Every three years, the Colorado Department of Education (CDE) publishes a comprehensive report on Colorado’s charter school sector. The 2016 State of Charter Schools report was published this month. The report—and its unsurprisingly encouraging findings—could hardly have arrived at a more critical juncture.
Charter schools are tuition-free public schools that operate with increased autonomy through a system of waivers from certain requirements. They are an integral part of public education in America. Yet these public schools increasingly find themselves under attack in Colorado and across the United States.
The Colorado Education Association and its allies backed efforts to complicate the waiver process for charter schools during Colorado’s 2016 legislative session. This alliance also aggressively opposed efforts to fund charter school students equitably under voter-approved property tax increases, thereby perpetuating a system under which Colorado charter schools annually receive roughly $2,000 less per pupil than their traditional public counterparts. This shortfall partially explains why charter school teachers make nearly 30 percent less on average than their traditional public colleagues.
These assaults defied any credible policy logic, but they provided an opportunity to rally anti-charter forces against the expansion of parental choice in public education. This begs the question: What exactly are they rallying against?
Charter schools in Colorado now educate a higher percentage of minority students than non-charter schools. They also outpace the state in the percentage of English-language learners served. Although public charter schools serve a lower percentage of low-income students than their traditional public counterparts, the gap is narrowing. The percentage of low-income charter students has roughly doubled since 2001.
Colorado charter schools continue to serve a lower percentage of students who require special education. However, a 2014 study on the subject in Colorado indicates that these differences are primarily explained by differences in application patterns and student classification, not the systematic “counseling out” of special education students often alleged by charter opponents. In fact, the study found that significantly fewer students with individualized education plans exited charter schools than exited traditional schools at the elementary level. There was no significant difference in exit rates at the middle school level.
When it comes to academics, charter schools tend to surpass traditional public schools. With only a handful of exceptions, the 2016 State of Charter Schools report found that charters outperformed non-charters in both proficiency rates and student growth on statewide assessments. Though more analysis is needed, these positive results appear to hold true for both the older TCAP assessment and the newer, more difficult PARCC assessments.
Most importantly, the explosive expansion of Colorado’s charter sector indicates that these schools are serving a significant—and growing—demand for educational options on the part of Colorado parents. The state’s first two charter schools opened in 1993-94. By 2015-16, that number had grown to 226—an 11,200 percent increase.
Charter enrollment growth has dramatically outpaced non-charter enrollment growth, and the gap continues to grow. In 2015-16, charter schools served more than 108,000 students statewide. That represents a 30 percent increase in enrollment since 2011-12.
Though individual reasons for choosing a charter school vary, it is clear that Colorado parents are seizing opportunities for educational choice in droves.
None of this is to say that all is perfect in Colorado’s charter sector. Charter school four-year graduation and postsecondary enrollment rates lag significantly behind those of traditional public schools in Colorado. These gaps are largely explained by the charter sector’s higher proportion of online and alternative schools, which often serve extremely difficult populations of students. Yet demography must never become an excuse. As always, there is work to do.
Even so, it is clear that charter schools in Colorado are meeting the needs of an increasingly diverse population of students. Meanwhile, the sector is expanding rapidly to meet the demand of parents hungry for educational options and opportunities.
Charter opponents will no doubt continue to fight the tide. But standing between parents and the educational options they know their children deserve is unwise, and I have little doubt about which side will prevail in the end.
Ross Izard is the senior education policy analyst at the Independence Institute, a free market think tank in Denver.
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