Forty years after Denver became the center of the first school desegregation case from a non-southern city to reach the U.S. Supreme Court, Denver schools remain segregated and school leaders are trying new approaches to integration with mixed results.
A panel of notable local education experts, policymakers, leaders and scholars participated in a symposium Friday at the University of Denver’s Sturm College of Law that was part of a three-day examination of the legacy of Keyes v. School District No. 1. Court-ordered busing was but one notable result of the case in Denver.
The symposium focused on evaluating metro K-12 public education “through the lenses of educators, administrators and policy makers.” Hot topics included revamping school finance laws in Colorado and experimenting with new school choice strategies.
School finance reform in Colorado
Sen. Mike Johnston, D-Denver, honed in on school finance as the best road forward for ensuring equity for all students.
He described the Keyes case as an acknowledgement that segregated schools were not just an issue plaguing the South. The problem of a two-tiered education system for haves and have-nots has never gone away, he said.
“If you were to ask someone today where the worst state in America is to be a 7-year-old black or brown kid who wants to graduate from college – it is the state where you sit right now,” Johnston said, referring to Colorado.
“(Keyes) reminds people in this city that you live in a battleground of the civil rights movement. You live in it and the battle is not over.”
Johnston explored what he termed the “apparatus of segregation.” He said many experts have developed a causal link between poverty and academic failure. He said at-risk students should be attached to a higher rate of funding than students who are on track academically. Furthermore, he said it’s time to get away from a school funding formula that bases everything on who shows up for school on Oct. 1.
Meanwhile, communities such as Aspen get a cost of living adjustment in their per pupil funding formula because it’s so expensive to live there.
“We will subsidize wealthier districts (three times more) than we subsidize poor districts,” Johnston said.
Johnston said under the current system there is no incentive for a school to want to take on a student who arrives on a day later than Oct. 1 and who needs extra support services. He said that needs to change.
“We need to create system that attaches those resources to that kid wherever she goes.” Then districts might actually find themselves fighting over these students, he added.
Johnston said his goal is to provide a system that is “radically aligned toward providing the highest possible outcomes for kids with the most needs.”
“We can be the first state in the country… to fundamentally break the link between poverty and school failure.”
Amie Baca-Oehlert, vice president of the Colorado Education Association, said she agreed a new way of funding public education was in order. She described learning of a student in Eagle who had never held a pencil before showing up at school, or another who was pumped up for state-mandated tests but was unable to describe in descriptive writing a beach because he had never been to one. She’s met kids in Commerce City who have never traveled to Denver or to the mountains.
“All these things impact their ability to be successful,” she said.
“The way we fund our schools we often make our schools the great inequalizer.”
After reading the recent I-News Network series “Losing Ground,” an investigation published in media outlets across Colorado, Baca-Oehlert said it was clear Colorado hasn’t come that far since the Civil Rights Movement.
“That to me is sad as a parent, as an educator, as a citizen. We owe it to our children to continue this fight. The fight we have right now is the school funding fight.”
Gaining voters trust a challenge
Panelist Elaine Gantz Berman, a member of the State Board of Education from Denver, said the issue of school finance has not been tackled in 20 years. She said neither the conversations nor the solutions will be easy to navigate.
“Everybody recognizes we need a new School Finance Act,” Gantz Berman said. “When you start working with this group of people to work on details, it’s amazing how difficult if is. Everybody is worried about what they might lose. Everybody is worried about taking a risk. No one is willing to sign on unless they know every specific details.”
At the end of the day, voters will have to approve the changes in a statewide referendum, she said. While voters are often eager to pass local bond issues and property tax hikes, getting people behind a statewide funding initiative will be a challenge.
“Will voters be willing to trust the state? There is not a great deal of trust outside your local entity,” Gantz Berman said.
Panelist U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet, former superintendent of Denver Public Schools, said things are changing for the better in DPS, with growing enrollment (meaning more funding) but work still needs to be done.
Bennet said DPS is “no longer the poster child for budget cuts we saw year after year.” And he said the district is doing a better job getting resources to kids in poverty.
“Thirty percent more (low-income students) are graduating from high school and going on to college than in 2005. I’d be first to say we have a long way to go… but not a lot of urban districts can claim that opportunity.”
He said policymakers, advocates and parents must be willing to take risks and step up the plate the way civil rights activists did several decades ago.
“If we are willing to do that work I know we can succeed,” Bennet said. “If we are unwilling to do it – if we are unwilling to be as brave as they were – we will fail our kids.”
Bennet’s primary beef, though, was with the funding of education in the United States.
“We are one of three countries (in the Convention on the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development – OECD) that spends more money on rich kids than we do on poor kids.”
“I hope that all of us continue to work on this project. We will become a shining example for this country..”
Using choice to provide opportunities
Meanwhile, superintendents from Douglas County, Aurora and Denver talked about choice policies that can encourage the creation of integrated schools.
DPS Superintendent Tom Boasberg lamented that education policy has for too long perpetuated gaps within society based on race and class.
“I think this is a matter for our kids – making sure the concepts of quality and diversity are completely intertwined,” Boasberg said.
Boasberg said it is the job of public schools to break down barriers and create quality schools for all.
“To have diverse schools that are not quality schools serves nobody’s interests,” Boasberg said. “That results in flight by families with means and resources to do so.”
Boasberg said the vast majority of DPS parents “welcome that diversity” while he acknowledged there is still a “considerable amount of fear and prejudice in our community.”
Boasberg said zip codes still determine where kids go to school. Magnet schools were established to try to create more integrated schools but those have had mixed success in Denver, he said. He said one way to integrate schools in Denver may be to draw bigger attendance boundaries around schools to try to capture a range of neighborhoods.
Doubts about DPS SchoolChoice
Panelist Sharon Brown Bailey, chairwoman of the Colorado Black Round Table Education Committee, said she didn’t believe DPS’s new choice policy was resulting in more people of color or low-income people participating in the process. She said the choice process remains confusing.
“If you missed the first round of school choice you were pretty much locked out,” she said.
Bailey said it’s her understanding only 13 percent of the district’s seats are in quality schools.
“I don’t think we’ve figured out how to really make it work for all families,” she said.” We need to look again at that, and who it’s working for. We are still seeing isolated ethnic enclaves. And (students) are on waiting lists forever…How do you have access to quality with so few quality seats? What kinds of choices do parents really have?”
“Unless you take those quality things in some schools and magnify them throughout the district then choice continues to be a very empty promise.”
Aurora’s pathways programs
Aurora Superintendent John Barry said this is exactly the strategy his district is employing through its “pathways” program, which provides strands of focused areas of study – such as health sciences, arts and communication, engineering and math – ultimately in every school. The district partners with local museums and businesses to boost real-world knowledge and experiences for students.
Barry also said it’s time for more frank conversations about race and the role it plays in key decisions affecting public education. Equity training is required for APS staff, he said.
The DU symposium was organized by the Denver University Law Review and the University of Denver Morgridge College of Education, in conjunction with area law firms and foundations.