These posts are the opinions of the writers and do not necessarily reflect the views of A+ Colorado.

Another View on School Choice in Denver

Another View #134
Peter Huidekoper, Jr.
August 12th, 2015   

School Choice in Denver – much good news, but is it too difficult?

Given so much good news about the SchoolChoice process in Denver—and I am a fan – it may seem uncharitable to focus on a trouble spot. But if low-income and minority families find the process too difficult or somehow unfair, it is no small issue.  And—I fear this was implied in some criticisms last year—if this leads inner city families to say: it is too onerous – to figure all this out and make the best choice for our child—so let’s go back to the old way where we had no choice … and our boy or girl went to the school they are told to attend… well—I hope we can agree, that would be tragic.

School Choice

“Half the nation’s largest 100 school districts allowed some kind of school choice in 2014, a report from the Brookings Institution says. But policymakers need to improve access to quality schools, the report says. Specifically,parents need better tools to make good choices, it says, and they need good schools to choose from.

“… the Brookings index ranks districts based on how many school choice options and supports families can access. New Orleans’ state-run Recovery School District got top marks ….”

Education Week, Report Round Up, 8/4/15, p. 5.

We  want parents whose kids have not been well-served by the public education system to buy-in to this new opportunity—and yes, responsibility.  We want them to be more excited than overwhelmed by the chance to choose the right school setting for their child. So it is critical that we address the concerns and complaints about the process being too arduous or opaque.

First, let’s not deny there is good news on how Denver has developed its choice process.  When outside groups compare how we are doing with other cities, it is reassuring to hear we seem to be on the right track.  And yet even these studies will say: Pay attention! The process is not yet serving low-income families in an equitable way.

Brookings Institution

On one national study of 107 school districts by the Brookings Institution (see box and ranking), it is impressive to see Denver rated #6 in the country. From “The 2014 Education Choice and Competition Index” – on school choice in 100+ school districts:


Rank District

School District

1 Recovery District School District-(New Orleans) A
2 New York City A-
3 Newark City School District A-
4 Houston Independent School District B
4 District of Columbia Public Schools B
6 Denver County School District 1 B

As others around the country look to DPS as a district rolling out choice quite effectively, we have a responsibility to do our best to get this right. Which involves hearing constructive criticism, such as found in this report:

We believe, and evidence suggests, that access to choice and a decent supply of good schools are necessary but not sufficient conditions to obtain some of the goals of the choice movement, most certainly including equity. Education is a very complex service for which to shop, with limited opportunities to repair bad decisions. …

In addition to these general constraints on parents’ ability to shop for schools, there is substantial evidence that low-income parents shop differently than other parents when there is an open enrollment process for public schools….

These facts suggest that more attention needs to be given to mechanisms that help parents and students make good choices when they have the opportunity to shop for schools. Currently there is no public school search site that deploys the suggestions and product placements that we all are used to on internet shopping sites such as Amazon. Were such sites in existence that would probably increase the likelihood that parents using open-enrollment systems would pick better schools.   (Bold mine)

Center for Reinventing Public Education – part 1 – Denver study

Last winter, on Jan. 22, Denver Public Schools and A Plus Denver hosted a discussion on the Center for Reinventing Education’s report on choice in DPS, part of an eight-city study[1]. CRPE’s findings, “An Evaluation of Denver’s SchoolChoice Process, 2012-14,” were largely positive (see Addendum A – Summary and good news, for a few excerpts).  But CRPE also revealed disturbing gaps that spoke again to this question of equity in the choice process (see Addendum B – Concerns.) “… lingering gaps remain in terms of participation and families’ reasonable access to higher-performing schools. White students participate at far higher rates than minority students.  Low-income students and special education students participate at lower rates than their counterparts” (see box).

Level of participation

in school choice – 2014

White – 85%

Mixed-race – 75%

Hispanic – 71%

Black – 66%

DPS leaders Brian Eschbacher, Director of Planning and Analysis, and school board chair Happy Haynes were present at this session.  No doubt they took note as parents and community members voiced concerns about the challenge of knowing how to choose, how to make the most of school visits, how hard it is to understand “the kind of learning environment where their kids will thrive”—and how difficult it can be to get sufficient and honest information about the individual schools (more on that in AV#135).

