School Choice Debate Pits DeVos vs. Denver

The education secretary's complaints about the city's schools highlight one of her biggest priorities -- and one of her biggest battles.
by | June 2017
U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos. AP Images

Betsy DeVos has a problem with Denver schools. The federal education secretary complained recently that Denver offers parents and children only a “limited” selection of school choice options. “The benefits of making choices accessible are canceled out when you don’t have a full menu of options,” she said.

The secretary picked an unusual forum for launching her complaint. DeVos was participating in an event at the Brookings Institution, at which the think tank released a report touting Denver for having the strongest school choice regimen of any big city in the country. “She said what she believed more candidly than I would expect from someone at her level,” says Russ Whitehurst, a senior fellow at Brookings and author of the report.

Whitehurst sticks by his guns when it comes to Denver’s school choice options. He notes that the school system goes out of its way to make the option of changing schools available all year. If parents feel their kids’ school is a loser, they don’t have to wait until the following spring to do something about it, as they would in most cities. Applications are user-friendly. Parents fill out a single form to cover traditional neighborhood schools and a wide range of charters. The vast majority of parents in Denver are able to send their kids to their top-choice school, or at least one of their top choices. “It’s not just a paper system,” Whitehurst says. “It’s one parents are taking advantage of.”

Not only are parents signing up, but the Denver model is doing what school choice advocates say is their goal: improving results through competition. Dozens of traditional schools have been shut down in recent years, replaced in most cases by charters. While results at charter schools nationwide have been mixed, many of those in Denver have seen striking improvements in test scores. Some have achieved what might be called a reverse achievement gap, with scores among their low-income students rising faster than those of their peers in neighboring schools.

Denver’s traditional neighborhood schools are getting better, too, with dropout rates among students of color way down and growth rates -- the term for ongoing academic improvement among students -- leaping from near the bottom among Colorado cities to near the top. “Denver’s doing a lot of things really, really well,” says Scott Laband, president of Colorado Succeeds, a business and education think tank. “They’re providing a lot of choice and their leadership is instilling a spirit of competition in many schools, which is not happening in a lot of cities.”

The one thing Denver doesn’t have is private school choice -- that is, public dollars following kids to private or parochial schools. This was the root of DeVos’ complaint. Her comments made it clear that that will be a priority for the Trump administration. But it’s not an idea that’s likely to fly in Denver. The Colorado Supreme Court has twice ruled that private school voucher programs are unconstitutional. And in a state closely divided along party lines, such a program wouldn’t succeed politically. “I absolutely don’t support pulling money out of our public schools,” says Brittany Pettersen, who chairs the state House Education Committee.