cabal as a group of plotters, a secret plot, a clique.  Education Reform across the nation is being run by a cabal.   This “education Reform” cabal is made up of some combination of the school board, the mayor, the governor, civic leaders and real estate developers, both Democrats and Republicans, (This is very important to note. Ed Reform is bi-partisan. (It is a shame it has taken a full front attack on public education to bring the R’s and D’s together.), national venture philanthropists like Bill Gates, Eli Broad, the Walton Family Foundation to name the big three, national non-profits like Dem for Ed Reform, Jonah Edelman’s Stand for Children, Michelle Rhee’s Students First and all the lobbying and lobbyists money can buy. This cabal extends all the way up to the Secretary of Education and the President of the United States. Add to this powerful group local citizen’s oversight committees and local foundations and you have most members of the cabal.

In Denver the cabal ties are more than just casual connections: then superintendent Michael Bennet, went to private school with his successor current superintendent Tom Boasberg who grew up next door to Stand for Children founder Jonah Edelman. One of the first Board members of Stand was someone named Margaret Boasberg, sister of Tom Boasberg. The former chief of staff to Boasberg, Jen Walmer, is now head of Colorado DFER, the head of the citizens oversight group Van Schoales worked for ERN, the political arm of DFER . And former Board members and former politicians are parlaying their years of public service into various profitable ventures. These are definitely powerful people who have a lot of money. Oh, and by the way, it is always easier to be part of the in crowd (remember middle school?) than it is to actually research issues for yourself and come to your own critically thought through decisions. So “reformers” have gathered support from civic leaders, many of whom have superficial knowledge about public education but who trust and don’t really verify.

Many members of the cabal are products of a very different school system, a private one that prizes small classes, enriched curricula, up to date facilities. They had parents who exercised choice sending them out of the neighborhoods to private schools. I am convinced that is part of the reason CHOICE is desirable and non-controversial to them. That’s what they did. That’s what they are comfortable with. That is why the repeated cry to fix neighborhood schools, not close them, keeps falling on deaf ears. To them closing neighborhood schools is a totally objective decision and one that can be made without emotional ties.  Most of the cabal’s children attend schools where reforms are not practiced. So public education in the United States today embodies decisions being made for those children by folks who do not subject their own children to the portfolio strategy that has become education reform.

In Denver the cabal is made of representatives from all of the above-named entities. We don’t have a mayoral appointed board but you don’t need one when the cabal finds and funds people to run like a former lieutenant governor who just happens to be the head of a non-profit that trains principals for non-union schools (Barbara O’Brien), two former city council presidents one of whom is the state director for former superintendent (Rosemary Rodriguez), now Senator Michael Bennet, the other of whom has just been appointed to head Denver’s city parks and recreation department (Happy Haynes), a bond lawyer whose firm has garnered $3.5 million from the district over the last 10 year selling many kinds of bonds., including pension swaps (Mike Johnson). In 2016 the remaining three also had political ties to some part of the cabal.

In this current battle for DPS superintendent many cabal members have already thrown their support to Ms. Cordova including the current mayor and at least one former mayor.  It certainly would be better for Denver and the incoming superintendent to enter the position with unanimous approval. But given how this search has devolved, that probably will not happen. Susana Cordova has become a divisive figure in all of this, and repeating the 2009 history of putting forth only one inside candidate in the hope of keeping those skeletons hidden would not be good for DPS.  Would Ms. Cordova threaten to resign from DP altogether if at this point she is not put forward? Would that be so bad for Denver and its school District?  If the entire process were to be reopened, would she consider reapplying?  Would she ever be acceptable to communities who have demanded a different kind of superintendent and a different direction for the District?

The Board of Education is now scheduled to announce the superintendent finalist(s) on Friday, November 30. These extra days of “deliberation” and “executive sessions” will undoubtedly bring enormous pressure on wavering board members to conform to the majority’s wishes. Is trying to keep those skeletons under cover worth the divisions will most likely ensue from putting only this one candidate forward? Will Board members who are hesitant about her leadership be able to withstand the pressure? I know how hard that will be. Remember 2009.

Update: Early this evening, November 29, the seven member board passed a resolution by a vote of 5-2 to move the sole remaining candidate forward in the superintendent search.  Susana Cordova will now have meetings across the city to share her vision.  The two dissenting votes came from Dr. Carrie Olson and Jennifer Bacon.







