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Sondermann: Dems at a crossroads on public education

Editor’s note: This column first appeared in Colorado Politics. It was written before the school board named Dwight Jones as interim superintendent Wednesday evening.

“Why should (DSST) Noel open?” “The ‘choice’ model…has failed.”

This was the start of a comment on my Facebook page in response to a post on the State Board of Education’s overruling and admonishing Denver Public Schools with respect to the refusal to authorize the DSST Noel High School.

That Facebook comment came not from the head of the local teachers’ union or some newly-elected, anti-charter member of the DPS board. Such sources would be all too predictable. Instead, it came from my state representative in central Denver, Steven Woodrow.

While I do not personally know Rep. Woodrow, he seems a smart and conscientious guy. My point is not to berate him. Rather, it is to note how way too many Democrats have themselves tied in knots when it comes to education policy and are unable to figure out whom they are there to serve.

First, to the immediate issue of a DSST Noel High School and the broader mess that is the Denver school board.

The fact that there is even a dispute over authorizing a high school for DSST Noel is itself astounding. The DSST Noel Middle School is the top-rated school at that level in the entire district. Get that — it is not just above average or in a high tier of the school performance rankings. It is at the very top of the heap; the best Denver has to offer.

Further, it is located not in Cherry Creek or University Park or some other upscale enclave that is most usually the site of top-performing schools. Nope, DSST Noel sits in the heart of Montbello, a diverse neighborhood in far northeast Denver with more than its share of challenges. The parents there overwhelmingly want this high school so that their students can continue on an academically superior path. The district had implicitly promised that would be the case.

Bear in mind that the students at DSST Noel Middle School are over 60 percent Hispanic and 24 percent Black. If Black (and Brown) Lives Matter, maybe it is time to assert that Black (and Brown) Education Matters, too.

But, apparently, not to this school board which shows itself daily to be rudderless and overmatched. Not content with piling disruption on top of disruption in an already disrupted year, and with violating assurances made to parents and students at this particular school, the board has now effectively run off the first Latino superintendent in the district’s history (mind you, Latinos constitute well over half of all DPS students), and a woman and homegrown, up-through-the-ranks talent, to boot.

And they did so without the evident foresight to have any kind of succession plan in place.

By any measure, even with grade inflation, that earns this new board majority a failing mark.

All that said, Denver is but a microcosm of the dilemma facing Democrats across the country as they are the ones running most big-city school systems and, come Jan. 20, the executive branch of the federal government.

Not that many years ago, the group Democrats for Education Reform (DFER) held sway and dominated policy-making in the Obama years. These days, it is a surefire, stand-on-the-chairs applause line at any Democratic Party assembly to lambast this organization. In 2018, the Colorado Democratic Party went so far as to pass a resolution, meaningless in its effect but certainly symbolic, demanding that DFER drop “Democrats” from its title. As if some hollering partisans control the vocabulary.

The root of the issue relates to the role of parental choice in determining where Junior goes to school. Many Democrats who worship at the altar of “choice” in other realms, including that of reproductive rights, suddenly turn proscriptive and unyielding, even rigidly fundamentalist, when it comes to educational choice.

Joe Biden is something of a case study. He was once a reliable, if somewhat tepid, supporter of public school reform. And it was his name on the second line of the Obama-Biden administration. However, in putting together his 2020 candidacy, with his wet finger keenly turned to the changing winds of his party, he backed far away from any such past commitments.

This Joe Biden went so far as to promise that his education secretary would be a teacher – not necessarily a bad idea, but clearly pandering and limiting his options. The heads of the country’s two largest teachers’ unions are both rumored to be in contention.

Betsy DeVos, Trump’s person in this position, wore the garb of Cruella de Vil and made herself into the number-one factor propelling the backlash to so-called “reformers.” Denver was not immune to that fallout.

But how far does the Biden administration go in the other direction? Do they turn their backs even on assessments which surely will show that COVID has only accentuated the achievement gap with children from struggling families having suffered the most stagnation or even slippage as a consequence of online learning?

With Trump soon gone, the papered-over unity he produced among the opposition will further evaporate.

Important, revealing debates lie ahead as Democrats face a moment of choice. Does the party stand with the comfortable or the needy? With the entrenched or the aspiring? Are union agendas of a higher order than the demands and empowerment of underserved, often minority, families?