Center for Reinventing Public Education – part 2 – National study

In January, CPRE hosted a meeting of district and charter leaders from 30 cities, including Denver, titled:  “Good Options and Choices for All Families.”  Christine Campbell offered these thoughts on choice (bold mine) as central to the “portfolio strategy”:

“Our survey suggests that a significant number of parents struggle with different aspects of the process. One in three parents reported trouble understanding which schools their child was eligible for, while one in four struggled to get information on their options and find transportation. Parents with less education and those with a special-needs child were significantly more likely to report trouble. “Perhaps the most important finding in our survey was that parents said the lack of quality schools was the single largest barrier to choice. Nearly half of parents said that they had no other good option besides their current school, and 42 percent struggled to find a school that provided a good fit.”

Two news stories that raised the same red flag: an “unfair burden” for low-income families?

Last winter we saw this headline on a front page article in Education Week:

Consultants Steer Parents Through Maze of School Choice

Below that – the photo of an attentive Denver couple sitting on a sofa in their home, with papers or notepads in their hands—listening to their guest.  The caption explained:

Laura Barr, founder and owner of e.Merging Educational Consulting in Denver, advises Liz and Justin Wasserman on the school choices available for their 4-year-old daughter. Ms. Barr’s services are popular with middle-income parents in the high-choice city.

The article itself opened with this subheading, As public K-12 options expand, parents pay for guidance (by Arianna Prothero)

The rapid expansion of charter schools and other public school options is fueling growth in another industry: education consulting.

Education consultants, once used primarily by families to help them select and get into elite private schools, are now being hired by parents in New York City, Denver, and Washington to help them navigate a plethora of public school options. (Bold mine)

Also last winter, another Education Week headline read:

Parents Confront Obstacles as School Choice Expands (by Arianna Prothero)

In New Orleans, Denver, and the District of Columbia, it’s the season when families must choose schools for next fall. But in those cities and others where traditional school boundaries are fluid and more charters and tuition-voucher programs have entered the mix of K-12 options, selecting a school is an increasingly complex endeavor.

Research shows that an abundance of school choice doesn’t guarantee access, and many parents in high-choice cities struggle to find adequate information, transportation, and, ultimately, the right school for their children.

“A maze.”  “Increasingly complex.”  “Many parents … struggle.”  The answer: paying consultants?

Responsibility – we can do this

In a representative government, we accept that many issues are too complex for the average citizen.  Exhibit A for me these days: though I feel reasonably well-informed on the nuclear arms agreement with Iran, I am unable to grasp the details.  I believe people far more knowledgeable should make this call.

But no citizen—no parent—in choosing a good school for his or her child, should find the process forbidding. Hard? Yes. Time-consuming? OK. Caring parents will devote the time. But not overwhelming.

Kudos to Denver Public Schools for being viewed as a leader on school choice nationally (even if most metro-area districts operate much as they did 20 years ago. Parental choice? What’s that?). This makes it even more critical that DPS, individual schools, advocates, critics, parents—all of us—try to get this right.  For the idea that if we fail and revert to the “good-old days” where the district – not families – determined which school the kids would attend, regardless of its quality, its mission, its values ….

No, we don’t want that, do we?

Another View, a newsletter by Peter Huidekoper, represents his own opinion and is not intended to represent the view of any organization he is associated with.  Comments are welcome. 303-757-1225 /

Addendum A – Summary and Good News from CRPE Report

An Evaluation of Denver’s SchoolChoice Process, 2012-2014 –

Is the School Enrollment System Working for Families?

An Evaluation of Denver’s SchoolChoice Process,  2012-2014


Is the School Enrollment System Working for Families?

Dear Friends:


One of the fundamental reasons that Denver Public Schools moved from a 62 application system to a single application system was because school choice had not yet fully evolved from a laudable ideal to practice. The idea was this: if families could easily pick the schools they wanted their kids to attend, we would have a more even (though imperfect) distribution of White, Black, Hispanic, Asian, low-income, and non-low income at the best charter and district schools.
Three years ago, A+ and a committee of principals, foundation leaders, and others set out to a.) ensure the school enrollment tool was working as its designers and the district had said it would; b.) discover whether the new system was actually improving the quality of schools that families were able to send their children to.


