Peter Huidekoper, Jr., is a veteran educator and creator of the “Another View” newsletter.
Does it matter what Denver’s next mayor thinks or does about public education?
Does the mayor of Denver have on obligation to work to improve our schools? To improve the opportunities for our kids—the majority of whom are in the Denver Public Schools?
(I do not believe Mayors Peña, Webb, or Hickenlooper felt any such obligation. So what is different about 2011 that we might answer yes to these questions?)
Or is all the talk by mayoral candidates on reform only that—mere chatter, a token tip of the cap to this issue—or even worse, a distraction from more fundamental issues—like addressing a $100 million budget shortfall—that are the responsibility of the city’s leader?
Readers of The Denver Post get a decidedly mixed message.
In his April 26 column, Mike Littwin wrote that schools were one of the major issues in the mayor’s race, but he was quick to remind us, in parenthesis—(“over which the mayor has little control”). Vincent Carroll echoed this when he criticized the mayor’s race, as of May 4, for paying little attention to the city’s most pressing issues. Why? “Maybe the candidates were too concerned with letting us know their views of reform in Denver schools,” he wrote, before adding, “which the mayor doesn’t happen to govern. It’s time they abandoned that dead-end theme and moved on for good to other issues.” And Joanne Ditmer began her May 27 column with this rebuke: “Sometimes it seems the candidates for mayor of Denver don’t live in the same city that I do. They talk a lot about education, ignoring that it’s a Board of Education task.”
So should our next mayor use that political clout, or stay on the sidelines? If the Post itself seems to waver, voters are putting education high on the city’s agenda. According to the Survey USA poll in early April, the top concerns were: economic issues (31 percent), schools (25 percent), and budget (21 percent) (Post, April 15, poll of 588 likely Denver voters).
It was noteworthy, too, that candidates with the most tepid positions on education—Carol Boigon, Doug Linkhart, and Theresa Spahn—bowed out early and/or only earned single-digit support. Some of them protested too much, methinks, harping on how they were NOT running for superintendent (as if we weren’t sure). When they spoke of how the city could “join hands with DPS” and do more “to partner” with the district on recycling programs, for example, many turned away, certain that such tinkering in the margins was outdated—and no match for the challenges facing our schools.
In contrast, all three top vote getters insisted the mayor’s office could and would play a much bigger role. And although James Mejia seemed nearly as eager to address education as Michael Hancock and Chris Romer, he remained lukewarm enough to win the endorsement of the Denver Classroom Teachers Association. Voters favored the two who sounded more certain that reform must go forward.
Here are three reasons we have should expect our mayor to be a strong advocate for significant improvement in our schools:
Leadership. How can one be called the city’s leader and not care about and speak to the unsatisfactory education too many kids experience, or the unsatisfactory results, in our schools? How can one impose restrictions on the role of a leader—to say he or she must be silent, or quiescent, regarding the quality of education of 70,000 or more students in the city?
I realize some consider Mayors Michael Bloomberg, Richard Daley, and Cory Booker taking on their school system as a power grab, more about control than good schools. There may be an element of truth in that. But many of us applaud city leaders who tackle one of their cities’ most profound challenges. We see mayoral control, not as trespassing on someone else’s turf, but as an act of leadership. Times change. Realities sink in. This is what is different about 2011—in Denver, and across the country. Big city mayors have connected the struggles of their school districts to the quality of life and future well-being of their communities, and they have chosen to act.
I know too we are not talking about mayoral control in Denver. Yet. Both Michael Hancock and Chris Romer have indicated they do not see today’s situation in DPS calling for such intervention, but neither have ruled it out in the future. Good. A useful shot across the bow. I see leadership here.
