Will Denver’s School Board Change Direction on Tuesday?

In Hamilton, George Washington tells the title character: “Winning was easy, young man. Governing’s harder.” But the experience of school system leaders is sometimes the inverse: implementing policies that yield tangible improvements is one thing, but winning support at the ballot box can be more difficult. Even when reforms deliver significant improvements in student outcomes, it’s no guarantee that those policies — or the leaders who support them — will withstand the next election.

Denver is a clear example of this dynamic. While 2019 is considered an “off year” for federal elections, Denver’s school board race could have a major impact on the future of the city’s reform efforts.

The work to transform Denver’s school system began in earnest in 2005, when four-year graduation rates were a dismal 39 percent. After a decade of consistent improvement, the four-year graduation rate rose to 69 percent by 2017, with achievement scores also showing impressive growth. Two leaders responsible for sparking this transformation have since left their positions: Superintendent Michael Bennet was elected to the U.S. Senate in 2009 and won a full term in 2010, and former mayor John Hickenlooper was elected governor in 2010 and is seeking Colorado’s other senate seat in 2020.

While Denver’s school board continued to push for improvement in student outcomes after these leaders moved on, elections in 2017 weakened that consensus. And the balance of control on Denver’s school board may be “flipped” away from the reform-inclined majority on Tuesday. There are three seats up for grabs, with three candidates vying for each seat, none of whom are incumbents.

One of the key underlying themes of the race is a sense that for too long, change in Denver’s school system was done to — instead of in partnership with — local communities. While Denver officials are working to improve community engagement efforts, building those relationships may be even more critical in the coming years. Projections show a potential enrollment decline in Denver’s future, which may lead to the painful prospect of school consolidations or closures.

Denver is one of a growing number of cities across the country that have made substantial shifts in how they approach public education over the past twenty years. The long-term success of these efforts ultimately depends on affirmation at the ballot box in state and local elections. My Bellwether colleagues profiled eight cities that set out to build a continuously improving system of schools, and saw tangible and significant progress for students. Some of these places have already had elections that ultimately halted or rolled back changes that benefited students. In 2018 Newark’s locally elected school board regained control from the state and hired a new superintendent who moved to overturn key reforms. In New York City, the election of Mayor Bill de Blasio in 2013 signaled a similar shift away from the reform efforts of the previous administration.

While the changes in Newark and New York looked very different, voters in those jurisdictions were similarly put off by years of changes to the school system led by state-appointed or mayoral-appointed leaders. They responded by electing leaders who emphasized community and stakeholder buy-in.

On Tuesday, supporters of Denver’s 14-year approach to school system improvement will find out if they’ve done enough to build a broad base of support for their vision of change. While the race has attracted a significant amount of spending, already topping $1.3 million, the outcome will likely depend on who has earned more trust from the voters.

No matter the outcome, Denver serves as an important reminder for reform-inclined officeholders: While implementing a strategic vision to improve student outcomes is difficult work, doing so without building a strong local consensus may put the vision of progress in peril.