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Why Denver Is a Model for Education in America

DSST Public Schools CEO Bill Kurtz shares what's working between charters and public schools in his town.

One of the central questions facing the education reform movement is the relationship between the growing number of urban charter schools and the large school districts that oversee public education in those same cities. This is a question that dates back to the beginning of the charter movement and one of its early supporters, Albert Shanker.

Shanker, the union boss of the American Federation of Teachers in New York City in the 1960s, and one of the intellectual fathers of the charter school movement, believed in a central premise: Charters would give teachers a vehicle to innovate in their craft and then share these innovations back into district schools. Both districts and charter schools have struggled to make good on this promise, largely because the relationship between charters and districts has suffered from political divisions, territorial control issues, and perceived “competition” between the two. Fortunately, this has been less true in Denver, Colorado over the last decade, where I lead DSST Public Schools, a growing charter management organization.

What is going on in Denver to make this possible?

In Denver, there is a shared commitment by the superintendent, school board, and charter leaders to provide every child a high quality public school, regardless of whether it is a charter school or a district school. This commitment has led to a sharing of resources, not competition for resources.

U.S. public school superintendents average two and a half years on the job and elected school boards frequently change their vision based on voter preference. Contrast that with Denver, where two superintendents over the last six years have provided stable leadership. Michael Bennet, now a U.S. Senator, and Tom Boasberg, who was then-Superintendent Bennet’s Chief Operating Officer, have offered a consistent vision that has led to sustained efforts to improve public schooling. The Denver Public School Board has similarly shared the singular vision of providing all kids with a high-performing school.

In addition, the larger Colorado community is committed to improving public education. With proponents such as former Governor Bill Ritter and current Governor John Hickenlooper, former state education Commissioner Dwight Jones, and state legislators like Peter Groff, Terrance Carroll and Mike Johnston (all Democrats, incidentally), Colorado has pushed for public education change through ground-breaking legislation. Legislation such as the Innovation Schools Act, which shifts autonomy to the school level from the district level, and Senate Bill 191, which requires the State of Colorado to use student achievement as the main measure in determining tenure, boldly put the interests of students above those of adults.

The result is that Denver Public Schools works collaboratively with charter schools to provide school buildings and bond money for building facilities, and the district has worked collaboratively to create enrollment zones for families so that they can choose between both charter and public schools in their neighborhoods. The district and charter schools are currently working on finalizing a mid-year enrollment policy to share the burden of mid-year entrants into Denver Public Schools. Denver has been a leader in the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation District-Charter School Compact work, which has commitments from 10 cities nationally to encourage greater collaboration and shared responsibility. It is a collaboration that, in the end, benefits all Denver families.

photo via Sarah Skeen

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