Imagine if your local grocery store got to decide whether a competitor could open in your town. It would likely be very difficult to open new grocery stores in many areas. And residents would surely fight against that restriction.
That’s essentially the current situation when it comes to education in most states, including Colorado. There are public school choice options in Colorado—open enrollment, magnet schools, and charter schools. But students who want access to these options are at the mercy of local school districts. Nearly every type of public school in Colorado must be authorized by a local school district. This results in a clear conflict of interest: If districts allow other options and families take advantage of those options, district schools will lose enrollment and a portion of per-student funding.
Over the years, many of these alternatives have been approved. Now, close to 30 percent of Colorado students participate in public school choice. Unfortunately, but not surprisingly, districts have started to push back against approving these alternative schools.
Happily, for Colorado students who need other options, there is an alternative way to create new schools in the state. In Colorado, there are Boards of Cooperative Education Services (BOCES) that provide various services to local school districts. BOCES are also empowered to start their own schools.
Seeing a need among families for educational options, the Education reEnvisioned Board of Cooperative Educational Services (ERBOCES) has utilized this flexibility in Colorado statute to authorize four brick-and-mortar schools.
Ascend College Prep, one of the ERBOCES-approved schools, is open to 11-12 graders in Colorado Springs and the surrounding areas. The school emphasizes dual enrollment courses and other college preparations, which parent Kathy Cook really appreciates. Her son transferred to Ascend this year to have a more consistent in-person school experience. Cook also likes the Friday Symposium Series, which teaches students life skills, like taxes, investing, nutrition, and buying a car.
It’s clear the leaders of ERBOCES recognize that one size does not fit all when it comes to education. While Ascend’s focus is on life skills, dual enrollment, and individual interests, some families are looking for other approaches.
Last year, a group of parents in rural Colorado wanted to open a classical charter school in their community because they weren’t satisfied with the local district’s curriculum. The district rejected the charter application. Fortunately for the families involved, ERBOCES was there to help. Merit Academy opened in Woodland Park last August and already has 185 full-time students. Nearly 70 more students participate in Merit Academy’s homeschool programs.
According to John Dill, who helped found Merit Academy and whose children attend the school, the students are thriving at the school. He’s also quick to point out how supportive the community has been—especially the local churches that have let them use classroom and playground space to get the school up and running.
The parents whose children are flourishing in their new educational environments appreciate the options that exist due to ERBOCES. But entrenched interests—like school boards and charter school authorizers—don’t share this appreciation. Colorado Springs District 11 even filed a lawsuit trying to stop ERBOCES from authorizing Orton Academy, a school that serves elementary students with dyslexia and other reading difficulties. While the district lost, it has appealed the case.
Efforts are also underway in the Colorado legislature to strip BOCES of the ability to authorize brick and mortar schools without the permission of local districts; a one-year moratorium is currently in effect. If this is made permanent, it would put parents once again at the mercy of their school district.
No doubt grocery stores would love to have the power to stop their competitors to open, but that would harm consumers. Similarly, children are harmed when school systems—who have clear conflicts of interest—have the power to block other options.
Colleen Hroncich is a policy analyst at the Cato Institute’s Center for Educational Freedom.
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