Denver’s Portfolio Model School District Is a Failure!

19 Jan

By T. Ultican 1/19/2019

Here is a predictable outcome from the portfolio district. On Jan. 18, 2019, a press release from the Denver Classroom Teachers Association (DCTA) says,

After ten hours of negotiations today, the Denver Classroom Teachers Association and Denver Public Schools were unable to reach an agreement on a fair compensation system for 5,700 teachers and special service providers. DCTA members will vote Saturday and Tuesday on whether or not to strike.

The portfolio model which promotes disruption as a virtue is anti-union. It is not conducive to stable harmonious relations with either labor or communities and it is anti-democratic. Denver is held up as an exemplar of school reform; however the outcomes look more like a warning. Increasing achievement gaps; a bloating administration; significantly increasing segregation; ending stable community schools; and stripping citizens of their democratic rights are among the many jarring results.

Former Denver School Board Director, Jeanne Kaplan, wrote extensively about an article in EducationNext championing school reforms in Denver. It was based on a podcast by the guru of school reform and privatization in the Clinton administration, David Osborne. Kaplan noted,

“2009 was … the first time outside money appeared in [School] Board Election campaigns. Stand for Children came with the goal of making the board “more reform oriented”… In spite of their $30,000 expenditure per candidate – which at the time was unheard of – our side, as Osborne notes, won the election. Each following election more and more reform money … appeared …. In addition to Stand, Democrats for Education Reform, Students First, and wealthy local businessmen, both Democrats and Republicans, … put enormous amounts of money and human capital to be sure … a unanimous board was achieved. Much of the money while identified by independent expenditure committee remains hidden as to who is making the individual contributions. In 2011 the people were able to hold on to a “mighty minority” of three: 4-3. In 2013 the minority dwindled to one: 6-1. In 2015 the Board was unanimously “reform”: 7-0.

This has become a central thesis of the portfolio model strategy. A Chalkbeat article quotes Ethan Gray of Education Cities on the strategy. Gray who recently went to work at the new City Fund which was established specifically to sell the portfolio model said, “We’re skeptical that systems themselves will actually go through some sort of self-driven transformation.” Chalkbeat reported that the new plan for growth had three strategies.

  • Strategy #1: Apply outside pressure. (Increase pressure on school districts by bringing in outside competition and supporting local competing initiatives.)
  • Strategy #2: Push for one-stop school enrollment. (This forces public school districts to help the privatized schools and gives them an equivalency in the eyes of the public.)
  • Strategy #3: Create a very different power structure. (Use financial resources to change the makeup of existing governing boards or establish mayoral appointed boards.)

In the 2017 Denver Public School Board election, four of the seven seats were on the ballot. The results:

  • At large seat: Former Lieutenant Governor Barbra O’Brian defeated a field of three candidates 40% to 35% to 24%. O’Brian spent $8.94 per vote, Robert Speth spent $0.77 per vote and Julie Banuelos spent $0.33 per vote.
  • Distict 2: Angela Corbian a former Teach For America (TFA) corps member beat Xochitl “Sochi” Gaytan who had union support. Unfortunately, Gaytan had to spend time cleaning up after union blunders. The winner Corbian is currently an organizer for Leadership for Educational Equity (LEE) the TFA offshoot that trains former corps members “to engage civically.” Cobian’s support included $67,000 from DFER’s Raising Colorado and tens of thousands of dollars from local and national “reformers.”
  • District 3: Dr. Carrie Olson, a 33-year DPS teacher won this seat with very little financial or people support from the teachers union. She astonishingly defeated Mike Johnson the incumbent who raised over $100,000 on his own and received almost another $100,000 from DFER and Stand for Children. Olson’s victory reduces the “reform” majority back to 6-1.
  • District 4: Jennifer Bacon another former TFA corps member won. She raised $70,000 on her own and shockingly received $139,000 from the teachers union. Bacon also received reformer money from TFA national board member Arthur Rock. The incumbent Rachael Espiritu had a large war chest of $97,000 from DFER and $93,000 that she raised but Espiritu was running in a district that had had its fill of reform. A third candidate in this district was 19-year-old Tay Anderson.

