Public School Choice as Competitive Advantage: A Look at Denver Public Schools

Denver Public Schools (DPS) has garnered a reputation for pragmatism, collaboration, and innovation. According to a 2015 report on district-charter collaboration from the Fordham Institute, DPS has “engaged charters more deeply than any of the other cities we studied, due in no small part to a decade of district leadership with a strong belief in the value of a portfolio strategy, a significant number of third-party stakeholders who have encouraged engagement, and an education landscape that gives the district a stake in charter success.”

This investment has yielded some truly remarkable charter schools and networks. Among the most noteworthy is DSST Public Schools (DSST), which yesterday was named a finalist for the prestigious Broad Prize for Public Charter Schools. The announcement, which took place on the first day of National Charter Schools Week (May 1-5), highlighted DSST’s academic outcomes, especially among low-income students and students of color. DSST operates 12 secondary charter schools that serve nearly 5,000 students in Denver, 69 percent of whom are low-income and 75 percent of whom are students of color. DSST runs four of the top five DPS high schools, and five of the top eight DPS middle schools, according to Denver’s 2016 School Performance Framework. At DSST, all students take the ACT and the average score for their 2016 seniors was 23.3, which far exceeds the ACT college readiness benchmark of 21.3, Colorado’s average of 20.4, and DPS’s average of 18.6.

But the district’s reputation hasn’t always been so glowing. As the Fordham report points out, an April 2007 exposé from the Rocky Mountain News revealed, “one-quarter of DPS students were attending non-DPS schools, including private schools and charter schools in surrounding districts. These departures cost the district $125 million in lost revenues each year and left many school buildings half-empty… The exposé provided an opening for then-Superintendent Michael Bennet and the school board to pursue a more aggressive set of reforms focused on improving school quality and offering families greater choice.”

Over the past 10 years, DPS enrollment has grown by more than 18,000 students from 72,561 in 2006-07 to 91,132 in 2016-17—and Denver’s relative rank on Colorado’s District Performance Framework improved by 36 positions between 2009-10 and 2015-16. An innovative and collaborative urban education system, an increased interest in urban living, a reputation as an outdoor sports and recreation mecca, and a booming and increasingly diversified economy have all helped the city and the district grow and thrive. Despite rapid urbanization and gentrification, the composition of the student population has remained quite stable. Since 2006-07, the percentage of economically disadvantaged students increased slightly from 64.5 percent to 67.5 percent while the percentage of minority students decreased slightly from 79.6 to 76.7 percent.

In addition, Brookings recently awarded DPS top honors in their annual Education Choice and Competition Index (ECCI) and Denver and New Orleans were the only districts that earned an A grade. The ECCI grades the nation’s 100 largest school districts against an ideal choice system in which:

• there is no default assigned school (everyone must choose);
• there is a common application;
• there is rich, valid, and comparable information on school performance (including test results that incorporate academic growth);
• school performance information is clearly presented (including support for less educated parents); and
• there is an assignment algorithm that maximizes the preferences expressed by all parents and the resulting school assignment for all students.

DPS scored well, in part, due to a new centralized assignment process which requires a single common application for both charter and district-run public schools. According to the author of the ECCI, Russ Whitehurst, DPS has “a good mix and utilization by parents of alternatives to traditional public schools. Information [that supports] school choice includes a school assignment website that allows parents to make side-by-side comparisons… Most traditional public schools are open-enrollment, i.e., there is no default assignment tied to neighborhood of residence, and choice schools have seats that are reserved for families entering the district after the regular assignment process is complete or for parents dissatisfied with their child’s current school assignment.”

Whitehurst cautions that “choice is merely the precondition for new systems of delivering education, not a guarantee of the success of those systems relative to the traditional school district model. Once choice is in place, considerable attention has to be paid to how parents choose schools, the portfolio of schools that are available, the processes and data by which schools receive signals of success, and the politics of choice.” However, well-designed and robust public school choice systems can provide significant economic and community benefits:

• Equity: public school choice provides new opportunities for low-income and disadvantaged students who were often overlooked under assignment based systems;
• Options: public school choice provides a portfolio of options that creates value and opportunity for students and families by creating mechanisms for differentiation;
• Improved Outcomes: public school choice can improve academic and other outcomes by fostering innovation and competition; and
• Competitive Advantage: public school choice offers cities a competitive advantage as they look to develop, attract, and retain talent.

In 2017, it is very clear that parents expect and demand public school choice and as Whitehurst states the “traditional school district model is no longer the monopoly it used to be.” Regardless of race, income, party affiliation, and geography roughly 80 percent of parents support public school choice. While parent demand for school choice has been increasing, so too has the ability of parents to choose between different public school options. In 2005-06, only one school district with at least 10,000 students enrolled more than 30 percent of their students in charter schools (New Orleans). Ten years later, 17 districts enrolled more than 30 percent of their students in charter schools. In addition, the total number of charter school students surpassed 3 million for the first time in 2016-17.

DPS has exhibited a similar growth trend. Over the past five years, the number of DPS charter school students has increased from 9,945 in 2011-12 to 18,463 in 2016-17—an increase of more than 8,000 students. In addition, the share of DPS students enrolled in charter schools has increased from 12.3 to 20.3 percent—meaning that one in five DPS students attend a charter school.

The fact that a rapidly growing and popular city like Denver took the top spot on the ECCI should come as no surprise. In a symbiotic and mutually reinforcing way, a robust public school choice system can help to attract young families to an urban area while an influx of young families can also create political momentum around more robust systems of public school choice. As Whitehurst goes on to state, the expansion of public school choice “is not a repudiation and abandonment of the role of government in the provision of an adequate education for the nation’s K-12 students. It does, however, require a rethinking and redesign of how the government carries out its responsibilities, and a commitment to nurturing processes that promote the improvement of schools over time and with experience.”

Cities that embrace a reimagined role and sense of purpose may very well stand to gain in the battle for talent. Denver serves as an example that robust public school choice systems can serve as one several key catalysts in urban revitalization and redevelopment efforts.

— Kevin Hesla

Kevin Hesla is the director of research and evaluation at the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools.

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