O’Keefe: At Candidate Forum, Michael Bennet Looked Back on the Reforms He Implemented as Denver Supe. Could Those Ideas Go National?
During the Democratic Public Education Forum 2020, presidential candidate Sen. Michael Bennet of Colorado made a notable appearance. Despite not gaining much traction in the race so far, Bennet’s experience as the former superintendent of Denver Public Schools sets him apart from other candidates, as he possesses direct and recent involvement with K-12 issues. In fact, he proudly mentioned that he is the first former school district superintendent ever to run for president.
While Bennet garnered attention for suggesting a six-day school week during the event, his remarks on the central pillars of district innovation and improvement that characterized his time in Denver were even more intriguing. As detailed by my colleagues at Bellwether in the 2018 project Eight Cities, Bennet’s leadership between 2005 and 2009 served as a significant turning point in the city’s educational trajectory. His reform strategy not only reshaped the school system but also contributed to notable improvements in graduation rates and student achievement.
Now, the question arises: how does Bennet perceive those district reforms today, and how does he propose to translate the lessons learned from Denver to a national level?
Regarding the role of the federal government in education policy, Bennet displayed a dismissive attitude towards the education plans of his fellow candidates, as well as federal-level rhetoric in general. When he was a superintendent, he believed that D.C. officials were simply "mean." However, upon entering the Senate, his perspective changed, realizing that Congress is extremely distant from the realities of schools and classrooms. He highlighted the fact that people may think they understand what is happening in schools because they might have attended one decades ago, but they are actually clueless about the current state of affairs. In addition to advocating for increased federal spending, particularly on teacher salaries and early childhood education, Bennet emphasized the need for the federal government to address underlying challenges by reducing child poverty.
His plans involve implementing child tax credits and other financial supports for families. Moreover, he proposes the coordination of federal agencies to comprehensively support children, essentially functioning as an unofficial Department of Children (perhaps inspired by my colleague Sara Mead). This proposal is clearly informed by Bennet’s experience in leading an urban school district with high poverty rates, where children face issues like homelessness and food insecurity that significantly impact their classroom experience. According to Bennet, the ideal role of the federal government is to provide comprehensive support, resources, and innovative ideas to tackle child poverty. This, in turn, would enable local leaders and educators to make a more impactful difference in education.
The topic of teacher pay was brought up by moderator and NBC News correspondent Rehema Ellis, who questioned Bennet about the pay system he implemented in Denver. This system included merit-based bonuses and higher compensation for teachers working in challenging schools and subjects. Ellis mentioned the recent teacher strike in Denver, which resulted in the removal of most of the merit pay system, and asked if Bennet considered it a mistake. Bennet defended his approach, highlighting that it elevated Denver teachers’ salaries to the top of regional averages. He attributed the cause of the strike to the increased cost of living in Denver since his tenure, necessitating a revamp of the teacher pay system. Bennet also touched on the historical influence of pensions and gender on teacher salaries, noting that the current system stemmed from labor market practices that discriminated against women. He emphasized the need for a substantial increase in teacher pay.
However, Bennet has yet to address whether this substantial increase should be differentiated based on subject area, school need, or teacher impact, as was the case in Denver. If Bennet intends to allocate more resources to students with higher needs, as he mentioned later in the forum, across-the-board pay raises may not be the most efficient approach.
The topic of charter school oversight was also raised during the forum.
Regarding School Performance Frameworks
Bennet praised Denver’s school performance framework, emphasizing that it establishes high standards for both district and charter schools, with a primary focus on student growth. However, it might be misleading to suggest that academic growth is the sole aspect evaluated in the framework. While it is a significant component, the district also considers metrics such as grade-level proficiency, readiness for postsecondary education, family satisfaction, and addressing academic disparities. In fact, Denver’s framework includes multiple metrics, which has led it to become a complex system, often challenging for educators and community members to comprehend. As a result, there is a need for an extensive review. Bennet did not touch upon the issue of school closure when discussing school performance frameworks and oversight. Framework results play a crucial role in determining whether a school should be closed or merged, particularly now that Denver’s population growth has slowed down. The closure of low-performing schools has been a contentious topic, as indicated by the community’s objections when Bennet closed the district’s lowest-performing high school. In response, Tom Boasberg, the subsequent superintendent, developed a new closure process.
On State Takeovers
When asked about state takeovers of school districts, Bennet expressed that he has never witnessed a successful state takeover in America. This perspective aligns with his experience as a former leader of Denver Public Schools, as Denver was one of the few cities that implemented and maintained substantial systemic reforms under an elected local school board without state intervention or mayoral control. However, it is important to note that Denver received support from the state legislature at critical junctures, enabling the district to innovate and deviate from traditional models of district governance. The situation of state takeovers in cities like New Orleans, Oakland, Newark, and Camden is more nuanced than Bennet’s brief remarks suggest. While these cities experienced improvements in academic performance and educational transformation under state control, they also faced unique successes and challenges. It is worth acknowledging that community opposition to state takeovers remains a valid concern, regardless of test scores. This opposition is particularly prevalent among low-income, black, and/or Latino residents who may feel disenfranchised by state authorities and legislators.
It is highly unlikely that Bennet’s presidential plans will come to fruition, given his support of only 1 percent or less in recent national polls. However, who knows? Bennet was previously considered for the position of secretary of education under President Barack Obama, and his name may resurface in a future Democratic administration. Bennet, along with Senator Cory Booker, is one of the few presidential candidates who bring significant educational leadership in an urban school district to the forefront. It will be intriguing to see how their voices and experiences shape the electoral discourse.
Bonnie O’Keefe, a senior analyst at Bellwether Education Partners, specializes in state education policy, accountability, and pre-K to third-grade systems. Prior to joining Bellwether in 2016, she worked as an assessment specialist at the D.C. Office of the State Superintendent of Education.