When analyzing this election, Jeanne Kaplan said the biggest losers were “Denver’s teachers, who are paying dues to an organization that turned its back on a 33 year teacher and endorsed a heavily funded alum of TFA…”

Dismal Results from Denver’s Portfolio District

school segragation chart

Chart of Racial Isolation Based on October Count for School Year 2017-18

Of Denver’s 204 schools, One-hundred have a population that is greater than or equal to 70% Hispanic. When the Hispanic and black students are summed 68 schools have 90% or more students from these minority groups. The AP reported in 2017 that charter schools were among the nation’s most segregated schools. There analysis found, “As of school year 2014-2015, more than 1,000 of the nation’s 6,747 charter schools had minority enrollment of at least 99 percent, and the number has been rising steadily.”

Racial isolation is a characteristic of districts employing the portfolio model. This kind of profound segregation runs afoul of federal law, good education and decency. It does not comply with the 1954 Supreme Court decision known as Brown versus the Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas.

The big selling point for modern school reform was closing the achievement gap. The achievement gap is measured by finding the average score differences between ethnicity groups on standards based tests. A 2011 report in Education Week stated, With the passage of the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, closing achievement gaps among these various student groups became a focus of federal education accountability…”

achievment gap 2017

Table of Reading and Math Achievement Gaps Derived from NAEP Testing Data

In the tables above – based on average scale scores – it shows national results have a smaller gap than the large city results. Predictably, Denver has among the nation’s largest achievement gaps after two-decades of “billionaire” led reform.

In the fall of 2015, the Center on Reinventing Public Education  (CRPE) which is the central think tank promoting portfolio models ranked Denver Public Schools 45th out of 50 urban districts for improving graduation rates.

Denver’s pro-privatization citizen oversight group, A+ Colorado (formerly A+ Denver) in a recently released report, showed concern over the district’s progress stating,

“Let’s be clear: There has been progress in DPS, particularly in comparison to other Colorado districts. But some student learning outcomes are stalled or improving far too slowly for the district to be successful.”

DPS received another black-eye this January when a Chalkbeat headline revealed, “Denver has 1 administrator for every 7.5 instructional staff — far above state average.” The article presented the following chart for administrators in Denver compared to the rest of the state over the past ten years.

administrator growth chart

Chart of Administration Growth during the “Reform Era”

In 2017 the New York Times ran an interactive article about a new way to compare schools. The article said,

“It’s true that children in prosperous districts tend to test well, while children in poorer districts on average score lower. But in this analysis, which measures how scores grow as student cohorts move through school, the Stanford researcher Sean Reardon argues that it’s possible to separate some of the advantages of socioeconomics from what’s actually happening in schools.”

The New York Times picked the comparison schools while the reader picks the district of interest. This simulator attempts to correlate by years of learning. The average between 3rd  and 8th grade should be five years. After 13 years of disruption and “reform,” Denver remains a little below average with lackluster growth.

student growth models

After Five Years Denver’s Eighth Graders Still below Average

All the closing schools and disrupting neighborhoods brought little or no significant change. Denver’s students are still measured as being about the same amount behind in 8th grade as when they started 3rd grade.

A 2015 hiring analysis revealed that DPS paid TFA $5000 to $7000 per recruit? TFA teachers are two year temps with a college degree and five-weeks of training. From 2012-2015, Denver taxpayers paid TFA $520,600 for 232 recruits at traditional schools and over $800,000 for 267 recruits at charter schools. DCTA President Henry Roman stated that teacher turnover is a crisis in DPS. He claims the average teacher tenure has dropped to two years.

Traditional teacher new hires have a college degree, one-year of post graduate pedagogy study and a year of supervised student teaching. They arrive at schools with the expectation of making teaching a career.

