Back To School

    Today, most Denver Public Schools students return to the classroom.  Usually, that classroom will be a segregated one.  As of the 2003-2004 school year: “84% of Latino, 74% of Black, 52% of Asian but only 27% of White students attended schools with more than 70 percent minority students.”

    But, as Superintendent Michael Bennet and the school board start a major reorganization of the district, with up to 40 school closures planned in a district with 151 schools, a draft list of which will be announced October 2 (and voted on just after this year’s school board elections), the tools available to the district to address segregation are limited and unclear.The Denver Public Schools were governed by a desegregation order entered in the case of Keyes v. Denver School District No. 1 from 1973 (the case began in 1969), when the U.S. Supreme Court made the landmark holding that legally sufficient desegregation could not be accomplished in a district with a partial history of legally mandated segregation by integregating black and Hispanic students, while keeping white students separate.

    In 1995, Keyes went out with a wimper with Colorado’s federal court’s conclusion that “the vestiges of discrimination by the defendants have been eliminated to the extent practicable.”

    The effect of the end of Denver’s desegregation order were immediate and dramatic.  About one in ten schools in the district saw the percentage of White students in attendance change up or down by more than twenty percentage points in four years in the wake of the end of court ordered desegregation.

    A decade later the Denver Public Schools remain segregated, but the Denver Plan, which is the district’s blue print for reform, tiptoes around the issue.

    This isn’t simply a matter of indifference.  Last Spring, by a 5-4 margin, the U.S. Supreme Court, in the biggest about face since its 1954 decision in Brown v. Board of Education, all but banned the use of race to assign children to schools in Louisville, Kentucky and Seattle, Washington, for the purpose of integrating school systems which face de facto segregation (i.e. segregation not mandated on the face of state and local law).  A 2008 ballot proposal in Colorado could make such a ban complete.

    While the decisions didn’t reach the issue, briefing and oral argument questioned the extent to which even matters like drawing attendance area lines for schools within a district could intentionally be drawn for the purpose of achieving diversity.

    The limitations on the Denver school system’s options don’t all come from the U.S. Supreme Court either. 

    The Poundstone Amendment to the Colorado Constitution, adopted in 1974 in the immediate wake of the Keyes decision prevents the Denver Public Schools from expanding its ability to integregate itself by annexing territory.

    Colorado has a school choice system that allows parents to have their children attend schools other than their neighborhood school, both within their district, and in other school districts on a space available basis using a complex lottery system with priorities based upon sibling attendance and prior attendance at the school.

    As explained in a joint project of the Rocky Mountain News and the Piton Foundation last Spring, about 20,300 students out of about 83,600 who live in Denver don’t attend the Denver Public Schools.  To oversimplify, mostly white students in Southwest Denver are leaving to the neighboring Jefferson County Schools, mostly white students in Southeast Denver are electing private schools in large numbers, and often minority students in North Denver are choosing charter schools, which are public schools administratively autonomous from the central administration, in large numbers.

    White and black students in Denver both make considerable use of the intradistrict school choice options, but frequently, they choose schools that have more children of their child’s race, rather than more diverse schools.  Even within individual schools, such as East High School, tracking can make what looks like an integrated school, far less so at the classroom level.

    While Colorado’s school choice program goes far beyond what is required by federal law, the federal No Child Left Behind Act mandates that school choice options be made available in “failing schools” which Denver has more than its share of in Colorado.

    No Child Left Behind has had its successes.  One revamp compelled by the Act was the overhaul of Cole Middle School in Denver as a charter school run by KIPP (Knowledge Is Power Program), a nationally known charter school operator.  The results have been impressive.

    But, overwhelmingly, academic performance as measured by the No Child Left Behind CSAP tests has been a relentless product of student socio-economic status and demographics.  This leaves Denver, whose children are disproportionatley low income and often English language learners, with a very difficult assignment.

    Colorado’s school funding formula (warning M.S. Word document) does allocate additional funds (about $1,000 per student, give or take a few hundred dollars) to schools with “at risk” children, but the dollar amounts are modest compared to the addition instruction necessary to bring a child who starts out behind (the “achievement gap” on racial and ethnic lines is stark by third grade when testing starts), or who are learning English.  By comparison, some small rural school districts receive up to $15,000 per student of funding to make it possible to continue to run small, but costly, local schools and save children long drives to consolidated schools.

    Meanwhile, schools like Denver still have to carry the costs associated with aging buildings and a physical plant designed to have a capacity of 98,000 students, in the face of declining funding as a result of students going to charter schools or schools outside the District.  While new suburbs sometimes charge “impact fees” associated with additional capital expense charges associated with building new schools for new residents, Denver can’t charge departing students an impact fee for leaving its capital investment vacant.

    Bottom line: Nobody has easy answers to Denver’s continuing legacy of segregated schools, and Michael Bennet and the Denver School Board have their work cut out for them.