Bennet's statement to school board members

The Rocky Mountain News
June 28, 2005

Michael Bennet submitted this statement to school board members as part of his application to run Denver Public Schools:

As the son of an immigrant to this country, I have long believed that the essential aspiration of the United States must be to fulfill Martin Luther King's dream that his children would be judged "by the content of their character." Dr. King's dream is the primary business of our public schools, and we have failed him badly.

In urban school districts across the country, we have submerged Dr. King's dream in a dreary sea of timid ambition, low expectations, and bureaucratic indifference. In a world where the poorest of the poor are finding their ways to degrees in engineering or medicine or mathematics, we, in the United States, are relying on inherited advantages that will never measure up to what is transpiring around the globe.

This, it seems to me, is our challenge. And, it is a challenge that Denver is well suited to match. Unlike Baltimore, Philadelphia, Detroit, or Chicago, we are a city that will be defined less by its past than by its future. We have the civic infrastructure, demography, and wealth to make Denver the best urban school district in the country. I am confident that we can organize these resources and harness our collective energy to succeed mightily where others have failed.

I am not Pollyannaish about the nature of the obstacles we face or the time it will take to overcome them. Our schools have been in decline for much of the last forty years, and I think it is reasonable to assume that it might take twenty years to set things right. Fortunately, for Denver, Jerry Wartgow is leaving the next superintendent a legacy upon which to build. My ambition would be to do the same for my successor.

As an interested observer of public education, I believe we are at a historical watershed. We have witnessed a wave of accountability measures, which, though crude and imperfect, have shined a spotlight on the system's failings. The rise of charter schools and the threat of vouchers have created competition for our public schools. The question before us today is whether we have the strength and imagination to reinvent our system of public education to respond to this accountability and competition. I believe it is essential that we succeed, because the alternatives to public schools will never scale quickly or broadly enough to educate the vast majority of our children.

I have been involved with the restructuring and reorganization of a number of very large companies. Bankruptcy is an extremely clarifying experience, because it requires the various constituencies around the bankrupt estate to reexamine every aspect of its business. The goal of a bankruptcy reorganization is to recommit to the essential purpose of the business, delineate what the competitive strengths or assets of the enterprise really are, and then shed everything else. In the perilous world of bankruptcy, this reassessment is rigorous, exacting, and, sometimes, extremely painful. But there are no sacred cows.

In the end, a properly executed reorganization will yield value for all its constituents, and the enterprise will be stronger on the backend. Public education (like city government) is emphatically not a business, and it is as quintessential a human enterprise as there is. But, in my view, this does not mean that it is improper or imprudent to subject it to the rigors of the analysis I describe. Indeed, because of its importance, it demands it.

Obviously, I am not suggesting that what the Denver Public Schools needs is a good bankruptcy proceeding, but it demands serious reform and the two are not that dissimilar. I observed earlier that our public school systems face new competitive threats, which have led to dwindling revenue. The only way for Denver Public Schools to grow its market share in a competitive environment (and thereby increase its revenue, its ability to enhance its curriculum and important arts, music, and extracurricular programs, its capacity to pay its teachers and administrators, and so on) is to produce high student achievement. Much goes into picking a school, but, at the end of the day, what matters most is whether students achieve.

The next superintendent's primary responsibility is to focus like a laser on student achievement, and to marshal the considerable resources of the District to that end. In essence, I believe this means implementing much more deeply and broadly the current attempts at professional development of teachers and school based administrators. This means that every dollar spent by the District that does not involve the teaching of children must come under very strict scrutiny. This refocusing also means making decisions about how schools are organized, what the school calendars looks like (both by day and by school year), how the teachers' contract reads (in short how every aspect of the District functions) only in the context of whether the decision will increase the capacity of the teachers to convey knowledge to their students.

The second responsibility of the superintendent is to ensure that conditions in the classrooms and schools maximize the opportunity for students to learn and teachers to teach. I know (and Denver knows) that the current conditions in our schools make it exceedingly difficult for our children to succeed. We need to engage the broader community in a discussion about what standards of conduct we expect from everyone, including our children, when they are in a school building. And then we need to relentlessly communicate these standards back to the community and to the schools themselves. I have in mind here everything from dramatically reducing the dropout, churn, and truancy rates to insisting that cell phones are shut off in the classroom. We have learned long ago in city government that sometimes it is the small things (the broken windows) that so degrade people's expectations of one another that it makes fixing the big things impossible.

So, my interest in this position derives from a passion to do what I can for my city and my country. This same passion allowed me two years ago to walk away from a wonderful and very lucrative job in the private sector to help a friend run the City and County of Denver.

Although I am not an educator, I think I am well qualified for this job. The specific nature of my private and public sector experiences gives me confidence that I might have a shot at meaningfully implementing reform where others have not. I have led difficult labor negotiations, helped restructure billions of dollars of debt and lines of business, and have operated with a high degree of success in very political, human environments. I also know my way around Denver, its neighborhoods, and its business and non-profit sectors, and have spent many hours in highly charged community meetings. I know what it's like to bear bad news, and I know how to derive maximum benefit from good news.

In the end, what I fundamentally know is that the District cannot fix itself, and a single administrator, in this case the superintendent, cannot fix it alone. What is needed to fix the District is a shared understanding by all of Denver about the nature of the problem; a commitment by all of Denver to a coherent, strategic plan to address the problem; and a confidence that, together, we can create the best urban school district in the country. I believe that I can play a role in making this happen.

For related letters and articles, see the NYC HOLD page Watching Curriculum and Academics at DPS under Michael Bennet.

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