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Why home-school mom Marla Benavides is running for Denver school board

A mother and father stand in a church with a 10-year-old boy between them. They all smile at the camera. A crucifix can be seen in the background.
Marla Benavides with her husband, Rolando, and their 10-year-old son.
Courtesy of Marla Benavides

A Denver mother who home-schools her son and once worked as a bilingual paraprofessional in public schools is running for an at-large seat on the school board.

Marla Benavides, 48, said she is running for the school board because she is concerned about literacy rates. In 2019, the last school year before the pandemic, just 43% of Denver third- through eighth-graders who took the state literacy test scored at or above grade level. Those percentages were lower for Black and Hispanic students, which Benavides cited as a concern.

“I see literacy as the engine behind our 250 years of American greatness,” she said. “And I see my role as the last hope for education reform.”

In blog posts, Benavides blames the district’s focus on equity for a failure to improve teaching and student academic performance. Every year, students “get dumber and dumber,” she wrote in one post that blames teachers’ unions for a culture of mediocrity.

Benavides describes herself as a passionate debater with a strong Christian faith. In addition to home-schooling her 10-year-old son, she sells books as an independent contractor through Usborne Books. Before her son was born, she was a substitute teacher in Denver Public Schools and a bilingual aide who worked with students learning English as a second language. She also attended law school and has worked as a paralegal.

In all, 12 candidates are running for four open seats in the Nov. 2 election. The winners will help lead a district that is still navigating the COVID-19 pandemic and trying to make up for a year and a half of disrupted learning. The board will oversee a new superintendent, craft a new strategic plan, and grapple with several long-simmering issues, including declining enrollment and continued disagreement over the role of independent charter schools and semi-autonomous innovation schools.

Benavides lives in southeast Denver but is running for an at-large seat to represent the entire city. The board seat representing southeast Denver is not up for election this year.

Unless she sees the school district “support every parent’s world view and not push an agenda,” Benavides said she does not plan to enroll her son in a Denver public school.

Benavides is trying to start a Denver chapter of a national group called Moms for Liberty, which describes itself as supporting parental rights and has opposed the teaching of critical race theory, an academic framework that examines how policies and the law perpetuate systemic racism. Asked about critical race theory, Benavides didn’t offer a strong opinion but said she has heard that some parents are concerned about it.

“I would look more into that,” she said.

But on her website, Benavides said she doesn’t believe in critical race theory and that she would never put her own child in an “equity worldview public school system.”

Benavides said she is vaccinated but thinks it should be a personal choice. The city of Denver has mandated that all school staff be vaccinated. She also said children shouldn’t have to wear masks. Denver schools require all students and staff to wear masks.

Denver Public Schools is Colorado’s largest school district, serving about 90,000 students. A little more than half of students are Hispanic, 26% are white, and 14% are Black. Its school board has seven members — five regional and two districtwide.

We asked Benavides about several key issues the district will face in the coming years.

Declining enrollment and a growing number of small schools: Benavides said she’d start by asking parents what they want from their children’s schools.

“I’ve already talked to a lot of them, and a lot of them are concerned with equity and the worldview [students are] getting that goes against many of the parents’ worldviews,” she said.

Elementary schools should be teaching reading, writing, and arithmetic, Benavides said. In reading, she said students should learn phonics — the sounds letters make — rather than learning to recognize “sight words” without being able to sound them out.

“I’d look at the parents and what the parents want,” she said. “My goal is to be pro-parent.”

Charter and innovation schools: Benavides supports charter and other non-traditional schools that she said give families more options of where to send their children.

“Parents are the primary caretakers and educators of their children, and they should have the choice of picking the right school for their child,” she said.

Police in schools: Benavides disagrees with the Denver board’s decision last summer to remove police officers from schools. She participated in a police Explorers program as a teenager in Florida and said she believes police play a role in protecting students.

“I think we should bring them back,” Benavides said.

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