Colorado got some great news on the education front last week: the prestigious Broad Prize for the nation’s best charter school was awarded to DSST Public Schools—a network of eight (and growing) middle and high school campuses serving Denver and expanding soon to Aurora.
It’s another example—along with statewide school choice, a groundbreaking funding model, and fairly strong accountability system—of how the state’s public schools and families have benefitted from squarely centrist education politics.
And as a centrist Democrat, that’s what’s made my party’s campaign for governor so frustrating. Although it’s nice to see education as a focus during a high-profile campaign, but instead of congregating around the success in the center, it’s been more of a race to the left, with Jared Polis and Cary Kennedy the farthest out and Mike Johnston somewhat reluctantly standing by his centrist ed-reformer bona fides.
Or maybe it’s less about getting away from the center and more of a race to get as far away from the President Trump/Education Secretary DeVos agenda as possible. Which I get. Right now, they are the two highest-profile supporters of the most polarizing education policy among Democrats: charters and school choice. And their low and sinking popularity is dragging charters and choice down with them.
But if you take the time to get past the knee-jerk ideological reaction to Trump/DeVos, you’ll see their brand of charters/choice bears little resemblance to Colorado’s.
The Trump administration has displayed an open contempt for traditional public schools. They see charters and choice as a way to set up a completely separate, completely market-driven system of schools—totally free from government involvement, but still tax funded (including tax “vouchers” for students to attend private, religious schools).
The Colorado brand of charters/choice is very close to the Obama brand—charters as a complement to traditional schools and part of the public education system, with essentially the same amount of government oversight. And no tax vouchers for private schools.
The award-winning DSST network is a great example of that.
DSST is part of Denver Public Schools’ (DPS) common-enrollment system. You enroll in that charter school the same way you enroll in the traditional, district-run middle and high schools. And for many of its campuses, you get the same “neighborhood” preference for enrollment that you get for the traditional schools in that boundary.
As a result, the charter network serves a student body that essentially mirrors the demographics of Denver.
DPS, as part of its district-charter compact, also expects all of its schools (charters and traditional) to accept mid-year transfers, share in the responsibility of and share best practices for serving all students, and be held accountable to the same, if not higher, standard of academic performance.
That’s where the strength lies—in uniting around the mission of educating all students, doing it together, and doing it well.
I understand—and sometimes feel—the pull to move farther away, especially from such a divisive and contemptuous presence we have leading the Right. And I certainly get the campaign pull away from the education policies championed by public figures who are wildly unpopular among Democrats.
DSST will be educating more than 10,000 students in a few years as it builds out. That’s a difference-making, world-class education for those children. But we shouldn’t get distracted or dissuaded by divisive, Trumpist rhetoric about choice and charters that bears only a superficial similarity to the policies that have brought DSST and other meaningful improvements to Colorado. Let’s instead focus on the power that has come together in the middle.
And let’s add to the success we’ve built there for our children.