The Denver Post is endorsing Mike Johnson, Rachele Espiritu, Barbara O’Brien and Angela Cobián in this year’s Denver School Board election.
Supporters of reform efforts at Denver Public Schools ought to pay attention in this off-year election cycle, as four seats on the seven-member board are in play, and anti-reformers enjoy plenty of money and energy. Thankfully, a solid slate of reform-minded candidates is available, and we urge voters to the stay the course and support candidates who back Superintendent Tom Boasberg’s promising efforts to ensure that all district students attend a high-performing school.
The Denver district’s embrace of charter and innovation schools and its commitment to ensuring that its traditional neighborhood schools offer quality education — and fixing or replacing them when they don’t — have been working in demonstrable ways. Recent test data indicates that while the achievement gap is growing within the district, low-income kids are making strides. For the first time, they are performing on par with other students who receive free or reduced-price lunches across the state, and English language learners are outperforming their non-English-speaking peers statewide. The district is an increasingly attractive option for students across the economic spectrum, and is dedicated to offering solid college-track and vocational-track preparedness.
Stopping the momentum now would be a mistake.
That’s why we’re endorsing incumbents Barbara O’Brien for the at-large seat, Mike Johnson for District 3, and Rachele Espiritu for District 4. In the one open race, we’re happily backing political newcomer Angela Cobián to replace outgoing Rosemary Rodriguez in District 2.
(Chalkbeat Colorado conducted surveys with all four candidates, as well as their opponents. Read their answers here.)
We’ve long been impressed with O’Brien, a former Colorado lieutenant governor who has dedicated her political career to helping kids, and hope to see her remain in the at-large seat. She has a remarkable vision for the district — anchored in early interventions in reading, math and science — that serves the district well. Her opponents, Robert Speth and Julie Bañuelos, are selling a narrative of failure and school privatization in the district that isn’t substantiated by student performance data or the motives of those trying to help kids succeed.
As with O’Brien, we’ve backed Johnson in the past and see no reason to part ways. A public finance attorney who deeply understands the ins and outs of the district’s budgets and monetary needs, the reformer has been involved with east Denver schools since the eldest of his three daughters began kindergarten in 1998. Johnson’s financial experience has helped the board reduce the district’s central office staff and as a result increased badly needed per-pupil funding.
That said, Johnson faces an impressive opponent in Carrie Olson. A passionate teacher with more than 30 years’ experience instructing English language learners in Denver schools, Olsen would be a voice of caution in the district’s race to reform. She is opposed to the district’s school performance framework that is based in large part on student growth on standardized tests, an accountability model we support. But Olson isn’t as strident in her opposition to charters as other non-reform candidates backed by or coming from the teachers union.
That said, a vote for Olson carries risk in these uncertain political times, and so we urge keeping Johnson at the helm representing central east Denver.
Cobián, a graduate of public schools in southwest Denver, knows firsthand the challenges that face students who must master English as a second language. Despite the barrier, she went on to Colorado College. After graduation she taught in Denver schools for two years before leaving to become a Fulbright Scholar teaching teachers in Mexico City. Her master’s degree in curriculum and instruction from the University of Colorado in Denver further informs her knowledge of what it takes for students to succeed. Her opponent, Xochitl “Sochi” Gaytan, also educated in the district, remains too enamored of protecting traditional schools at the expense of reform efforts.
Espiritu’s background in behavioral health is critical as the northeast district launches an effort to address not just the academic needs of children, but their complex emotional and social needs, too.
Both of Espiritu’s challengers, 19-year-old Tay Anderson and Jennifer Bacon, are worthy opponents who are giving voice to legitimate concerns about preserving neighborhood schools. We were particularly impressed with Anderson, a recent graduate from Manual High School. He argues that some charter schools in northeast Denver are not serving all students. To that point, we hope that, going forward, the board becomes more aggressive in penalizing schools with high attrition rates, a sign some students are being pushed out the doors. Our publicly funded schools must work hard to serve all students who come through their doors.
That said, we fear Anderson, despite his enthusiasm and intelligence, is not quite ready for the rigors of public office while starting his freshman year at Metropolitan State University of Denver. Regardless of the outcome next month, we look forward to his bright future in public service.
Much remains to be done for disadvantaged students in Denver schools, but we think the district’s approach to closing the gap is the right one. The aggressive model is an acknowledgment that even the most disadvantaged, disabled or emotionally traumatized kids can succeed in the right setting.
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