In the same March press conference where Denver Public Schools was recognized by the Brookings Institution as a national leader for school choice, Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos criticized the school district for appearing to have choice but not offering access to those choices. DeVos is a known supporter of school vouchers which would allow taxes collected for public schools to be directed to families sending their children to private schools.
DeVos’ comments critical of Denver came during the release of the fifth annual Brookings Institution Education Choice and Competition Index which gave Denver an “A” and the top score of 82. The Brookings report ranked national public school districts for school choice on four criteria – the “extent of choice”, “characteristics of the process by which parents…” and students “…choose schools,” “school funding,” and “how districts support the choice process.”
The only other “A” was given to New Orleans with 78 points. DeVos praised New Orleans while condemning Denver, “While we may be tempted to emulate cities with a higher grade, I would urge a careful look. The two highest scoring districts, Denver and New Orleans, both receive “A’s” but they arrive there in very different ways.” DeVos highlighted differences between the two cities praising New Orleans for their large number of choices including vouchers while belittling Denver’s use of a common choice application and ability to compare schools via a web site saying, Denver’s “…simple process masks the limited choices there.” DeVos continued, “The benefits of making options accessible are cancelled out when you don’t have a full menu of options. Choice without accessibility doesn’t matter just like accessibility without choices doesn’t matter. Neither scenario ultimately benefits students.”
Denver Public Schools Superintendent, Tom Boasberg issued a press release rebutting DeVos’ remarks, “We respectfully disagree with Secretary DeVos. We do not support private school vouchers. We believe that public dollars should be used for public schools that are open to all kids, whether they are district-run or charter. A core principle in Denver and one of the main reasons we rank no. 1 nationally in school choice is that we ensure equitable systems of enrollment among district-run and charter schools, where all schools play by the same enrollment rules and all schools are subject to the same rigorous accountability system. We do not support choice without accountability.”
Former Denver Superintendent and current U.S. Senator, Michael Bennet, piled on in a press release saying, “Secretary DeVos could not be more wrong about the success of school choice in Denver. The Brookings Institution recognized DPS as number one in the nation for school choice. Secretary DeVos could learn a lot from DPS’s teachers, schools, and leadership. As she continues to settle into her role as Education Secretary, I hope she takes up my offer to visit Denver and see our success firsthand.”
Ironically, two weeks earlier at a meeting of the Council of the Great City Schools, DeVos praised Denver for providing accessible school choice, “In Denver, represented today by [DPS Board Member] Happy Haynes, the district is currently providing transportation to children from under-served areas to schools in other regions of the city. This transportation is key in order to provide students with access to quality options. The “Success Express” as it’s called, is a great example of how local education agencies (LEA’s) are leveraging federal, state and local funds to best serve children.”
The March controversy gave traditional public school advocates ammunition to fight increased charter school funding at the Colorado state house this legislative session. In an attempt to capture mill levy increase funding for charter schools, choice advocates pushed Senate Bill 61. It was estimated that charter schools would have gained an additional $20 million in Colorado through the legislation. Instead, neighborhood school advocates pushed back with anti-Trump and anti-DeVos rhetoric, tying the duo to those pushing the new funding. The bill was defeated in early May in the Senate Education Committee on a 9-4 vote. However, a compromise bill with bipartisan support including that of U.S. Congressional candidate and State Representative, Brittany Pettersen, later passed, assuring equal funding for charter schools from local taxes. House Bill 1375 is the first of its kind in the nation.
DeVos’ harsh words for Denver, a district that has garnered a national reputation for increasing school choice, signal a marked shift in national rhetoric and funding direction for school choice. In the latest round of education budget proposals, DeVos championed a nearly 10% reduction in overall Department of Education funding in front of the Senate Appropriations Committee, while at the same time boosting federal charter school grants by 50% to $500 million, a new quarter of a million dollar research effort to increase private school choice and a billion dollar increase for Title I students “choicing in” to schools. Traditional Title I and Title II programs would suffer cuts under the budget proposal as would teacher training programs and class-size reduction expenditures. Such extreme budget shifts has even some Republican lawmakers balking.
Meanwhile, some teachers consider DeVos’ proposals as a slippery slope toward the school reform that has come from both sides of the aisle and continues to divide progressive advocates. Decades-long teacher Julie Banuelos urges caution for all following the DeVos policies, “With Trump’s appointment of the billionaire Betsy DeVos for Secretary of Education, many teachers and supporters of public education were left flabbergasted. The stark reality that a person with no experience in public education, or any public office, would be appointed and impose reckless and hurtful free-market policies instilled a fear that went from zero to one-hundred with a quickness, for constituents sitting on the left side of the aisle. Rightly so, it brought people out into the streets, many for the first time.”
Banuelos doesn’t let members of progressive politics off the hook, tying local politicians to the DeVos agenda “… neo-liberal policymakers have been implementing destructive reforms on public education at least since Arne Duncan was the Secretary of Education,” Bunelos continues, “Everyone from state departments of education to common folks -are being duped into accepting the values of neo-liberalism and free-market educational system. Consequently, Denver Public Schools has seven reform-oriented and supported board members that reflect the powerful effects of that agenda.”