June 21, 2024

Mike DeGuire: Taxpayers deserve to know more about group’s influence on Denver schools

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In Colorado, a lot of money is being spent on controlling schools. Mike DeGuire writes for Colorado Newsline about who is doing the spending. 

In February, the Denver Public Schools board spent $10,000 in taxpayer dollars to receive training from School Board Partners, a group created by City FundSchool Board Partners has limited experience with providing training for full school boards. Why would the DPS school board elect to use an organization that is new to this work and is directly connected with billionaires who fund privatization efforts across the country?

The three newly-elected DPS school board members were funded largely by City Fund. Chalkbeat reports that City Fund was started in 2018 by two billionaires, Reed Hastings and John Arnold, who donated over $200 million to “expand charter schools or charter-like alternatives in 40 cities across the country.”

Matt Barnum, Wall Street Journal education reporter and former Chalkbeat writer, documented that School Board Partners “spun out of Education Cities, an organization that advocated for the “portfolio model,” a strategy focused on expanding charter schools as well as giving district schools more autonomy. School Board Partners was announced in July 2018, as some of Education Cities’ staff shifted to and helped start The City Fund, in “hopes to bring the portfolio model to cities across the country.” The portfolio model is controversial as it can create inequities for many students and communities.

In addition to City Fund, funding for School Board Partners includes “money raised by Education Cities,” the New Schools Venture Fund, a hedge fund group that supports charter schools nationwide, and the Walton Family Foundation, an early supporter of charter schools which also funds the far-right American Enterprise Institute, has ties to the Koch brothers and ALEC, and lobbied to destroy teacher unions.

Every state provides training opportunities for school board members through the state school board association, but the School Board Partners’ plan seems designed to circumvent those organizations to indoctrinate school board members in their ideology. School Board Partners’ philosophy is based on the “Third Way” of thinking about governing models and a neoliberal focus on a market-driven model of school choice. This philosophy was the stimulus for creating innovation zone schools in Denver, which are managed by separate unelected boards.

School Board Partners aligns its training with several reform organizations such as Leadership for Educational Equity, CREDO, and the Progressive Policy Institute. The Progressive Policy Institute, also funded by City Fund, promotes charter schools and school choice, and along with LEE, produces many of the professional development materials that underlie the School Board Partners program. The School Board Partners website was totally overhauled in December, eliminating most of the core information about its beliefs. Instead, the site highlights its system of “empowered governance,” which it charges school districts to use when they become members of the group.

School Board Partnersis led by Ethan Ashley, school board member in the all-charter New Orleans school district, and Carrie Douglas, a five-year leader with Aspire Public Schools, one of the nation’s first charter chains, funded by Reed Hastings. Last month, Ashley and Douglas were selected to join the NewDEAL leaders, an organization whose CEO called for Democrats to get on board with charters, based on the recommendations of Democrats for Education Reform, which has supported that narrative for decades.

Ben Kleban, a lead consultant with SBP, was the founder of a charter school network in New Orleans. Other leaders at School Board Partners include Carl Zarazoga, a member of Leadership for Educational Equity, a spinoff organization of Teach for America, funded by the Bloombergs, and Carrie Irvin, CEO and co-founder of Charter Board Partners, the leading national organization helping public charter schools build strong, diverse, and strategic boards.

In 2019, DPS school board members Carrie Olson and Angela Cobian participated in two years of training with School Board Partners. In November 2022, board members Auon’tai Anderson, Michelle Quattlebaum, and Scott Esserman traveled to Tennessee to participate in School Board Partnerstraining. In 2023, Esserman joined Anderson as a fellow with School Board Partners. This year the three new board members will become fellows with School Board Partners. Former board member Anderson is forming a new nonprofit with the support of fellows from School Board Partners.

Taxpayers deserve to know why DPS board members are working with School Board Partners, what their overall goals are in working with DPS, and what policies the board will be initiating because of this training.

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