It’s National School Choice Week (January 26 – February 1), and once again Colorado has a lot to celebrate. But even as we recognize the many educational options available to Colorado parents, we should remember that thousands of students still fall through the crack each year. On behalf of Colorado’s children, we have much more work to do.
Colorado law allows parents to choose a public school other than their assigned neighborhood school through open enrollment. Although forty-six other states also offer some form of open enrollment, Colorado’s law is much more permissive than many others. As of 2018, more than sixteen percent of Colorado’s public school population, roughly 145,000 students, opted to open-enroll into a different public school. Another 120,000-plus students attend one of the state’s 255 public charter schools.
However, even Colorado’s rich diversity of schools and options cannot serve every family. According to the Colorado League of Charter Schools, there are an estimated 24,000 students on charter waitlists statewide. These students—and many uncounted more who would seek other options if they were available—will spend National School Choice Week wondering whether their name will be called in the next lottery or drawing.
This is not a new problem. I recently met a woman who told me her family waited eight years for her to gain an enrollment slot in one of the state’s top public high schools. She eventually got her slot and is now a nurse practitioner. She was fortunate. Other families may never see their number come up. And unless these families can afford to move to a better school district or pay the costs of private school tuition, there are few other options. For those without means, it all comes down to a roll of the dice.
ACE Scholarships helps bridge the financial gap for disadvantaged families who would like to send their children to a K-12 private school. This school year, ACE is providing aid to 2,500 children in Colorado. One ACE student recently told us his scholarship was a “life saver.” His single mother is sending two children to private school on her own, and she would not be able to manage the financial burden without assistance.
Families come to ACE for many reasons, from safety to academics. These families know that when children are put in the right environment, they thrive. We watch it happen every day. ACE scholars typically enter their chosen private school years behind their peers, but they attain proficiency within two years. Despite steep challenges, 98 percent of these scholars graduate from high school – approximately 20 percentage points higher than the rate of all high school students in Colorado. Many of these scholars will be the first in their families to finish high school.
ACE can only help as many students as resources allow. Eighteen other states have passed programs that use tax incentives to drive higher levels of private giving toward K-12 scholarships, but Colorado has yet to expand its menu of options to the private sector. In the meantime, the state could take smaller steps to level the playing field. For instance, state lawmakers could, after two years of debate, decide to align Colorado law with federal law so that families can utilize their own educational savings for K-12 tuition without fear of tax penalties.
For thousands of the scholarship recipients we’ve served in Colorado, school choice has changed both their education and their future. Thousands more have found what they are looking for within the public system. But even as we celebrate those victories this National School Choice Week, we must continue looking for ways to expand opportunities for more Colorado children.
Katrina Yoshida is the Policy Engagement Manger at ACE Scholarships, a Denver-based nonprofit that provides privately funded K-12 scholarships to 7,000 economically disadvantaged students across eight states.