DPS still failing at-risk students: A Study in Ambiguity

Shocking! One of the first drivers of “education reform” in Denver has seen the light.   That is how most people viewed former DPS Board President Theresa Pena’s front page op-ed piece in the Sunday Denver Post Perspective section entitled, DPS still failing at-risk students. Ms. Pena severely chastises Denver Public Schools for failing to properly address the sluggish pace of academic progress ten years of “reform” has brought to Denver’s at-risk student population. A pioneer of “education reform” in Denver has admitted its failure. My first reaction, too, was WOW! I couldn’t wait to post this on my FaceBook page.

My euphoria was short-lived, however. Upon further examination and after re-reading it several times, I have come to a different conclusion: while Ms. Pena expresses her clear disappointment with the lack of urgency the District has shown regarding educational outcomes for at-risk students her own conclusions appear to be ambiguous.  Here are some things she fails to address:

  • What next steps should be taken to jump start theses sluggish outcomes ;
  • Is the current portfolio management reform strategy the right method to get better results ;
  • Does Denver Public Schools have the right leadership in place to lead a genuine education revolution?

Given what is transpiring in the “education reform” world of late, I fear she is not calling for a change of direction from the District, but rather she is yet another “reformer” propping up this failing status quo. I fear she would like to see the District implementing more falling reforms at a much faster clip. Go figure. I have tried to get clarification from her but have been unable to reach her. She has not to returned phone calls or emails. I have also contacted others who I thought might know what she is thinking, particularly regarding next steps. No one I talked with could answer that question.

Ms. Pena bases most of her assessment of the current state of DPS on a 2007 Rocky Mountain News article, entitled: A Vision for a 21st Century School District (In what is certainly another WOW! moment, after several hours of combing through file folder after file folder, I was able to locate a printout of the article. If you have ever seen my office, you will recognize how miraculous this is.   Boxes and binders of CSAP, TCAP data, PCOP refinancing powerpoints, Strategic Regional Analyses, SPF information.   Neither I nor my assistants could find a copy on line).

So why is this “manifesto” resurfacing now?

Could it be that national and local “reformers” are questioning DPS’ commitment to “education reform” as other public education activists continue to question whether or not there should even be such a commitment?

Let’s go back to 2007 when this manifesto was written. Barack Obama had not been elected President; Arne Duncan was not Secretary of Education; Race to the Top, teacher evaluations based on high stakes testing were not in the education vernacular; Denver school board races were funded locally; the Broad Institute had just started training business and military people to become urban superintendents. While I don’t remember the specific details, I am pretty sure members of the Board were all very committed to working collaboratively to improve educational outcomes for all students.

With 20-20 hindsight I am stunned that then Superintendent Michael Bennet was able to corral the entire board to sign this manifesto, for this six-page document clearly lays out what has happened in Denver Public Schools in the last decade. I can only speak for myself, but I did not anticipate that   “Choice: and “Innovation,” “school closures” and “competition,”  “great principals” and “excellent teaching” and “greater control at the school level” would result in such chaos for Denver Public Schools.

And while I may agree with Ms. Pena when she says,

“Ten years later, we need to ask ourselves whether DPS has placed the proper focus on meaningful student achievement, or whether it has focused too much energy on governance models (charter, innovation, traditional)? We need to ask, 10 years later, who, if anyone, is better off as a result of the reforms put in place by the school board on which we served. Students? Teachers? Principals? Communities?

I’d argue, unfortunately, that the correct answer is none of the above.”

I do not agree that “we failed on all counts .” (my emphasis).  Even as the 21st century vision began to unfold, several board members confronted the very real possibility that this plan was not the right one for Denver’s students. Over our years of service, we continuously questioned the strategies that were producing such meager academic improvements, and we wondered at what educational price these so-called “reforms” were being instituted. We also did our best to fight for the communities who were displeased with the “reforms” being imposed upon them.

However, what I find most troubling and unsettling about Ms. Pena’s op-ed are her concluding words:

“Board members, we need you to follow through on the promises from the long-ago Rocky article and “abandon the status quo for a shimmering future.”

I stand ready to support you in pushing the dramatic changes necessary to improve outcomes for all Denver students. I hope you will exhibit the leadership and courage to lead the education revolution Denver needs to truly become the national vanguard for reform in public education.”

