Interests, Ideas, and Institutions:
The Politics of School Reform
in Multiethnic Cities
IN DENVER, two African American families mulled over the options for their children.1 Ronnie and Judy Young started their sons in Denver Public Schools (DPS) and then moved them to private schools due to overcrowding. But their sons were not doing as well as they had hoped despite the comfortable surroundings. Citing teachers’ inflexibility about teaching methods, they moved their boys back into DPS. “They are in the mix of things at school just as they will be in society,” they wrote.
Sherrie and Kermit Queenan’s children also tried public and private schools, but they took the opposite stand. Starting in an African American private school—Union Baptist Excel Institute—the kids did well, but the Queenans sent them to public school when they had difficulty paying tuition. There, the kids lost ground. Thus the Queenans “scraped and scrimped,” and reenrolled Thanes, Kelsianna, and Kershena in Excel. To these parents, the difference between the schools was that Excel teachers valued all children. They asked, “How can a system as large and well-funded as DPS be failing our children?” Their answer is the lack of competition: “As the only game in town, DPS has little incentive to improve.”2 The Queenans wanted to know “How can many private schools educate a child better than DPS for far less money [per student]?”
These questions trouble many parents, but they especially affect parents of color. To them, public schools continue to be the last, best hope for their children’s future. Yet, like the Queenans, many wonder why these schools fail to meet their expectations and to address their concerns. As one headline in the Denver Post put it, “DPS gets passing grade in teaching white children.”