Who decided education should always be exclusively the Board of Education’s responsibility? Lincoln’s words apply, do they not? “As our case is new, so we must think anew, and act anew.” Why restrict the mayor’s role and his or her voice by insisting on all that city hall cannot do? I apologize for pulling out the trite phrase, but yes, maybe it does take a village. It seems odd to sideline city leaders who rightly feel a moral obligation to pull more folks and resources and ideas together to address such a huge problem for the community. After all, if this is “the civil rights issue of our time,” don’t we need all hands on deck
Taxes. As a Denver homeowner from 1991 to 2003, my property tax bill often included this note: “58 percent of these taxes are determined by and collected for the Denver Public Schools.” Residents send the majority of their annual property taxes to the schools. But throughout that time I never felt the superintendents expressed my views, and seldom heard school board members who spoke for the changes I was rooting for. It was natural to hope that there were other political, business, and foundation leaders who could challenge the school district’s reluctance (at best) to embrace choice and charters in the 1990’s, to allow more site-based management by principals and schools, to demand more accountability, to rethink its policy of placing teachers in schools. But those voices were muted, short-lived, or isolated. Most of my money was passing into or through the 900 Grant Street bureaucracy—about whose stubbornness and stumbles our mayors were remarkably silent.
Denver voters of late have had enough of this. Perhaps someday soon they will have had enough of the school board itself. Until then, taxpayers have good reason to ask the person they elect as the city’s leader to actively seek significant improvement of the system—one their tax dollars maintain.
Jobs. When we don’t have a school district we can be proud of, it affects the city’s future, as well as current efforts to interest potential companies to locate here. The Post’s Jeremy P. Meyer wrote on the mayor’s race and jobs, and quoted the Metro Denver Economic Development Corporation’s chief economist, Patty Silverstein. “Do we have the workforce that they are looking for?” is a central question, she said. Among their considerations: “education spending” and “the performance of public schools (“For Denver’s next mayor, it’s jobs, jobs, jobs,” Feb. 20). Former Mayor Wellington Webb told the Post that when corporations or high-priced athletes look to relocate, “One of the first things they do is look at the school system. And one of the reasons they locate outside of Denver is because they don’t have to send their kids to DPS” (“Schools near top of syllabus,” April 17).
Neither Romer nor Hancock plans to follow the hands-off approach of their predecessors. On April 24 Romer told the Post: “ … the education reform profile of the next mayor will determine whether we continue forward or not. There’s just too much evidence that a mayor who looks the other way will allow the process to flip and we just have to be on the ball, which means I will help recruit candidates [for school board, I presume]. I will walk for candidates. I will help fundraise for candidates who share a reform agenda.” (See Vincent Carroll’s wise warnings about the consequences in the school board race.)
Michael Hancock told the Post: “I’ll hold school leaders accountable, and look for efficiencies between the city and DPS, so dollars focus on student achievement” (April 17). Again, there are plenty of folks who wonder if a mayor can really do this. Given our present structures, isn’t it voters who must hold the school board members they elect accountable, and isn’t it their job, in turn, to hold accountable the superintendent they choose—and through him, DPS as a whole? Aren’t we inviting too many chefs into the kitchen when we ask the mayor’s office to hold all these folks accountable?
It is a worry, I agree. And yet the current situation is scary. We already have Denver’s progress at risk because a board could be at cross-purposes with the district’s priorities. True, if we add a mayor who is keen to have an influence on public education, the situation could become untenable. I can imagine a superintendent might feel he or she has one too many “bosses” to report to—and decide the only sane choice is to just walk away.
The bigger worry, however, is that we continue the pattern set during the 21 years I have lived in Colorado—where a school district with enormous challenges and inadequate progress is allowed to trudge along, while the individual we vote as our city leader plays silent observer, or (more condescending) unquestioning backer and defender, of a system that cannot graduate 60% of its students. That is asking our mayor not to lead, not to take a stand on an issue critical to the well-being of the city and its future.
Tony Lewis, director of the Donnell-Kay Foundation, described it well in his look back: “What we have seen to date is mayors saying, ‘I support the superintendent, and I think he is doing a good job.’ But we have a bunch of failing schools. Have you heard a mayor yet say we should close those failing schools? Finally, we have candidates who are saying ‘This does affect the city’” (Post, April 17).
Failing schools surely deserve more attention (see Westword’s damning piece on North High, one of six Denver schools expected to receive $14.4 million in federal funding for turnaround efforts the next three years). The sad truth, though, is that so many schools are struggling. By its own assessment, of the 132 in the district, the DPS 2010 School Performance Framework determined that nearly one-quarter —32—were Accredited on Priority Watch (18 schools) or Accredited on Probation (14). Most schools (71) did not Meet Expectations.
So over half of the schools do not meet expectations, meaning—what, 40,000 students are in a school that falls below Denver’s own standards? And we can’t expect the mayor to help? I don’t think so.
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