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Storied Education Landscape Greets Democrats in Denver

By Michele McNeil — August 22, 2008 5 min read

The setting for the Democratic National Convention is a state with a recent history of education that has been defined by geography, populist tax reform, and one of the worst U.S. school shootings ever.

The Aug. 25-28 convention at the Pepsi Center and Invesco Field in Denver will draw thousands of delegates, political professionals, and journalists as the Democrats nominate Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois—and his vice-presidential pick.

The lineup of speakers includes stars such as former Virginia Gov. Mark Warner, a candidate for U.S. Senate from that state and the convention’s keynoter, and Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., who lost the prolonged primary fight to Mr. Obama. Union leaders Reg Weaver of the National Education Association and Randi Weingarten of the American Federation of Teachers are expected to speak from the podium on Monday night. The teachers’ unions, which have both endorsed Sen. Obama, are accustomed to having an influential presence at the Democratic convention. This year, the NEA will be represented by more than 200 delegates and the AFT by 135, out of a total of 4,440 convention delegates.

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Known for its picturesque Rocky Mountain views, Denver’s skyline also helps tell the story of education in the state. Colorado’s school districts, divided by the rugged mountain range, are a study in contrast. The rural west is an area of small school districts, many with declining enrollments, and many that struggle to raise enough money to build new schools.

Of the state’s 178 school districts, 110 of them have 1,200 students or fewer, which has sparked newer reform efforts in the area of online education. But the more urban, front range of the mountains has experienced explosive growth over the last few decades, which has contributed to innovation and experimentation as districts in those areas have more readily embraced charter schools and merit pay for teachers.

In fact, the state helped jump start the merit-pay movement. The balleyhooed pay-for-performance program in the 73,000-student Denver school district is based on an earlier effort in the Douglas County district. That program started in July 1994 as part of an agreement with the local teachers’ union and is touted as the longest running in the nation.

“This is the first district I ever saw doing performance pay in an exemplary way,” said Kathy Christie, who monitors state education trends for the Education Commission of the States, which is based in Denver.

The state’s population growth has also brought a host of other challenges as the state grapples with a booming Hispanic population. Bruce Caughey, the deputy executive director of the Colorado Association of School Executives, noted that the state ranks 50th when it comes to the gap in postsecondary degree completion between whites and Hispanics.

Tax Limitations

The state’s struggle with educating minorities isn’t new. Colorado was the setting for the first crucial desegregation case where racial separation wasn’t mandated by law. In its landmark 1973 decision in Keyes v. School District No. 1, the U.S. Supreme Court held that despite the lack of a statute endorsing race as a factor in school assignments, the Denver school board had taken steps that led to segregated, inferior schools for minority students. As a result, the school district had to reassign students and bus them across normal school-boundary lines—and was under the court’s jurisdiction until 1995. But the district, like many urban school systems, still struggles with low performance in high-minority, high-poverty schools.

School officials note that the biggest driver of school reform—or lack of reform—can be traced back to the early 1990s to something dubbed TABOR (named after a Colorado silver king). This “Taxpayer Bill of Rights,” approved as a ballot initiative in 1992, limits the amount of revenue the state and its local governments (including school districts) can take in, and requires that any excess revenue be refunded to taxpayers. The law also requires that any tax increase—no matter how small—be approved by voters, and not the legislature.

“Serious budget problems have been caused by this,” said John Hefty, the executive director of the school executives’ association.

The state also became the first in the country to radically restructure its higher education finance system in 2004 by giving students vouchers they could redeem at any state college or university, rather than allocating the money directly to the universities.

An early supporter of the standards-and-accountability movement,the state became one of the first under then-Gov. Bill Owens, a Republican, to require school report cards in 2000, which have now become a staple across the country. However, Colorado remains a strong local control state and one of the few that leaves graduation requirements up to local school boards.

Colorado also produced former Gov. Roy Romer, a Democrat, who chaired the first National Education Goals Panel in the early 1990s that focused on early education. Mr. Romer was first elected in 1986 and served 12 years. He helped pass legislation authorizing charter schools in the state and was a strong proponent of accountability measures. Now, he’s leading the nonpartisan ED in ‘08 campaign, which has sought to make education a top-tier issue in the presidential campaign and plans to be at the convention in that role, and in his role as a Democratic Party superdelegate.

The Memory of Columbine

To those outside of the state, Colorado will likely bring to mind one of the biggest tragedies in U.S. education. On April 20, 1999, two students entered Columbine High School in Jefferson County, just southwest of Denver, shooting 24 people—killing 12 students and a teacher, plus themselves—in the worst gun violence at a K-12 school building in the nation’s history. The violence led to sweeping changes in school safety and security measures that continue to resonate nationwide.

But there was no talk of that incident when Sen. Obama visited Colorado to deliver a major speech on education. During his May 28 visit to Mapleton Expeditionary School of the Arts in Thornton, he stressed the importance of innovation in schools, teacher-quality initiatives, and “fixing” the No Child Left Behind Act.

“I’m here to hold up this school and these students as an example of what’s possible in education if we’re willing to try new ideas and new reforms based not on ideology,” Sen. Obama said, according to a transcript, “but on what works to give our children the best possible chance in life.”

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A version of this article appeared in the September 03, 2008 edition of Education Week as Storied Education Landscape Greets Democrats in Denver

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