By Thomas Ultican / Tultican
A group of Democratic politicians aligned with local monied interests decided to “save” Denver’s public schools. The man chosen to turn-around the “failing” school system was Michael Bennet, now the junior senator from Colorado. His history of success working for Philip Anschutz and his complete lack of experience in education somehow made him the choice.
For the two years prior to becoming Superintendent, Bennet served as chief of staff for Denver’s new Democratic mayor, John Hickenlooper. John is now the governor of Colorado replacing Denver’s former district attorney, Bill Ritter also a Democrat. Bill chose not to run for a second term.
This group of liberal Democrats initiated the Destroy Public Education (DPE) movement in Denver.
Bennet originally came west with Susan Daggett, also a Yale law graduate who he soon married. She had accepted a job with the Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund in Montana. Michael grew up in Washington DC, his childhood witnessed a who’s who of Democratic Party luminaries because his father served as an aide to Vice President Hubert Humphrey, among others. Bennett was born in India where his father was an aide to Chester Bowles, then the US ambassador to India.
The Rocky Mountain News reported on Bennet, “He worked six years for billionaire businessman Philip Anschutz, helping engineer lucrative oil and movie-theater deals, making himself wealthy in the process.”
In her wonderful book, Why is You Always Got to Be Trippin? Ciedie Aech explains how these liberals sold DPE style reform.
“… ‘I wouldn’t send my children there.’
“Progressive declarations like this one, coming as they did from privileged-class and generally non-minority but avowed open-minded citizens, oh, they just made so much sense – to other privileged-class and generally non-minority but compassionately troubled advocates. Holding test scores high, progressive thinkers waved what they argued to be incontrovertible truth.”
“What was undoubtedly required? Was the immediate “non-negotiable” reformation of our nation’s lowest-income, lowest-scoring schools.”
Bad Ideology Based on Bad Assumptions
David Osborne writing in the reliably pro-DPE publication Education Next stated,
“In 2005, DPS was floundering. Out of 98,000 seats, 31,000 were empty, and many school buildings were half full. Almost 16,000 Denver students had left DPS for private or suburban schools. A financial crisis loomed, in the form of pension contributions the district could not afford.”
The DPS superintendents position was open, graduation data looked bad and so did testing data. The Denver Public Schools (DPS) board wanted radical change. They blithely ignored two highly qualified female candidates – Dr. Patricia Harvey, Superintendent of Saint Paul Public Schools and Christine Johnson, President of the Community College of Denver – choosing Michael Bennett to be the next Superintendent.
In 1997, I took some business trips to the big Connor Corporation disk drive factory in Longmont about 35 miles north of Denver. IBM and other tech companies had built several large factories out on the grassy planes where the buffalo used to roam. These facilities were so big they had Burger Kings, Pizza Huts, and other fast food outlets in the factory lunchrooms.
Several sizeable single-family housing projects were visible during the drive between Denver and Longmont. Housing and industrial policy made suburban living appealing, which meant DPS was losing students.
Concurrently with my visits, the state of Colorado started using standardized testing with its public schools.
Osborne’s Education Next article continued:
“DPS was so dysfunctional, Bennet concluded, that he could not fix it without significant outside pressure. So he asked several foundation leaders to create an organization of civic leaders, chaired by two former mayors, to push for change and support the board when it promoted reform. They called the initiative A+ Denver, and it has championed the portfolio strategy, along with the Piton, Donnell-Kay, and Gates Family foundations.”
A key DPE playbook move is to leverage out of town money with local money and political muscle to purloin control of public schools. DPS schools were not dysfunctional nor were they failing. In several Denver neighborhoods, the schools were the only functional government entity.
Ms. Aech identified the perceived problem in Why is You Always Got to Be Trippin?.
“With great fanfare, these vigorously charted and impressively color-coded scores were poignantly presented to the nation. Here, citizens, was ironclad proof. Proof that poor and minority schools – oh, undoubtedly, my, just look at those test scores; these schools were surely, wall to wall? – Filled with bad teachers.”
