year in review

Betsy DeVos visited Denver twice in 2017. Here’s how the education secretary’s tenure has made a mark in Colorado

PHOTO: Gabriel Scarlett/The Denver Post

Betsy DeVos’s tenure as education secretary has been anything but ordinary.

The Michigan billionaire and private school voucher champion has drawn no shortage of attention and controversy since the moment President Trump nominated her to the nation’s education bully pulpit.

DeVos has visited Colorado twice since her confirmation. But even from afar, she’s loomed large over the state’s education policy and politics — including during November’s local school board elections.

Democratic U.S. Sen Michael Bennet of Colorado sharply questioned DeVos during her confirmation hearing, suggesting that school choice in DeVos’s native Michigan did not include the strong accountability measures that exist in Denver. Bennet, a former Denver Public Schools superintendent, invited DeVos to visit Denver schools to see that firsthand.

Bennet was not done criticizing DeVos, though. He took to Twitter to challenge DeVos’s implication that choices in Denver are lacking because students can’t use private school vouchers or don’t have enough charter schools options.

Later, in an interview with Chalkbeat, he characterized the education secretary as “an ideologue when it comes to our public schools.”

It didn’t take long for teachers union leaders to evoke DeVos’s name in a debate over policy. In March, the union branded a bill to boost charter school funding as a “Betsy DeVos-Style Privatization Bill. The legislation passed and was signed into law.

DeVos did make an appearance in Denver over the summer, but not to take up Bennet on his offer. (School was out, anyway).

She spoke at the annual meeting of the American Legislative Exchange Council, a conservative group that helps shape legislative policy across the country. She used the appearance to criticize teachers unions and reiterate her support for private school vouchers.

Demonstrators made themselves heard, gathering at rallies and marching to the meeting with signs like “Make America Smart Again. Foreshadowing a hard-fought school board election season, a number of speakers at a rally on the Capitol steps sought to portray the Denver school board as being cut from the same school-choice cloth as the conservative Republican.

DeVos returned to Denver in September, this time as part of her national “Rethink Schools” tour. She visited a private autism center and called on the nation’s public schools to work with parents to better serve students with special needs.

Behind the scenes, a Douglas County couple who met with DeVos on that visit was not especially happy with how it went down.

The couple, plaintiffs in a landmark lawsuit that set a new standard for educating children with special needs, told Chalkbeat that DeVos held them out as a “poster child” while cherrypicking details of their experience to suit her cause.

Denver Public Schools Superintendent Tom Boasberg used DeVos’s visit to have a letter hand-delivered to her staff urging DeVos to protect a program that defers the deportation of immigrants brought to the U.S. as children.

DeVos became a factor in November’s Denver school board election when teachers-union funded independent committees financed fliers that sought to tie the education secretary to school board candidates the union didn’t support.

School board incumbents targeted in the ads favored elements of school choice, including support for charter schools, but oppose vouchers and previously criticized DeVos and the Trump administration’s policies.

year in review

State leaders took a hard look at the teacher shortage in 2017

Retired English teacher Peggy Allen, center, speaks with Otis Principal Michelle Patterson, left, and Superintendent Kendra Anderson at Mama's, the town's lone restaurant. (Photo by Nic Garcia)

The problem of teacher shortages has plagued some Colorado school districts for years, but it reached a tipping point of sorts in 2017.

With a growing trove of anecdotes about teachers who can’t afford housing, who work second jobs to make ends meet or who leave the profession early, state education officials hit the road last summer. They conducted a series of town halls to learn more about the problem, which is particularly acute in the state’s rural areas and in certain grades and subjects.

The input they collected informed a sweeping strategic plan mandated by legislation passed during the 2017 session. It included recommendations ranging from student loan forgiveness to exploring the possibility of a minimum salary for teachers tied to the cost of living.

Some school districts also attacked facets of the teacher shortage issue with their own initiatives over the past year. Denver Public Schools considered converting an old elementary school into teacher housing, though it may not follow through, in part because of neighborhood opposition. In Aurora Public Schools, officials have partnered with a local university to give teacher prep students paid jobs at one elementary school while they take college classes.

The teacher shortage problem — and potential solutions — also came up at a recent panel discussion sponsored by the Denver-based Public Education and Business Coalition. A half-dozen superintendents weighed in on the issue, with several calling out Colorado’s failure to adequately or equitably fund schools.

year in review

How President Trump’s immigration policies made waves and stoked fears in Colorado schools in 2017

PHOTO: Melanie Asmar
Denver students walk to a rally September 5, 2017 to protest President Trump's decision to end DACA.

President Trump’s hard-line immigration policies had a profound effect on Colorado’s education community in 2017, with students taking to the streets, teachers recasting lesson plans, and school boards seeking to calm fears.

At a gathering at Denver’s South High School, a group of teenagers whose families fled persecution and war in their native countries decried Trump administration actions they say betray American values they hold dear.

Denver Public Schools took a number of steps this year as fears spread in immigrant communities about enforcement crackdowns under Trump, assuring families that the district will protect students’ constitutional rights. The state’s largest school district also joined with the Mexican consulate in those efforts and promised to build on their longstanding partnership.

Students made their voices heard loud and clear. In February, several Colorado school districts reported a spike in absences among students and staff during a “Day Without Immigrants,” a demonstration of  immigrants’ contributions to society.

At northeast Denver’s Bruce Randolph School, sixth and seventh graders in an English language development class spent an afternoon tweeting to President Trump about their experiences, pride, and fears.

Trump’s plans to roll back protections for undocumented immigrants who came to the U.S. as children generated a whole new wave of protest and concern.

Denver schools Superintendent Tom Boasberg predicted that repealing the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals policy, or DACA, would prove “catastrophic” for the school district and the city.

Not all superintendents were so vocal. Across Colorado, officials in districts with large numbers of immigrant students took different approaches to support kids without over-promising security they may not be able to guarantee.

In September, students from more than 20 Denver schools walked out of class and converged on a downtown college campus to protest President Trump’s order to end the DACA program.

The Aurora school board grappled with heightened concerns about immigration policy, too. Dozens of Aurora students and parents pressed the board to adopt a proposed resolution for “safe and inclusive” schools. The board ultimately adopted a resolution, but not before fault lines emerged over the intent.