Building Political Success in Education Reform

The transition of Denver Public Schools (DPS) from a dysfunctional school district in 2005 to a 21st century school system today is also a study in building political success in situations demanding change. As reported by David Osborne in the Progressive Policy Institute Report A 21st Century School System in the Mile-High City, Denver’s reforms stirred controversy for years. When the school board closed or replaced failing schools, protests erupted, and school board meetings dragged on into the night. The 4-3 reform majority on the board seemed tenuous at best.

Today, Denver’s voters have elected a 7-0 majority for reform, and embrace charter schools. What happened? Osborne summarizes the key elements or “secrets” of Denver’s political success at p. 31 of his report:

  • Create a respected organization to serve as catalyst for reform (A+ Denver).
  • Build a broad coalition for reform, including organizations representing low income people and people of color.
  • Create positive examples of success such as a 100% graduation rate from a charter school serving low-income students.
  • Use data to communicate need for change, with a School Performance Framework that accurately reflects school progress.
  • Seek community input about changes.
  • Treat all school types alike–charter, traditional, and others. Rather than talk about increasing charters and innovation schools, talk about replacing failing schools with better schools, regardless of type.
  • Be strategic and intentional about winning school board elections. Raise money and recruit strong board candidates.
  • Don’t back down because there is only a 4-3 reform majority on the school board.
  • Be strategic about pace of reform. Denver expanded the percentage of students in charter schools from 7% to 18% over a decade. Too fast? Not fast enough? Balance is key.
  • Ensure consistency of leadership over time–if different leaders, make sure they subscribe to the same vision.


The result? A decade ago, Denver had the lowest rates of academic growth among Colorado’s medium and large districts. Now Denver ranks at the top.

What reforms were successful? And what must Denver do to continue its reforms to maintain and accelerate its academic progress? The story continues next week.