The promises of the 11 year old article established the blueprint for the past ten years and its failures which, according to Ms. Pena, are abhorrent. So, what are the dramatic changes necessary to make Denver the national vanguard – and here are the most troubling words – for reform in public education. If not More of the Same only on steroids, then what does she want?

The good news is this:  if former Board President Pena does think “reform” has failed and she is seeking an alternative strategy, a big thank you to her for calling out these failures.  If, on the other hand, she thinks tweaking the current path and pushing for speedier implementation is the answer, we should all be worried.

What Might Have Been: A Story of an Election Lost

In December 2015 a group of community members came together to form what became Our Denver Our Schools (ODOS): ODOS had one very simple goal: educate the public so they would learn about public education and through that process vote for change on the board. ODOS spent a year and a half educating people about public education in Denver through forums (my Latin background would tell me this is fora), letter writing campaigns and fundraising. In the summer of 2017 ODOS turned its attention on supporting its slate of grassroots candidates: Robert Speth at-large, Xochitl “Sochi” Gaytan in District 2 – Southwest, Dr. Carrie Olson in District 3 – Central Denver, and Tay Anderson in District 4 – Near and Far Northeast. ODOS did this in spite of the pushback from Denver’s teachers’ union, claiming early on there was only money for two seats, AND incumbents Rosemary Rodriguez and Barbara O’Brien were unbeatable. Hindsight is always 2020 but imagine what the $320,000 the union spent in two races could have done in four races!

As things turned out, Ms. Rodriguez retired from the Board, opening up her District 2 seat, and Ms. O’Brien won a three-way race with only 40% of the vote. Unfortunately, Denver Classroom Teachers Association (DCTA) and its parent group the Colorado Education Association (CEA) were not able or not willing to modify its game plan from winning 2 seats to winning 4 seats when these changes emerged.

This is a long blog, so if you aren’t that into Denver school board politics or just don’t feel like reading a long post, or whatever, here are some highlights:

Pro public education advocates won one seat: Dr. Carrie Olson, District 3.  We should have won more, even all four.  To find out why this didn’t happen, read on.

The union will most likely claim victory for two seats. The reality is they won zero public education seats because they didn’t really support winner Olson, and they supported a winning “reformer” candidate, Jennifer Bacon.

Winners this cycle include: The people, Dr. Carrie Olson, Teach for America, Our Denver, Our Schools.

Losers: Pro public education advocates, Denver’s teachers, Democrats of Education Reform, “education reform.”

Meh:   The teachers’ union because a 33-year DPS teacher did get elected.  No thanks to them.  Money.

On to the details of how four seats became one.

In the late spring of 2017 ODOS joined with Denver Area Labor Federation (DALF), NAACP, Gilpin Elementary School parents whose school had recently been shuttered, DCTA and CEA to work to get what ODOS hoped would be the same slate of candidates elected to the DPS Board of Education.   This collaborative worked well together until DCTA/CEA decided to support Teach for America alum Jennifer Bacon in District 4. Meetings and collaboration stopped and when the votes were counted the four seat vision became a one seat victory. Better one than none. However…


DCTA/CEA hired consultants who I – with apologies to The Cat in the Hat (and more recently MSNBC’s Chris Hayes. Remember Thing 1 and Thing 2?) – will refer to as Consultant 1 and Consultant 2 (C1 and C2 for short) for election in the Spring. C1 and C2 never believed in four in 2017. C1 had been involved with DPS board races in the past, but he had been out of DPS politics for at least 6 years. Things had changed. C2 did not have a history with DPS or frankly much knowledge about the politics of DPS. And again, when hired both thought Rodriguez and O’Brien were locks so the winnable Districts were 3 and 4. When Rodriguez announced her intent to leave, both believed districts 2 and 3 were the ones to go after. It is still not clear how and when that changed to districts 2 and 4 and how Carrie Olson, the only professional educator running, (33 years in Denver, 33 years of faithfully paying DCTA dues ) lost the support of the union and its consultants. Ironic, isn’t it, that she is the one who won. With very, very little union help.


Dr. Carrie Olson’s victory was EXTRAORDINARY. Let us not forget that she is the first pro-public education candidate to win in Denver since 2011 when incumbent Arturo Jimenez won by a resounding 150 (!) votes. Dr. Carrie Olson will be a force to be reckoned with, a voice for students, teachers, families, and communities. But given the quality of candidates running and the clear displeasure voters expressed with the current direction in DPS, public education advocates should have won more seats. In fact, they could have won all four.


