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We don't yet know about specific plans from the new education secretary, Betsy DeVos. We do know DeVos has long championed a variety of school choice options, from vouchers for private schools to charter schools, which are publicly funded but privately managed. Denver, Colo., has had a citywide choice system in place for more than a decade. It's popular and generally gets high marks in terms of academic growth. But as NPR's Eric Westervelt reports from Denver, choice appears to be doing little to narrow achievement gaps by income and race.
ERIC WESTERVELT, BYLINE: In a sprawling school complex in the city's Westwood neighborhood, you'll find a kind of only-in-Denver scenario. Under one roof, four schools are in various stages of transition. A new elementary and middle school are here. Both charters, they share the building with a legacy middle school that's being phased out for low performance alongside what the city calls an innovation school, Kepner Beacon Middle, that's being phased in.
DEMETRIO: Hi, my name is Demetrio, and this is the science class.
WESTERVELT: Six months ago, this sixth-grader named Demetrio spoke almost no English when he arrived here from El Paso, Texas.
DEMETRIO: We're right now...
WESTERVELT: What are you working on today? What's the science...
DEMETRIO: We're learning about the solar system.
WESTERVELT: Is Pluto a planet or a star?
DEMETRIO: A star.
WESTERVELT: Demetrio, in theory, could choose, or choice into, any school in the district through a lottery. But like half of all Denver students, his family chooses to stay in their neighborhood, or boundary, school. In this case, it's a new innovation school that offers its administrators charter-like autonomy to get around certain district and state rules.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Unintelligible).
WESTERVELT: Kepner Beacon's not quite a charter but not a traditionally-run school either. It's a hybrid and part of Denver's portfolio strategy to expand choice options and allow schools more freedom to experiment. The district then tries to replicate what's working well and, when needed, close what's not. Dan Walsh is Kepner Beacon's assistant principal.
DAN WALSH: To me, it's just a no-brainer. It's logic. You have to create competition. And if you're good at something, you should, you know, be rewarded for that. And if you're not good at it, you shouldn't be able to stay in your job.
WESTERVELT: In other cities, expanding choice has sparked bitter fights, especially over charters, which are publicly funded but privately managed. Critics say charters undermine neighborhood public schools. But while Denver has certainly had its battles, today, the choice debate is far less heated here than elsewhere. Superintendent Tom Boasburg says that's partly because no matter what type, the focus is on quality and improvement.
TOM BOASBURG: What parents care about - do they have a great public school in their neighborhood that will serve their kid well? And if it's district-run school - hallelujah. If it's a charter school - hallelujah.
WESTERVELT: The Denver strategy, overall, appears to be working. Ten years ago, the city was near the bottom of the state's cities in academic growth. Recently, it has ranked at or near the top. The city has also significantly cut the number of dropouts and boosted four-year graduation rates. But the sink-or-swim mentality doesn't sit well with all teachers.
AARON LOWENKRON: Your education is a right. And I don't think that this sort of system of competition is necessarily appropriate.
WESTERVELT: Aaron Lowenkron teaches math at East, one of Denver's best high schools. It's a traditional district-run place. He says treating schools like free-market startups has done little to ease significant equity gaps.
LOWENKRON: What we need to look at is choice for who and who are the winners and losers. And I think that when we really dive into that, it becomes really clear that it's the usual winners and the usual losers in that game.
WESTERVELT: Lowenkron rightly points out that while choice in Denver has steadily improved achievement and graduation rates, it has also widened the achievement gap by income and race. Van Schoales, head of the advocacy group A+ Colorado, says not enough low-income families here are exercising their choice because they may not have the car, gas or time to ferry their child across town in ways wealthier parents do, so they get stuck in an average boundary school.
VAN SCHOALES: There's still a fair amount of inequity in terms of access to quality schools and programs, dependent on whether or not you're low income.
WESTERVELT: The city and district, Schoales says, can and should do more to figure out transportation solutions and set aside more slots for low-income students in better schools in higher-income areas. Otherwise, he says, Denver's popular choice experiment risks widening the chasm between rich and poor in the fastest-growing school district in the nation.
Eric Westervelt, NPR News, Denver.
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