In Denver, with the school-choice window now open, thousands of families are struggling to decide where their kids should go to school next year. And this is after nine months of many families feeling as if they were on their own, scrambling to support their children’s education with what would be best described as a janky online education program.
We already know that Denver had one of the largest learning gaps by race and income in Colorado (and the nation) in spite of a decade of progress for all students. The loss of in-person schooling in Denver will accelerate these learning gaps dramatically.
Some public school students have had better support through their families and particular schools than occurred pre-pandemic, while most of Denver’s public school students will have fallen further behind their peers.
During the school-of-choice period, which opened in Denver last Friday and closes on Feb. 16, it’s important to look at why we have some enormous educational inequity in Denver Public Schools. It begins with our city’s housing policies.
Denver, like most American cities, has had a long list of racist housing policies, which included “redlining,” one of the most egregious collective actions of government, the mortgage industry, and the real estate industry. This government-sanctioned practice valued property on the basis of the presence of African Americans, which results in lower property values and higher mortgage rates for Black families.
The adverse impacts of redlining still stand to this day, as evidenced by the stagnated ability for Black families to build wealth through real estate. Housing patterns in Denver, stemming from segregation and redlining, set up public school segregation based on race, family income and inequitable school funding.
It is no surprise that the inequities that begin with housing are not only continued by public education but in many cases dramatically exasperated by the legacy of DPS.
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● Why should public schools like Bromwell that require families to rent or own a house costing a minimum of $1.4 million not allow students without access to this ZIP code to be admitted?
● Why should the district’s wealthiest schools have the most experienced teachers and the most offerings, including the arts?
● Why should there be a DPS budget policy that allows some schools to get a discount on their teacher salary expense, forcing other schools often with far greater percentages of low-income students to pick up the tab?
● Lastly, should schools with the wealthiest families be able to leverage their wealth to build richer school programs, while the schools most needing these programs are ignored? Park Hill Elementary raised more than $577,000 over the last two years, while many schools with low-income families raised little to nothing.
We believe it is long overdue that Denver become a school system committed to equity and replace the broken educational budgeting, teacher staffing, and choice policies.
Here are five transformative but simple policy changes that could move us closer to ending the educational redlining perpetuated by DPS, which continue to increase the opportunity gaps by race and income in Denver.
1. Moving all Denver schools to a lottery admission with priorities for those students most needing educational support. If a student who is struggling to be at grade level in reading and wants to go to Bromwell or Slavens, they should have priority over the family that has the resources to buy a million-dollar home.
2. Having student-based budgeting follow all students to all schools, and canceling the policy of funding some schools on the average teacher pay. The schools with the highest number of special-education students, low-income students and emerging bilingual students would have the most funding, those with fewer students needing extra resources would have less funding.
3. Fundraising for schools should be controlled in such a way that money can still be raised for your local public school, but a large percentage must be shared with others through the DPS Foundation to ensure that the rich do not get richer (in terms of educational access and opportunity) at the expense of low-income families.
4. Ensuring that families have access to information, not only about how the average students are performing in a school – but more importantly – how different groups of students, by race and income, are doing in school.
5. Increase opportunities for Black and Indigenous students and families of color to influence and lead the district to an equitable future of education, informed by lived experiences through mutual respect and the understanding that every parent wants the very best for their children.
It is time to turn words regarding equity and justice into policy change and action.
Van Schoales is the president of A+ Colorado, a nonprofit focused on improving public education and improving student achievement, and a former high school science teacher and school principal. James Roy II, an urban planner, social entrepreneur, and community-driven professional, is the executive director of Denver Metro Community Impact and founder of Urbanity Advisors.