The answer to the first question, as perceived by statisticians and families, is yes. The lottery system seems – by all accounts – to be doing what it promises to do, even if few parents actually understand how it works. The answer to the second question is also a hopeful yes, yet progress is incremental. The supply of highly rated schools is still insufficient, and there is still widespread resentment because there are too few high quality seats or they are too far away to access.


Still, according to the third in a series of reports by the University of Colorado, Denver, and The University of Washington Center on Reinventing Public Education, this more fluid and transparent system is benefitting families. Researchers found that across all segments of the city families are demanding and attending higher performing schools, and opportunities are improving (there are now 20% more openings at the city’s best schools than in 2012 – mainly due to school ratings improving).


Overall, the report points to both positive trends and areas of concern in Denver’s choice process.


Good News – Excerpts from CRPE Report

Encouragingly, however, the number of openings at schools rated as “distinguished” or “meeting expectations” increased since 2012 at the elementary school level by 15.3 percent, at the middle school level by 17.3 percent and at the high school level by 41.8 percent, as can be seen in Figure 6. 6 Across all grades, the number of projected seats in these top two SPF categories has increased by 20.9 percent from 2012 to 2014. Roughly 70 percent of this increase is due to existing schools receiving higher rating and 30 percent is due to increased capacity in consistently highly-rated schools.  (page 7)

Not only is a consistent set of schools represented among the top ten most-requested schools across the three years of SchoolChoice implementation, but Table 1 also shows that families demand relatively highly-rated schools. Seven out of the ten most-requested schools for both 6th and 9th graders, and eight out of the ten most-requested schools for kindergartners, were rated as either “distinguished” or “meets expectations.” This desire to send their children to the city’s highest-rated schools cuts across all neighborhoods and student groups.  (page 9)

…most students are matched to their first choice. As Figure 10 illustrates, between 74 and 81 percent of students entering kindergarten, between 74 and 77 percent of students entering the 6th grade, and between 75 and 77 percent of students entering the 9th grade were matched to their first choice over the three years that SchoolChoice has been implemented. (page 13)

Looking first at how student traits and family priorities are related to whether students are matched to their first choice, we find that black students, Hispanic students, and those in “other” racial groups are no more or less likely than white students to be matched to their first-choice school. Students who qualify for free or reduced price lunch have roughly 19 percent higher odds of getting their first choice than non-FRL students …. (page 14) (Bold mine)

Addendum B – Concerns from CRPE Report

We found significant variation among racial groups and among regions. When both race and region are jointly considered, both factors have a statistically significant relationship with the number of choices made by a family (controlling for other student demographics). In this way, it appears that the race and region “effects” on how many choices families make are distinct. Specifically, families of black students and students identifying with “other” racial groups list more choices than families of white students, while families of Hispanic students list either fewer or about the same number of choices as white students’ families, when we take into account where families live in the city. (pages 4-5)

Students eligible for FRL, ELL, and special education all chose a highly rated school as their first choice at lower rates than their non-eligible counterparts. Whereas 58 percent of FRL students preferenced a highly rated school, 66 percent of non-FRL students did. Similarly, 59 percent of ELL students chose a highly rated school as their first choice compared to 64 percent of non-ELL students, and 56 percent of students in special education chose a highly-rated school compared to 63 percent of students in general education. Finally, in terms of race/ethnicity, only 55 percent of Hispanic students listed a highly rated school as their first choice, as compared to 73 percent of white students. About 64 percent of black students and 66 percent of students belonging to other racial groups listed highly rated schools as their first choice. (page 10)

Families living in regions with schools that have higher average SPF ratings tend to request more highly rated schools in both their first and second choices. … In short, whether a family prefers a “good” school reflects at least in part whether there are “good” schools around them.

We also found that, controlling for regional quality, minority students tend to choose schools with lower ratings as both their first and second choices than white students. Similarly, students eligible for FRL or in special education choose schools with lower ratings than students not receiving FRL or special education.  (page 12) (Bold mine)

[1] Baltimore, Cleveland, Denver, Detroit, Indianapolis, New Orleans, Philadelphia, and Washington, D.C., all cities with “high degrees of school choice.” See “Making School Choice Work,”