“Folks are being pushed to the edges on the right and left on politics,” longtime Denver Public Schools Superintendent Tom Boasberg is quoted in Chalkbeat as saying at a Gates Family Foundation event held on Friday to discuss Denver’s successful model of education reform. “Part of what we’ve been able to do in Denver for some time is to reject the orthodoxy of the left and right.”
The next day, the “orthodoxy of the left” had its say.
The Colorado Democratic delegates held their state assembly on Saturday and approved a minority-proposed amendment to their education platform: “We oppose making Colorado’s public schools private or run by private corporations or becoming segregated again through lobbying and campaigning efforts of the organization called Democrats for Education Reform and demand that they immediately stop using the party’s name Democrat in their name.”
That’s one shaky, insecure, and misleading push to the left edge. And it’s a platform that this member of the Democratic Party won’t set foot on.
DFER is firmly against “making Colorado’s public schools private” or “becoming segregated again.” They lobby and campaign forcefully and successfully to make education more equitable: to increase funding, to increase the quality of schools, and to empower all families with the right to choose the best school for their child—especially African-American and Latino families in underserved neighborhoods who have traditionally been denied any educational choices.
It’s the accountability and choice push that incurs the wrath of the far left’s political and money muscle—the teachers’ union. And that’s what’s behind the platform’s harsh orthodoxy intended to push the party to the edge and make it clear that choice and accountability are not welcome on the fringe.
But they are welcome away from the fringe, including in Dem-dominated Denver, where choice and accountability have done quite well at the ballot box.
In terms of education policy, Denver—as Boasberg pointed out—has been firmly in the center. It has aggressively expanded choice by opening new schools (charter and district-run), and it has pushed strong accountability by having the courage to intervene in and sometimes close schools that haven’t served families well and that have seen enrollment plummet as a result.
Denver voters have supported those policies by electing school boards supportive of choice and accountability for more than a decade now. And DFER has been a big part of that. They’ve backed school board candidates to run against the union platform of no choice and weak accountability. They’ve backed candidates who are open-minded about ways to improve education and who will fight for better opportunities for underserved students. Candidates who “reject the orthodoxy of the left and the right.” Candidates who, in doing so, have won a lot of elections.
So you’d think the Democratic Party would welcome the DFER wisdom and expertise in winning over voters on education issues. You’d also think the Democratic delegates would recognize the DFER priorities aligning very closely with those of a fairly prominent and successful Democrat (and DFER champion) named Barack Obama.
And you’d think they’d realize the hugely significant role DFER has played in electing the first Dem-majority state board of education in 50 years—a Dem-majority that has fought to ensure that things like evolution remain in the standards. Or the role DFER played in keeping the Dem majority in the state House, or the governorship in the “D” column. A majority and governor who have fought to replace important school funding, and passed legislation to protect immigrant communities.
But that’s the thing about the orthodoxy of the fringe. It’s not about thinking. It’s about toeing the line—falling in line with your deep-pocket political patrons: the teachers’ union. So the delegates chose an education platform that explicitly rejects DFER.
And the delegates went farther than that. They didn’t just toe the union line against charter schools on Saturday; they crossed the line of civility and decency in the way they treated DFER members and supporters.
Jen Walmer runs DFER in Colorado. I consider myself incredibly lucky to have had the chance to work beside her for a number of years at DPS when she was Tom Boasberg’s chief of staff. I consider my party incredibly lucky to have her as a smart, tenacious, and loyal member. She gives every bit of her sharp mind and big heart to public service.
But because she doesn’t toe the far-left line on education, she was treated like the enemy at the state assembly. According to Chalkbeat, “She was booed throughout her remarks and stopped speaking at one point to ask to be allowed to continue.”
The few other speakers who dared to speak in support of education reform or had the audacity to suggest that Democrats live their professed value of acceptance were also shouted down.
“I don’t think I have ever had a darker day as a Democrat because that is not my party,” Jen told Chalkbeat. “They booed a gay man. They booed a teacher because they don’t teach in the right kind of school. … I work with people who have dedicated their lives to inclusion and equity and pushing back on the hateful rhetoric of (President Donald) Trump and (Education Secretary Betsy) DeVos, and I just saw that same hateful rhetoric in my own party. It was a horrible display of unity.”
It was a horrible display of hypocrisy. It’s a scary sign that the Democrats in Colorado are being “pushed to the edge” on the left. And, as DFER and Denver voters have shown repeatedly, it’s a losing formula.