I suppose Tom Boasberg is a successful “education reformer.”
The policy resume (charters, accountability, innovation) certainly checks out. And Denver Public Schools invariably gets mentioned near the top of all the “best of” ed reform articles.
But what strikes me as more noteworthy, especially in these times, is what Tom did during his near decade leading Denver’s schools to show us the power of good governing and the difference-maker a strong leader and public servant can be for children and families.
At a time when we’re riven by divisiveness, pulled to the political fringes, and skeptical (at best) of the values and motivation of our governing bodies, Tom has shown what can be accomplished by working to bring people together and having the courage to start difficult, nuanced conversations about how to create better schools.
After 12 years in DPS—the last nine and a half as superintendent, Tom announced today that he’s stepping down.
Since he took over, the district has added about 80 new schools—including many charters that rank among the city’s highest-performing schools. DPS has also closed or turned around about 40 schools due to underperformance—including district-run and charter schools—and has implemented one of the most comprehensive teacher-evaluation systems in the country.
These are the types of changes that bring big political and community battles, especially in a progressive city like Denver. These are the types of changes that get superintendents run out of town.
In Denver, these are changes that brought the community together.
There were five school board elections during Tom’s tenure as superintendent; every two years the community had a chance to weigh in on how he was doing.
He started out with a stridently split, narrow 4-3 board majority backing his reform policies. After the fourth election, it was up to 7-0, before going back to 5-2 last November. (And that’s with the disadvantage of Denver school board elections being held in odd-numbered years, with no federal or state elections and low turnout, which have traditionally been dominated by the anti-reform candidates backed by the teachers’ unions.)
Denver voters also approved four tax initiatives during the Boasberg years, together totaling a more than $1 billion investment in their schools. And the district’s enrollment grew by about 15,000 students—a roughly 20 percent increase.
The community responded to Tom’s vision of a stronger and wider network of schools, bolstered by intensive efforts to improve struggling schools, an infusion of new schools (district-run and charter) and collaboration and cooperation across all schools. There was some tension and strain, but it never derailed the progress or distracted from the ultimate goal of better service for families.
And maybe the biggest sign of that was the District-Charter Compact that was signed in 2010. Denver was chosen to host a national conference held to emphasize the need for collaboration instead of acrimony on school choice.
The compact essentially says all of Denver’s public schools (district-run and charter) are committed to serving all students—including those with special needs, English-language learners and midyear transfers. It creates one system of schools (all held to one set of performance and accessibility standards) and unifies educators and the community on issues that in many places rips them apart through turf wars, funding fights and name-calling.
That laid the groundwork for some Denver charter schools to start using attendance boundaries instead of lotteries for enrollment, and eventually led to School Choice—the city’s common-enrollment system that gives families one simple application to fill out that covers all of the city’s public schools.
The political calculus in most urban districts is to factor in some charter caution and resistance, out of fear of being accused of “privatizing” schools or leaning a little right (especially in the Trump-DeVos era). That wasn’t Tom’s political calculus.
He gave the community more credit than that—to see past labels and affiliations, to understand the nuance of being able to both welcome charter schools and hold them to tough standards, to get the complexity of both working hard to improve existing schools and aggressively seeking proposals for new schools, to care more about school results and access than school-governance types.
And it worked.
I guess that’s an ed reform success story.
But it’s also a story of a great leader. A true public servant. And a towering champion for kids.