Do Black students matter to school board members? Apparently not if you’re a school board member backed by the teachers union, if a recent charter school battle in Denver is any indication.
At issue was a proposed charter school in Denver named 5280 Freedom School, which aims to focus its programming on intentionally serving Black students in a district where only 25% of Black students read on grade level and only 15% of Black students are on track in math.
The school started as a summer camp promoting Black history and traditions, and Black children and parents had such a positive experience that they pushed to have the program become a full-time school.
What makes the debate interesting was the local school board in Denver, made up entirely of avowedly progressive members, refused to allow the school to open, rejecting their application on a 5-2 vote. However, when the charter school appealed the Denver school board’s decision to the State Board of Education, it was saved thanks to the state board’s three Republican members and two pro-school choice Democrats.
By law, the State Board of Education can overturn local school board decisions on charter schools when they find that the local board’s decision was made “contrary to the best interests of the students, district and local community.”
DPS has the largest racial achievement gaps in Denver, and 5280 Freedom submitted a sound application for a charter school specifically designed to address the needs of a currently underserved population. Five state school board members saw the value of having that school of choice in the Denver community — and how such a school would indeed be in the best interests of students. After the State Board of Education remanded the case back to the district, DPS finally agreed to let the school open in fall 2023.
5280 Freedom School’s success at the State Board of Education is a win for bipartisan education reform, but it also raises troubling questions about the priorities of the Denver school board and challenges conventional wisdom about race and politics in Colorado.
Why would ostensibly progressive school members both at the state level and in Denver reject a school focused on serving Black students? To understand, you need not look further than the special interests that bankrolled the campaigns of the current Denver school board and the two state board members who voted against the charter school.
The current Denver school board has a 7-0 majority of school board members whose campaigns were backed with huge spending by political entities funded by the state’s leading teachers unions. Likewise, the two state board members who voted to deny the opening of the 5280 Freedom School had their campaigns backed by the same powerful teachers union forces.
Teachers unions vocally oppose charter schools, which do not have unionized employees, and therefore deprive unions of membership dues. The unions use all sorts of misleading — or outright false — talking points about why they oppose charter schools, but as the old journalistic saw says, follow the money. When the union spends big sums of money electing school board members, they expect their political payola in return — by fighting against charter schools.
Apparently, Black students matter little when weighed against the political prerogatives of a powerful special interest.
The charter school dustup in Denver may have flown under the radar for most people, but it should be a matter of concern to all Coloradans. We should expect that education policymakers put student interests at the center of their decision-making, not special interests of entities that helped elect them.
In recent years, the Denver school board has time and again put adult fights and politics above what’s best for Denver kids. It’s no wonder that the district has abysmally poor student outcomes.
But we cannot become inured to this behavior when it comes to K-12 schools in Colorado. We owe it to all kids to do better.
Fortunately, you have an opportunity to make a difference this November. The State Board of Education has several seats up this election, including a new statewide seat that will be on everyone’s ballot. The Democratic nominee in the statewide race, Kathy Plomer, is backed by the largest teachers union in Colorado and has a long, public record of opposing charter schools. The other candidate, Republican Dan Maloit, supports school choice and public charter schools.
If we want a State Board of Education that truly stands up for what is in the best interest of all kids, and especially students of color, the choice should be clear.
This opinion editorial originally appeared in the Denver Gazette.