Race by Race


At-large: Three candidates ran:

  • Barbara O’Brien, incumbent, former lieutenant governor, “reformer” poster candidate, raised nearly half a million dollars, spent $8.94 per vote and eked out 40% of the vote.
  • Robert Speth, ODOS and DCTA endorsed but the union did not really do much for him since those in charge of the money did not believe O’Brien could be defeated. Speth won 35% of the vote, spending $0.77 per vote. Speth ran two years ago and came within a hair of beating incumbent Happy Haynes. He was also a founding member of Our Denver, Our Schools.
  • Julie Banuelos, former DPS teacher, endorsed by a DCTA off-shoot, The Caucus of Today’s Teachers. Banuelos garnered 24% of the vote, spending $0.43 per vote.


Lesson learned. Three person races with two candidates supporting the same positions – Speth and Banuelos were pro public education – allow the third person to be elected with less than a majority of voter support. The current DPS trajectory of “reform” was soundly defeated 60% to 40% but the “reformer” won and will vote accordingly.


District 2: Open seat because incumbent Rosemary Rodriguez stepped down.

  • Xochitl “Sochi” Gaytan –ODOS and DCTA endorsed. She was heavily supported by the union but that support turned out to be a mixed blessing. The union’s independent expenditure committee, Every Student Succeeds, sent out a mailer to a Republican part of the district, tying Gaytan’s opponent to Trump/DeVos. The I.E. further claimed an endorsement for Gaytan that was never made. Her campaign spent much time trying to undo the damage but was unable recover from these faux pas.
  • Angela Cobian mentee of the current board member, former TFA member, current organizer for Leadership for Educational Equity (LEE) the TFA offshoot that trains former corps members “to engage civically within their communities to end the injustice of educational inequity.” Cobian was the “reformer” darling, gathering $67,000 from DFER’s Raising Colorado and tens of thousands of dollars from local and national “reformers.” She ran as a teacher.


Lesson learned: Independent expenditure committees aren’t always helpful.


District 4: Another three-candidate race, but complicated because DCTA endorsed one of the two “reformers.” If you need proof of the similarities between Bacon and Espiritu, here are three confirming manifestations:

1) Stand for Children could not decide between the two of them so did not endorse in that District, while endorsing the other “reform” candidates in Districts 2, 3 and at-large.(Cobian, Johnson and O’Brien, respectively).

2) Former Board member Nate Easley contributed to both campaigns, hedging his “reformer” bet.

3) Mayor Hancock endorsed Bacon along with “reformers” in 2, 3, and at-large.


  • Tay Anderson, 19 year old 2017 graduate of Manual high School who decided to run when Board member Happy Haynes told the Manual community its wishes would be ignored as to the future of Manual.. C2 was a strong supporter in the beginning and then dropped him for reasons still unclear. ODOS endorsed.
  • Rachele Espiritu, the incumbent, had a difficult mountain to climb. While receiving $97,000 from DFER, and raising $93,000 on her own, she had to defend DPS’ record in the district where the most “reforms” were happening. Under fire from the beginning, she often supported points of views different from the way she voted. Having a record hurt her.
  • Jennifer Bacon , former TFA member, ran as a “teacher.” She raised $70,000 on her own and received $139,000 from teachers union. Bacon also received reformer money from TFA national board member Arthur Rock.


Lesson learned: It is mixed. Grassroots worked in District 3 against all odds. Grassroots did not work in District 4. To this day union support of a non-union “teacher” is baffling. A Pyrrhic victory at best, certainly not a vote that can be counted on for pro public education advocates.


Saving the best for last…


District 3: Incumbent, “reformer” Mike Johnson against educator Dr. Carrie Olson.

Extraordinary victory!


  • Dr. Carrie Olson, 33-year DPS UNION teacher of English Language Development 6-12 Social Studies. Dr. Olson was recruited by community members. When her potential conflict of interest arose (Policy BCB) many thought the issue could be resolved fairly easily given the fact the policy had not been revised in 30 years and given the seemingly overt conflicts that have existed with recent and current board members: bond lawyer for DPS, directors and assistant directors of non-profits doing business with DPS to mention the most obvious. DCTA and C1 and C2 didn’t think she would win so they paid little attention to the policy, gave Dr. Olson very little financial support, and provided even less people support. How wrong they were! And although “STUDENTS FIRST” and “IT’S ALL ABOUT THE KIDS” are commonly heard clichés throughout the district, the other six board members and the superintendent could not manage to figure out how this EXTRAORDINARY   educator could possibly stay in her teaching position where she has been such a positive influence on the lives of thousands of kids and their families over her tenure.  How could this person possibly teach and be a board member at the same time?  So Dr. Carrie Olson, with great sadness, has opted to resign from her lifelong love, teaching, at semester’s end.
  • Mike Johnson, incumbent, raised over $100,000 on his own and received almost another $100,000 from DFER and Stand for Children. The “reform” message was a hard sell in District 3, even though many of its main tenets are not occurring in this district.


