During Betsy DeVos' bitter confirmation hearing last month for education secretary, U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet pointed to Denver as a potential national model of a big city school district that's found an innovative, balanced approach to school choice.
"Without exception," the Colorado Democrat told DeVos, "we demanded quality and implemented strong accountability" for the mix of traditional, charter, innovation and magnet schools in the 92,000-student district.
Bennet invited DeVos to come see the Mile High city's choice program first-hand. DeVos said she'd "love to."
We don't yet know if she plans to take up Sen. Bennet's invitation. But NPR Ed did.
In Denver we found a generally popular, user-friendly program — one application for any school — that has boosted academic growth rates, improved on-time graduation and lowered dropout rates.
Denver Superintendent Tom Boasburg says at its core, choice in the city is focused on leveling the education playing field — or as he puts it, "How do we promote greater equity for our highest-need families?"
But there are still big gaps in access to quality schools; choice has done little to narrow achievement gaps by income and race; poorer families point to on-going transportation challenges; and choice in Denver includes some painful choices about re-booting and closing under-performing schools, mostly in neighborhoods with some of the most vulnerable students.
It all raises important questions about the promise and limitations of choice to bridge stubborn access and equity gaps in education.
Closing underperforming schools
Color codes matter in Denver's schools. And Gilpin Montessori, a public elementary school in the city's Five Points neighborhood, got a "red" ranking — or probation. That's the lowest category in the city's school performance rankings.
And in Denver, chronic red can get you closed.
Just before Christmas break, parents got word that the school board and district had decided to shutter Gilpin.
"My disappointment turned into shock and a little bit of anger and frustration as I realized how they're using closure as a tool to deal with reforming schools instead of actually trying to transform them," says Cameron Ward-Hunt, one of the many Gilpin parents who's outraged at the closure decision and at the way it was rolled out and communicated.
Choice here, he charges, represents "hope and ideology not supported by current evidence" that closing low-performing schools really improves outcomes.
Once a thriving area known as the Harlem of the West, Five Points went into a decades-long decline.
Today, the area is gentrifying fast, with pricey new condos, a café, fitness center and a few new eateries. But it still has deep pockets of poverty. Public housing projects are visible from the Gilpin Montessori playground bench, where parent Beth Bianchi sits.
"They're really in turmoil over everything that's happening," she says of the students here. Everything includes parents having to find and "choice-in" to a new school, as well as figuring out transportation and other logistics after years of walking to a neighborhood school.
"How am I gonna get there? Is that the best the school for my kid?" Bianchi wonders. "And when you don't have great options for those things, it's extremely stressful. And the kids are really feeling it."
Teachers, she says, are reporting more behavior problems and stress since the community got word Gilpin will close at the end of the school year.
School choice in Denver has been around for more than a decade and grew out of the end of a court-ordered desegregation case in the 1970s. Back then, a busing decree from a federal court led to an exodus of white families to the suburbs and, in the end, undermined efforts at school integration.
Cameron Ward-Hunt says he and his wife chose this neighborhood public school for pre-K for their son because of its more open Montessori curriculum and its economic and ethnic diversity. He believes that, with closures like this, the district is slowly re-segregating minority and low-income areas.
"It's clear that for Denver, choice, closure and charter are all linked together," he says. "It's really closing down neighborhood schools close to the city, and then replacing them with charter schools out in suburbia."
He has a point: Since 2006 enrollment in Denver charter schools has far outpaced enrollment in district-managed schools.
Katherine Murphy, a mother of two, lives a short walk from Gilpin. Her youngest daughter attends the school's early learning program.
"The choice process has been re-segregating schools. That's absolutely clear," she contends. "The choices we have in the neighboring schools are not integrated. The charters that they are putting in definitely exhibit 'white school, brown, black school.' And I'm very uncomfortable with that," she says.
Gilpin students will get priority in "choicing-in" to any other school around the city, including several public Montessori options.
"If there's space," says Beth Bianchi. "And that's the problem with the choice: If those higher-performing schools don't have the space to absorb any of these extra students, you have to look at charters or neighborhood schools that aren't as high-performing, and that doesn't feel like much" of a choice.
District leaders, however, say improving schools and boosting equity involves hard but necessary decisions.
"I understand the fear, anger, and hurt of parents in that community," says Superintendent Boasburg. But he adds: "I think lots of low-quality choices don't serve anyone."
Denver is one of the few big cities in America using strict criteria to shutter low-performing schools, whether traditional district-run or charters, officials here say.
It is part of Denver's ambitious goal of having 80 percent of its students attend a high-performing neighborhood school by 2020.
"Choice is not meaningful if it means that poor families have to get on a bus in order to go to a great school," Boasburg says. "Choice, first and foremost, should be about having a great school in your neighborhood and making sure that all of our schools serve all of our kids."
Boasburg and district administrators say that, while painful, there simply aren't enough children in this neighborhood to support all the schools. Enrollment at Gilpin, for example, steadily declined as more parents chose other options.
Even more importantly, district officials say, Gilpin was failing many of its low-income and minority students: Only 6 percent of its students of color performed at grade level in English Language Arts. And only 1 percent of its students of color performed at grade level in math, according to data from the district.
At University Prep Arapahoe – a charter school that's not in suburbia, but less than a mile from Gilpin – 45 and 48 percent of students of color today are at or above grade level grade level in math and English.
Boasburg has led Denver's schools for the last nine years. That's a long run by national superintendent standards and underscores the backing he has to continue to refine and expand the city's choice system.