The reliance on untrained teachers along with recognizing and using a fake graduate school created by the charter industry explains why all of the spending on reform has not resulted in better performance. The fake graduate school is Relay Graduate School. It’s Denver Dean, Therese Zosel-Harper, is working on her PhD. Relay is an obviously fake graduate school because it has no credentialed education scholars on staff.

Where did the Portfolio District Model Originate?

A Rand Corporation researcher named Paul Hill founded the Center on Reinventing Public Education (CRPE) on the campus at the University of Washington three years after John Chubb and Terry Moe wrote a popular book, Politics, Markets, and America’s Schools which was published in 1990 by The Brookings Institution. That book which was a sensation among neo-liberals called for the end of elected school boards. Hill began thinking about the mechanics for making that happen.

In 2002, Hill wrote a paper sponsored by the Annie E. Casey Foundation calling for changes in school governance,

“… [T]he last few decades of education reform have shown us that simply tinkering at the edges is not enough to ensure that changes will take place. Reforms need to be comprehensive and needs to affect every level of the education system.”

Hill’s statement and the book by Chubb and Moe were both motivated by the conviction that public schools in America were failing. It was not true then nor was it true in 1889, 1942, 1955, 1959, 1963 nor is it true now.

Jim Arnold and Peter Smagorinsky wrote,

“Admiral Rickover published “American Education, a National Failure” in 1963, and in 1959 LIFE magazine published “Crisis in Education” that noted the Russians beat us into space with Sputnik because “the standards of education are shockingly low.” In 1955 Why Johnny Can’t Read became a best seller, and in 1942 the NY Times noted only 6% of college freshmen could name the 13 original colonies and 75% did not know who was President during the Civil War. The US Navy in 1940 tested new pilots on their mastery of 4th grade math and found that 60% of the HS graduates failed. In 1889 the top 3% of US high school students went to college, and 84% of all American colleges reported remedial courses in core subjects were required for incoming freshmen.”

The paragraph above recalls more than a century of national failure to properly educate our citizenry yet in that same century America became the world’s leader economically, scientifically, militarily and culturally. Does this mean that education quality does not matter or is it more likely that the perception of American education failing – is and was an illusion? Based on this illusion of failure are we being driven toward failure with unproven market theories? That is what the portfolio theory is. It is an unproven market theory of education governance.

William J. Mathis and Kevin G. Welner, University of Colorado Boulder wrote a short paper “The ‘Portfolio’ Approach to School District Governance.” Their basic definition explains,

“Generally  speaking,  four  reform  strategies  are  combined,  in  varying  degrees,  in  portfolio  districts:  (1)  performance-based  (generally  test-based)  accountability,  (2)  school-level  de-centralization of management, (3) the reconstitution or closing of “failing” schools, and (4) the expansion of choice, primarily through charter schools.”

In Denver there are 204 schools; 106 public schools, 42 charter schools and 56 innovation schools. In accordance with portfolio district theory, Denver residents no longer have the right to vote on the governance of 108 of their publicly financed schools. In addition, both charter schools and innovation schools are generally non-union.

The innovation school concept is promoted nationally by the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC). According to ALEC model legislation these schools “are provided a greater degree of autonomy and can waive some statutory requirements.” In Denver, innovation schools are given a three year contract during which they are run by a non-profit. The results (testing data) at the end of the contract will dictate whether the experiment on the school children continues.

Innovation schools have only existed in Colorado since 2009. When the DPS board approved them in 2016, Board President Anne Rowe claimed, “I’m trying to think of a time I’ve been more excited, more proud, more optimistic about what we can achieve for kids.”


While Interviewing DCTA President Henry Roman, Jeff Fard said when he moves into a neighborhood he expects to register his kids in the local community school. “If I don’t like the school, I expect to roll up my sleeves and work to make it better.” If he still doesn’t like the school, he will pay for them to go to a private school. This is how it is supposed to be in America; people work for the betterment of their own community and pay for their own choices. However, if you live in portfolio districts like Denver, unseen and unelected forces control the neighborhood.