To retrain all those bad teachers in Denver, Bennet turned to the high priestess of the bad teacher movement, Michelle Rhee and her The New Teacher’s Project (TNTP). He also started importing Wendy Kopp’s Teach For America (TFA) candidates.
More wisdom from Why is You Always Got to Be Trippin?.
“Good teachers; well, good teachers, and oh surely this was obvious – even glaringly self-apparent in the fast pace of magical days devoted to a truer national compassion: Good teachers? – Were young.”
The portfolio management theory of education councils paring away the losers the way a stock portfolio is managed. Close failing schools and replace them with a more efficiently managed charter school like a KIPP school.
The year that Bennet became superintendent, the heirs of the Walmart fortune opened the Charter School Growth Fund just 20 miles up highway-25 from downtown Denver. Carrie Walton Penner, sits on the board of the fund and Carrie’s husband, Greg Penner, is a director. Annie Walton Proietti, a niece of Carrie, works for a KIPP school in Denver. There are other Walton family members living in and frequenting the Denver area.
Joining the Walmart school privatizers is Bennet’s business mentor Philip Anschutz. He has a billion-dollar foundation located in Denver and owns Walden Publishing. “Walden Publishing company was “behind the anti-teachers’ union movies ‘Won’t Back Down’ and ‘Waiting for ‘Superman.’”
These wealth powered people along with several peers promote school privatization and portfolio district management ideology.
There is a widely held fundamental misconception that standardized testing proves something about the quality of a school. There is a belief among people who have never studied the issue that testing can be used to objectively evaluate teacher quality. It cannot! A roulette wheel would be an equally accurate instrument for measuring school and teacher quality.
Another Non-Educator with No Training
In 2007, Bennet asked Tom Boasberg, a childhood friend, to join DPS as his chief operating officer. Trained as a lawyer, Boasberg had worked closely as chief of staff to the chairman of Hong Kong’s first political party in the early 1990s, when the colony held its first elections in its 150 years of British rule. Before DPS, Boasberg worked for eight years at Level 3 Communications, where he was Group Vice President for Corporate Development.
In the spring of 2008, Bennet and Boasberg were ready to tackle the pension crisis seen as sucking money out of classrooms. One month after the collapse of Lehman Brothers, Boasberg and Bennet convinced the DPS board to buy a $750,000,000 complicated instrument with variable interest rates. During the melt-down of 2008 Denver’s interest rates zoomed up making this a very bad deal for DPS. (Banking was supposed to be Bennet and Boasberg’s strength.)
A brief produced at the Harvard Graduate School of Education provides some history (and cheers the privatization of Denver’s schools).
“In 2008, DPS launched its School Performance Framework (SPF), used to rate schools’ performance based on a series of indicators, the most important of which was the year to year academic growth of students on state assessments.”
“In 2009 Bennet was elected a U.S. Senator and the board appointed Boasberg as superintendent.”
Somehow, Boasberg graduated from the unaccredited Broad Superintendents Academy in 2009 while serving as Chief Operating Officer of DPS. He has since become a member of Jeb Bush’s national DPE oriented group, Chiefs for Change as has the new Colorado State Commissioner of Education, Katy Anthes.
When Michael Bennet was running for his Senate seat, Colorado Pol studied his effect as Superintendent by analyzing Colorado’s CSAP data. They noticed that “the composite, 2000/2001 – 2003/2004 was the best run for DPS.” That run spans the years just before Bennet became Superintendent.
The Portfolio Model of School District Management is Ridiculous
I recently went to Idaho for my high school reunion. There were six of us there from my first-grade class of eleven. Nearly all the living members from the 47 of us who graduated together were there. A special bond develops between people who spend their formative years together.
During my fifteen years teaching at Mar Vista High School, I witnessed the same phenomena occurring with my students. Students would often tell me stories about each other from grade school and middle school. When those children graduated, they had formed the same difficult to describe deep human bonds I experienced.
Destroying human development opportunities by closing schools to “fix” education does not just seem foolish; it seems inhumane.
