Colorado has made great strides toward providing public school choices for parents. Yet school districts too often do not respect those choices, instead opting to fund some public school students—those whose parents have enrolled them in charter public schools—at lower levels than others. It is well past time our state corrected that error.
Charter schools are public schools that operate with a greater degree of autonomy than their traditional public counterparts. These schools have been empowering public school parents with educational choice for more than 20 years in Colorado. Today, they are an inerasable component of public education in our state, and serve 108,000 students in 226 schools statewide. Every one of these students is undeniably a public school student under the law.
Though skirmishes continue, the war over charter public schools has already been won. The parental freedom provided by these schools cannot be rolled back by the education establishment or its supporters any more so than a sand castle can roll back the tide. But that simple fact has not stopped opponents of educational choice from doing everything in their power to punish those who utilize it, most often by denying charter schools the local funding they need to provide an effective education for their students.
Senate Bill 16-188, a landmark piece of bipartisan legislation, would finally level the financial playing field by requiring school districts to equitably fund district charter school students under voter-approved mill levy overrides, or property tax increases used to fund education at the district level. Two-thirds of Colorado’s 178 school districts collected such override revenues in 2015-16.
Some school districts already share mill levy override revenue with charter students, but many others do not. A 2014 study by researchers at the University of Arkansas found that Colorado’s charter students are, in the aggregate, underfunded by more than $2,000 per student—meaning that these students receive only about 80 cents on the dollar compared to students enrolled in traditional public schools.
Adding insult to injury, charter schools are typically excluded from school district bond issues. While traditional public schools can rely on their districts to issue and finance bonds for capital construction needs—new buildings, facilities improvements, etc.— without a loss of per-pupil revenue, charter schools must pay for these projects using funds that would otherwise be dedicated to serving students. This leads to a further reduction in revenue, to the tune of $660 per student.
There is a word for treating people who should have equal standing under the law differently: discrimination. Public education has made enormously important progress toward eliminating discrimination in a variety of areas. Indeed, public schools, including charter public schools, may not discriminate against students on the basis of race, religion, or income. Why, then, do we tolerate discrimination against students solely because of the public schools in which they are enrolled?
Opponents of educational choice decry SB 188 as an attack on local control, and argue that charter schools siphon money away from other public schools. These complaints are but the public tip of a larger iceberg, and beneath their carefully considered rhetorical surfaces lurk far darker themes. They are thinly veiled specters of a philosophy that regards parental choice, individuality, and freedom as threats to public education.
In truth, charter schools do not siphon money away from public schools. Charter schools are public schools, and the current system siphons money away from them. The requirement that every school district treat every student fairly is not an affront to local control, it is the purist reflection of the Colorado Constitution’s mandate that we provide a “thorough and uniform” system of public education—a provision that every locally elected school board member swears to uphold before taking office.
Senate Bill 188 is an important step in the right direction for Colorado. Leaders in our state should support and respect parents’ rights to chart the most effective educational course for their children, not penalize them for doing so. They should seek to expand choice and the excellence it can inspire, not constrain educational options in pursuit of a single, monolithic system that can meet all needs. Most importantly, they should do the right thing by every public school student in Colorado.
Ross Izard is Senior Education Policy Analyst for the Independence Institute, a free market think tank in Denver.