School choice, charters propel achievement in Denver schools


School choice, charters propel achievement in Denver schools

Principals and schools use autonomy to drive results

April 7, 2016— To better meet the unique needs of different students, urban districts are increasingly expanding the options available to families by providing a variety of public schools: traditional, magnet, charter, and hybrid models. In a new article for Education Next, David Osborne, director of the project on Reinventing America’s Schools at the Progressive Policy Institute, finds Denver’s pursuit of this strategy, which has increased school leader autonomy, has produced impressive gains in student achievement, leading to growing public support for the reforms.

In the spring of 2007, less than 39 percent of students graduated on time, but by the spring of 2015, 65 percent graduated on time. Between 2004 and 2014, the percentage of students scoring at or above grade level in reading, writing, and math increased from 33 to 48, far faster than the state average. DPS has more than doubled the number of students taking and passing Advanced Placement courses, and black students now take advanced math classes at the same rate as whites (Hispanic students lag by only 1 percentage point). In Denver 1 in 7 low-income students enrolled in college in 2014, compared to 1 in 20 in the rest of the state.

Osborne attributes increases in student achievement to expanding school choice and charters, as well as an equitable school choice system. Of Denver’s 223 schools, 55 are charter schools, up from 17 in 2005. In addition to charter schools, students can enroll at one of 38 innovation schools, district-operated schools pioneering new school models with more autonomy than traditional district schools. Together, DPS charter and innovation schools educate 38 percent of DPS students.

DPS’s new SchoolChoice enrollment system minimizes favoritism, fosters integration, and increases demand for high quality schools by using the same process to place students in most schools, including charters and district-operated schools. In the first three years using the system, 95 percent of students were placed in one of their top five choices.

Superintendent Michael Bennet (2005-2008) spearheaded Denver Public Schools’ improvement by embracing charter school expansion, giving principals more decision-making power, and using student-based funding, in which dollars followed children to their schools of choice, to spur competition. After Tom Boasberg replaced Bennet in 2009, the local teachers union mobilized and the next election limited the reformers’ majority on the school board to 4-3. As the district’s strategies produced results, that majority has expanded to 7-0.

Bennet, Boasberg and Denver’s reformers have proven that embracing charter schools and expanding choice works for DPS, says Osborne. “Denver is well on the road to proving that an elected board can transform a 20th-century system organized on the principles of bureaucracy into a 21st-century system built to deliver continuous improvement.”

Denver Expands Choice and Charters: Elected school board employs portfolio strategy to lift achievement” will be available Tuesday, April 12 on and will appear in the Summer 2016 issue of Education Next, in print May 23.

About the Author: David Osborne, co-author of Reinventing Government and other books on public sector reform, is director of the project on Reinventing America’s Schools at the Progressive Policy Institute. A longer treatment of this subject will be available at

About Education Next: Education Next is a scholarly journal committed to careful examination of evidence relating to school reform, published by the Hoover Institution at Stanford University and the Harvard Program on Education Policy and Governance at the Harvard Kennedy School. For more information, please visit

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