Lesson learned: A great candidate with a great message and a great grassroots organization can beat big money, incumbency, and “reform!”


The biggest winners from this election?

  • The people, for they once again have a voice on the previously unanimous “reform” board.
  • Dr. Carrie Olson.
  • Teach for America. Two former corps members Jennifer Bacon and Angela Cobian, won their elections. Both work for LEE, Ms. Cobian as a community organizer, Ms. Bacon as a regional director. When these two recognized how Dr. Olson’s simple message of “It’s time to put an educator on the Board of Education,” resonated with voters, both co-opted that message and ran as “teachers.” And yet to the amazement of many, and after many meetings with both community members and DCTA and after many heated arguments over who to support in District 4, the consultants and DCTA decided to endorse Jennifer Bacon. The reason given: they could win that seat with the help of LEE money.  $100,000 from DCTA, $100,000 from LEE. As of the last filing there is no trace of LEE money, so where is/was it? As an aside, at the November 27 swearing in ceremony for new board members the same charter advocates and TFA/LEE advocates cheered equally for both Bacon and Cobian. Another unanswered question: Why didn’t the union decide to endorse Cobian as well? Or better yet, why did they decide not to endorse Tay Anderson, clearly the candidate most aligned with teachers in their fight against privatization?
  • Our Denver, Our Schools, for it was able to unite disparate community interests and leverage its meager amount of money to help all four of its candidates. ODOS will continue to make its voice heard.


The biggest losers in this cycle?

  • The pro public education believers in Denver, for they had a chance to flip the board and stop the train wreck that is “ed reform” from continuing. Just imagine the difference a redistribution of union money could have made in all four races.
  • Denver’s teachers, who are paying dues to an organization that turned its back on a 33 year teacher and endorsed and heavily funded an alum of TFA, an organization in Denver at least that thumbs its nose at a professional educators.
  • Democrats for Education Reform. Two of three incumbents they backed lost. But don’t ever count them out, for they still have 5 of 7 board members and lots of money to spend. And you can be sure they will be back, both in the Colorado legislative races as well as the next DPS board elections.
  • Education Reform.” Two of three “reform” incumbents lost; one eked in with 40% of the vote. Voters spoke loudly against the current DPS strategies, but unfortunately, votes and policies will most likely not reflect this trend.


  • The teachers’ union because a 33-year DPS teacher did get elected.  No thanks to them.
  • Money. Won some; lost some.  Obviously better to have it but it wasn’t THE determining factor this go round.



Many unanswered questions remain before this election can be fully understood and put to bed:


  • Why did the consultants and the union resist supporting a slate?
  • When did support for districts 2 and 3 become 2 and 4 and why?
  • How and why did Tay Anderson, the strongest student, teacher, and family advocate in District 4 lose the support of the union after its initial support for him?
  • Where is the money LEE put into the Bacon campaign or did DCTA end up funding the independent expenditure by itself?
  • Will Jennifer Bacon vote for any pro public education policies, or will she vote be a consistent vote for “education reform policies?”
  • Why didn’t the union fight policy BCB on behalf of Dr. Olson?  Will it do so going forward?  There are real conflicts on this board.  Being a teacher doesn’t appear to be one of them, especially when three “teachers” won in large part because they marketed themselves as such. The voters obviously don’t see this as a conflict. And now Denver’s students and families have lost an incredible teacher, advocate, friend because of the intransigence of the policy makers.
  • Will the “reformers” on board heed the voices of Denver voters and slow down the march to privatization?


The union will most likely take credit for two victories: Carrie Olson and Jennifer Bacon. The reality is it should be credited with zero victories, for Carrie won in spite of the union and Jennifer has yet to show many pro public education bona fides. “Reform” certainly got its hands slapped this cycle. But disappointment abounds from what might have been.



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