What consequences are we willing to accept in Denver’s school board race?

Elections have consequences, as our Twitter feeds wincingly remind us almost daily.

School board elections don’t get as much participation or attention. But they have consequences, too, which my Twitter feed reminded me this month when I saw news about DPS having a record number of top-rated schools on its annual performance scorecards. Combined with the news of Nate Easley stepping down from his post as executive director of the Denver Scholarship Foundation, I was reminded of the specific consequences of the 2009 school board election in Denver.

I was just a few months into my time as communications director for DPS and Superintendent Tom Boasberg, who had a tenuous board majority in favor of continuing down the district’s path toward expanding school choice and opening new schools.

When the 2009 results first came in, it looked like Denver was headed for the union-charted path, which leads to no choice and no new schools. That’s because union-supported candidates Jeannie Kaplan, Andrea Merida and Nate Easley took three of the four seats on the ballot, seemingly giving the union a 4-3 board majority.

But then Easley did something that I’d argue was just as important to the kids of Denver as his stalwart leadership at the Denver Scholarship Foundation: He brought an open mind on choice, innovation and charter schools with him to the school board. That didn’t sit well with the union, but it meant so much to families who wanted the power to choose from a variety of schools and pick the one they felt was best for their children. Easley was elected board president, and he helped lead the way — and accelerate the pace — down the school-choice path, which DPS has continued on since that election.

Which brings us to the recent school ratings in Denver. DPS uses its School Performance Framework to rate all of the city’s public schools — district-run and charters. It uses lots of different measurements, but the heaviest weight goes to test results, with an emphasis on student growth (how much kids at all performance levels grow academically during the school year). And it awards points in each measure, which means the schools can be stack-ranked by how many total points they earn.

If you look at the schools at the top of the 2017 rankings, you see a lot of new ones: schools that didn’t exist in 2009, schools that likely would have never existed if the union took all four seats in that election, or if Easley didn’t have the courage to challenge the union’s ideology on choice, charters and innovation schools.

So that’s a real consequence: seven of the city’s 10 top-rated schools would likely not exist today but for the 2009 election result. That’s thousands of families that would’ve likely been left with their boundary school as their only choice, or — at the very least — with far fewer quality schools to pick from.

School board elections matter. As board presidents, Easley and later Mary Seawell, who also won a seat in 2009, led the Denver Board of Education through some raucous board meetings, loud opposition, and difficult decisions. They helped bring new ideas and better schools to the families of Denver. That resulted in an enrollment boom, academic gains, and standing as a national model and one of the most forward-thinking school districts in the country.

A focus on creating “21st century schools” — those that give parents choices, have the flexibility to be tailored to students’ needs, and are accountable for good results — is how David Osborne, the author of the new Reinventing America’s Schools, described that thinking in a visit to Denver last week.

There’s a school board election in Denver on Nov. 7, with four of the seven seats on the ballot. It’s an election that will have consequences for the families of Denver and their 21st century school system.

This post first appeared in The Denver Post under the title “DPS reforms proving their mettle with new, top-ranked schools.”

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