The goal, he says, has always been boosting equity and quality learning for all — not merely choice for choice's sake.
"I think some of the models that you see nationally that emphasize choice over quality lead to a profusion of lower-quality choices that don't lead to increases in student achievement, that don't drive greater equity," he told NPR Ed during an interview in the district's downtown headquarters.
And Gilpin wasn't closed without first receiving additional help: Over the past three years, the city gave the school nearly $1.4 million in extra funding that equaled eight extra teachers per year. That gave Gilpin one of the best educator-to-student ratios in the district.
"Unfortunately, even with these supports we have still seen extremely low academic growth among Gilpin students," says Nancy Mitchell, the district's chief communications officer.
Critics, however, charge that the district is exaggerating the success of the choice program by crediting the better-performing schools for educating students who are more likely to succeed and downplaying the real challenges of choice without adequate transportation.
"I see choice in Denver working for those families that have a great educational and socioeconomic background," says Tanya Streicher, a veteran elementary teacher who serves as the representative at Gilpin for the city's teachers union, the Denver Classroom Teachers Association. For the less well-off, Streicher says, "I don't think it's working well."
In a sprawling school complex in the Westwood neighborhood, one of the city's poorest, you'll find a kind of "only in Denver" scenario: Under one roof, four schools are in various stages of transition.
There's a new elementary and middle school here – both charters.
They share the buildings with a "legacy" middle school that's being phased-out for low-performance, alongside what is called an "innovation" school – Kepner Beacon Middle School - that's being phased in.
Six months ago, a sixth-grader named Demetrio spoke almost no English when he arrived here from El Paso, Texas.
"This is the science class. We're learning about the solar system," he explains, welcoming me to his classroom.
"Is Pluto a planet or star?" I ask.
"A star!" he says excitedly, and launches into an energetic description of what he's learned today.
Demetrio, in theory, could 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 this new "innovation school" that offers its administrators charter-like autonomy to get around certain district and state rules. It'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 the schools more freedom to experiment.
The district then tries to replicate what's working well and, when needed, close what's not.
"To me it's a no brainer," says Dan Walsh, Kepner Beacon's assistant principal, who grew up in the neighborhood. "You have to create competition, and if you're good at something you should be rewarded for that. If you're not good at it, you shouldn't be able to stay in your job."
The school has unique needs: 98 percent of the students at Kepner Beacon receive free and reduced-price lunch. The student population is almost entirely Latino. Twenty percent have a special education plan called an IEP — that's more than twice the national school average.
Today, only about 10 percent of the students here are performing at grade-level. Assistant Principal Walsh says so far, grades and attendance are up and behavior problems are down.
"At this point in the year, we don't have a single in-school or out-of-school suspension, which is pretty remarkable — because for the school that we're replacing, it hasn't always been that way," Walsh says.
But, he concedes, its still early for the first-year school: "Let's wait and see. We're going to see what the district tests show us. We're going to focus on growth."
In other cities, expanding choice has sparked bitter fights, especially over charters. Critics charge that they pull away much-needed funding and talent from neighborhood schools.
While Denver has certainly had its battles, today the choice debate here is far less heated than elsewhere. Reforms here have faced less blowback than other cities from low-income communities of color. That's partly because leaders reached out early to multiracial, multi-faith groups for input and help.
Superintendent Boasburg says another factor is that, no matter what type of school, the focus is on quality and improvement: "What parents care about: Do they have a great public school in their neighborhood that will serve their kid well? If it's a district-run school, hallelujah! If it's a charter school, hallelujah."
And, the fact is, it's easier to close schools and open innovative new ones when student achievement rates and other key indicators are trending upwards.
Overall, the Denver strategy appears to be working: Ten years ago the city was near the bottom of Colorado cities in academic growth. Recently, it has ranked at or near the top.
"We have more than doubled our graduation rate among our Latino students," Boasburg points out. "We've cut our dropout rates by 70 percent among our students of color."
While the growth is impressive, wide achievement gaps by race and class persist. And the sink-or-swim choice mentality doesn't sit well with all teachers.
"Your education is a right, and I don't think that this system of competition is necessarily appropriate," says Aaron Lowenkron, a math teacher at East High School. It's a traditional, district-run place that is highly regarded and is consistently one of the top high schools that parents choose from around the city.
Lowenkron says treating schools like free-market startups has done little to narrow significant equity gaps.
"What we need to look at is, 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," he says.
Numbers from 2014 show that wealthier students in Denver are testing at grade level at far higher levels than low-income students across all subjects.
A report co-authored by the education advocacy and research group A+ Colorado found that more than a third of the lowest-performing students in Denver's schools are not actively choosing which school to attend using the choice system.
The report also found that low-income students use the choice system less than higher-income students, but have better odds of getting their first choice in a school. Students with special needs, however, have lower odds of getting their first choice school than the general education population.
Van Schoales, the group's CEO, says that not enough low-income families here are exercising their choice option because they may not have the car, gas or time to ferry their child across town in ways that wealthier families do.
"There's still a fair amount of inequity in terms of access to quality schools and programs depending on whether or not you're low-income," he says.
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.
"There's no reason why a person that buys a half-million-dollar house in a particular neighborhood should have greater access to a quality school than somebody that is renting space in a large apartment," he says.
Otherwise, he points out, Denver's popular choice experiment risks widening the chasm between rich and poor.
NPR Ed's Kat Lonsdorf contributed to this story.