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Cordova’s departure is a warning

Was Denver Public Schools Superintendent Susana Cordova chased away from her hometown by an overzealous board willing to undermine a talented and qualified public servant?

Only Cordova, who is leaving to take an assistant superintendent position in Texas, knows the answer to that question. True to her dedication to this district she doesn’t seem interested in burning things down as she heads out the door; she has remained extremely diplomatic.

However, other qualified observers of the past two years of turmoil in Denver Public Schools have pointed their finger at the school board and teachers union for forcing Cordova’s departure.

Regardless of why Cordova is leaving — we’ll leave speculation to others — we hope the board, the union and district employees will treat her departure as a canary that has wilted in the coal mine, a warning sign that all is not well.

There’s a battle being waged across America right now over the future of our public schools and the extremes are carrying the day at the expense of our children and their futures.

On one side, sits the anti-reform movement, which holds that schools should return to the days when teachers were trusted implicitly to do what was best for their students without excessive oversight, curriculum meddling, testing, or accountability measures. This side is right that testing is out of control. Also, most teachers are talented, dedicated professionals.

However, in Denver, we believe the anti-reformers (those accused of pushing Cordova out) are getting a few things very wrong.

First, more options for students and their parents are a good thing.

Charter and magnet schools have their flaws — particularly a penchant for excluding at-risk students who are often most in need of alternative school options. But Denver Public Schools has built a system that is perhaps the most equitable in the nation ensuring that charter schools and many magnet schools are open to everyone through a universal lottery system that picks students at random and even assigns priority at some schools for lower-income students.

The Denver School Board should focus on rewarding charter schools with excellent retention rates for at-risk students and punishing schools that don’t retain at-risk students.

Instead, the school board has taken an easily tracked and fixed problem and blown it up to oppose all charter schools. The state’s board of education recently overrode the district’s decision not to authorize a new high school long planned by a charter school network that has proven it can and will close the learning gap for at-risk students. Thankfully it looks likely that northeast Denver will be getting a DSST High School on time, despite the board’s effort to delay the school’s opening.

On the other end of the spectrum, advocates for school privatization and tax-breaks for the rich are disguising themselves as school choice supporters. Let’s be clear: state-funded tuition vouchers will only work if they are exclusively used to open up previously out-of-reach private schools to low-income Colordans. If people who are already able to send their children to private school are given vouchers, it’s really an upperclass tax break that will keep quality private schools out of reach of those who truly need choice.

Finally, when it comes to the issue of school accountability, the board is pushing to move away from the district’s unique and user-friendly school rating system and instead adopt the state’s one-size-fits-all system. This is a huge mistake.

Denver Public Schools is a shining star of America’s urban school districts. Much more work needs to be done to ensure that at-risk students from less affluent parts of town get the same quality education as their more affluent peers often right across the street.

Tearing apart what is working well in the district to do that doesn’t make sense — Cordova was an asset to the district. The process to replace her must be done with great care if 2021 is to be a year of success for a district that has been hobbled by coronavirus closures.

Members of The Denver Post’s editorial board are Megan Schrader, editor of the editorial pages; Lee Ann Colacioppo, editor; Justin Mock, CFO; Bill Reynolds, general manager/ senior vp circulation and production; Bob Kinney, vice president of information technology; and TJ Hutchinson, systems editor.

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