Academic journal article Education Next

Denver Expands Choice and Charters: Elected School Board Employs Portfolio Strategy to Lift Achievement

Academic journal article Education Next

Denver Expands Choice and Charters: Elected School Board Employs Portfolio Strategy to Lift Achievement

Article excerpt

SOME OF THE MOST DRAMATIC GAINS in urban education have come from school districts using what's known as a "portfolio strategy." Under this approach, districts negotiate performance agreements with public schools--traditional, charter, and hybrid models. The arrangement affords school leaders substantial autonomy to handcraft their schools to fit the needs of their students. Districts give parents choices among the schools while working to replicate successful schools and replace failing ones.

Many doubt such a strategy is possible with an elected board, because closing schools and laying off teachers triggers fierce resistance. Most cities pursuing the portfolio strategy, including New Orleans, Washington, D.C., and Camden, New Jersey, have done so with insulation from local electoral politics. In New Orleans, the state board of education and its Recovery School District (RSD) oversee most of the schools; Congress created the appointed D.C. Public Charter School Board; and in Camden the state is in charge.

All of which explains why reformers are paying close attention to Denver, Colorado. With an elected board, Denver Public Schools (DPS) has embraced charter schools and created innovation schools, which it treats somewhat like charters. Since 2005 it has closed or replaced 48 schools and opened more than 70, the majority of them charters. In 2010 it signed a Collaboration Compact committing to equitable funding and a common enrollment system for charters and traditional schools, plus replication of the most effective schools, whether charter or traditional.

Of the 223 DPS schools today, 55 are charters, which educate 18 percent of its students, and 38 are innovation schools, which educate 19 percent (see Figure 1). Soon DPS will take the next step, creating an Innovation Zone with an independent, nonprofit board, which will negotiate a performance contract with the district. Beginning with four innovation schools but able to expand, the zone could for the first time give district schools the autonomy charters enjoy.

For years, Denver's reforms stirred controversy. When the board closed or replaced failing schools, protests erupted and board meetings dragged into the wee hours. During most of current superintendent Tom Boasberg's first five years, he had only a 4-3 majority on the board. But the strategy has produced steady results: a decade ago, Denver had the lowest rates of academic growth among Colorado's medium and large districts; for the last three years it has ranked at the top. Voters have responded by electing a board with a 7-0 majority for reform.

Denver's U-Turn

In 2005, DPS was floundering. Out of 98,000 seats, 31,000 were empty, and many school buildings were half full. Almost 16,000 Denver students had left DPS for private or suburban schools. A financial crisis loomed, in the form of pension contributions the district could not afford. When Superintendent Jerry Wartgow retired in 2005, the Denver Board of Education chose Michael Bennet, chief of staff for then mayor John Hickenlooper, to replace him. Bennet had no background in public education, but he had spent time turning around failing companies for a local investment firm.

A few reforms were already underway: Wartgow had negotiated a pay-for-performance system, called ProComp, with the teachers union, and he was reconstituting 13 elementary and middle schools. He had built support for DPS among business and community leaders. Several foundations were pushing for reform; African American and Latino leaders were engaged; and a 27-member Commission on Secondary School Reform, appointed by the school board, had submitted reform recommendations.

"There was a consensus that we had to do something," says David Greenberg, who founded the Denver School of Science and Technology (DSST), which has since grown into the city's most successful charter network. "But there was no consensus about what. …

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