The need for stability in education is overwhelmingly documented. Brooke Havlik writing for Nova Education’s Science and Learning published Psychologists Find School Stability a Factor in Achievement Gap. Brooke wrote in the lead paragraph, “Two new studies published this month suggest that changing schools may have a negative impact on cognitive development and student performance, especially for students experiencing chronic, high-levels of poverty.” (emphasis added)
Yet we read in the Tom Boasberg’s biography at Scholastic.com, “… each year it [DPS] closes a half-dozen schools and creates 10 to 15 new ones, all while raising the “on-time” graduation rate from 60 to 70 percent.” This is not a heartless educator; this is a banker.
A questioning observation from Ms. Aech in Why is You Always Got to Be Trippin?.
“Why was it, the question kept rising up over the years. Well, why was it that those schools most quickly and aggressively labeled as “drop-out factories” – schools slated for closure or an endless chain of reforms, schools forced through the fatal destabilization of restructure and redesign, schools branded publicly as being underused failures, schools negatively marked with the highly publicized letter grade of an F – well, why was it that such a large percent of these schools (shoot, pretty much all of them) had traditionally served as a home to non-dominant-culture, non-privileged-class, minority students?”
Running Multiple School Systems Adds Cost
The basic breakdown of K-12 schools in Denver; 104 traditional public schools, 58 innovation schools, and 59 charter schools.
The 58 innovation schools belong to DPS but have contracts with the district giving them more autonomy. There is a process in place where a principal can write a plan about how his school will do things differently and will meet some specific testing targets. If the plan is accepted, the principal is free to run the school according to the plan and does not need to follow district operating procedures.
If the district operating rules are not important, why do any schools need to follow them? It looks like the district is abrogating its responsibilities to lead schools and institute wise policies through this Innovation school scheme.
The 104 traditional public schools have been led for the last thirteen years by non-educators.
The 59 charter schools have their own administrations. Some of them are independently run. Most of them are in various charter management organizations.
The fact is this kind of a system costs more to run. To hire competent teachers and maintain reasonable class sizes – taxes and spending need to be increased for a hybrid-system of both public and multiple private management. Multiple management systems are more costly.
TFA Teachers are Untrained and Ineffective
According to Teach for America Colorado, this year there are 145 more TFA teachers in the Denver area. These kids get five weeks of training in the summer and then they are called teachers.
Putting untrained people in classrooms used to be against the law and it is still immoral.
Another observation from Ms. Aech in Why is You Always Got to Be Trippin?.
“As a journalist followed the teaching year of a suddenly deployed troop of Teach-For-A-Minute miracle workers, ultimately, he found only one greenhorn to be exceptionally able. (And so many others who were both frighteningly and disastrously unprepared.)”
TFA has effectively become storm troopers for the billionaires trying to disrupt, privatize and end public education. They are cheap, young and follow orders, but they are not even minimally trained educators.
Some New Data
This past December the New York Times ran an interactive article about a new way to compare schools. Reporters Emily Badger and Kevin Quealy describe:
“It’s true that children in prosperous districts tend to test well, while children in poorer districts on average score lower. But in this analysis, which measures how scores grow as student cohorts move through school, the Stanford researcher Sean Reardon argues that it’s possible to separate some of the advantages of socioeconomics from what’s actually happening in schools.”
I ran a simulation comparing Anne Arundel County, Maryland, Milwaukee, Chicago, and Denver. I only picked Denver. The New York Times picked the comparison schools. This simulator tries to correlate years of learning. The average between third and 8th grade should be five years. After 13 years of disruption and “reform,” Denver is not quite average.
It is time for common sense to prevail. Bankers and Billionaires don’t know how to run schools. College graduates with no training do not know how to teach. Running multiple school administrations costs more.
Denver’s public schools were never failing. They probably needed more resources especially in poorer neighborhoods, but the schools labeled as failures were the anchors of poor-minority neighborhoods. Destroying their schools was akin to a hate crime. Maybe it would be fairer to call it a stupidity crime.
I have become a one issue voter. I do not care if you have an R or D after your name on the ballot. I want to know if you are ready to defend public education against charter schools, vouchers, and fake teachers? Do you respect professional educators or do you think politicians should run schools by top-down fiat? Are you ready to stand up to the out of control billionaire class for the sake of students?