As Jitu Brown and the Journey for Justice have declared,

“We are not fooled by the ‘illusion of school choice.’ The policies of the last twenty years, driven more by private interests than by concern for our children’s education, are devastating our neighborhoods and our democratic rights.”

It is past time for the citizens of Denver to take back their democratic rights and their public schools.

34 Responses to “Denver’s Portfolio Model School District Is a Failure!”

  1. sonjaluchini January 20, 2019 at 5:11 pm #

    As this article shows, Austin Beutner’s portfolio “plan’ for LAUSD will only create more administration and less funding for students. My biggest question for him (that no one has answered) regarded staffing all 32 small districts.

    If truly hoping for more autonomy, LAUSD would need to hire 32 Special Education Directors, 32 Deaf and Hard of Hearing Admins, 32 Assistive Tech Admins, 32 Transition Admins, 32 Occupational Therapy Admins, and on and on – and that’s just for Special Education. Include staffing oversight for finance, ethics, legal, transportation, maintenance and on and on and Beutner’s plan would starve the district of funding before the portfolio plan gets off the ground.

    Where will these trained administrative specialists come from? How much will they be paid? What sort of staffing will each of these 32 administrative offices need to perform properly? But I have a feeling Beutner isn’t even thinking about that…..


  2. ciedie aech January 20, 2019 at 6:49 pm #

    Fantastic Jitu Brown quote for summation:
    “We are not fooled by the ‘illusion of school choice.’ The policies of the last twenty years, driven more by private interests than by concern for our children’s education, are devastating our neighborhoods and our democratic rights.” THANKS FOR all of your work in trying to both explain and expose the deep, invasive damage attached to portfolio model school management. So many in Denver wish to speak up, but struggle to find the words needed to explain what has been happening to them and their city.


  3. TCCC January 20, 2019 at 9:38 pm #

    Walkable schools is the green model. Longer student commutes needed for school choice is environmentally irresponsible.
    That aside, school choice is less efficient and needs more taxpayer funding, due to greater administration and transportation burden. Until schools are fully funded, the premium cost for school choice should always be a nonstarter, from an economic perspective.


  4. drext727 January 22, 2019 at 3:24 pm #

    Reblogged this on David R. Taylor-Thoughts on Education.


  5. globegazers January 27, 2019 at 6:15 pm #

    I agree strongly with many of your statements about how Denver Public Schools current model is not succeeding however I would like to state one thing. I am a teacher in DPS and I have worked at a district school that became innovation and then stopped being innovation after three years. You did not mention that the staff of a school writes their own innovation plan. My school created several committees of teachers and SSPs and worked for a year to write a plan that we believed was best for our building and our school. The plan did need to approved by the district innovation committee so there was definitely room for us to be told what was ok. However it was not dictated much. We choose things like being released from some district mandated testing, choosing our own curriculum, and building our after school care model. We also chose to stay completely within the bounds of our Union contract. The staff then had to vote on the plan. I believe it had to pass with more than a 60% approval rate. At the end of the 3 years the staff came together again to look at our plan. We had the choice to continue on our plan, write a new one, or return to being a district school. Because the district had made much of our plan normal operating procedure and because the staff wasnt completely happy with the way our building had been working the staff voted to return to being a regular district school. The reason that I explain all this is because I believed that innovation schools do one good thing: they ask the teachers in a particular school what they think is best for the building and their students and I don’t think that happens nearly enough. Now this was one experience and I would certainly agree that subjecting students to “experiments” can be a bad thing. However- actually asking the professionals on the ground who work with students every day on how to make a school better is a good thing and should happen all the time.

    Liked by 1 person

    • tultican November 2, 2019 at 10:30 pm #

      I somehow missed your reply when it came in. I agree that asking teachers what they think is a wonderful idea. The downside of the innovation schools, is they run outside of the control of the elected school board. That is not necessary but it is the way ALEC designed the system. There is a concentrated effort to end elected local school boards and I am fairly certain that is the only reason this option exists.


  6. Jamey Imaizumi May 17, 2019 at 5:18 am #

    Posts I’m interested in! Thanks for the author



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