Colorado has often been ground zero for major policy and political battles over K-12 education—teacher evaluation, school board policy, school finance, union issues, curriculum transparency, and more. But as the state’s educational ecosystem continues to evolve in a post-pandemic world, all those issues pale in comparison to perhaps the most important question on the table in 2023: How can Colorado continue to provide more high-quality public options to families who demand them?
At the center of that question is a critical, though often overlooked, question of public policy. Who holds the power to approve or deny new schools of choice? And, maybe more importantly, should those entities be the only ones holding the keys to opportunity?
In a new publication, Independence Institute dives into the current school-authorization process in Colorado, how that process throttles the availability of educational opportunity in some communities, and how Colorado might think about removing those bottlenecks so more students can access choice seats.
A politicized process
Like most things involving K-12 education in Colorado, the authorization of public schools of choice is highly political. The most common form of public school choice, public charter schools, is a perfect example. Colorado’s Charter Schools Act passed in 1993. Today, there are more than 260 public charter schools serving north of 130,000 students statewide.
These schools, which operate under their own school-level boards rather than the governance of their school districts, cover a wide variety of educational models—classical, Montessori, experiential, multilingual, and everything in between. They are not new or experimental. They have been part of the state’s educational landscape for 30 years, and they play a critical role in providing options to families who are looking for something different than what they can find in the traditional, district-run public school system.
Yet, the supply of high-quality charter seats lags significantly behind parental demand. Many of the best schools have waiting lists in the hundreds or even the thousands—waiting lists from which only a handful of fortunate students may be admitted each year.
One reason for this shortage of charter seats is the fact that they must, in most cases, be authorized by their local school districts through a vote of the elected board of education thanks to “exclusive chartering authority,” or a district’s legal monopoly on school authorization within its boundaries. While exclusive chartering authority can be challenged and, in rare instances, stripped from districts, this almost never happens. All but six of Colorado’s 178 school districts currently hold ECA.
At best, these authorizing districts often view charters as unneeded competitive pressure for student enrollment. At worst, they view them as an enemy to be battled. Elected board members, whose largest constituency is the bureaucracy of their local school district, face tremendous pressure to avoid allowing new choice schools to “steal” enrollment (and therefore per-pupil funding) from district-run schools—even when it’s clear that families desire these options.
Of course, we should pause to note that it’s impossible to “steal” something that someone doesn’t own. School districts are not now, nor have they ever been, entitled to money for every school-aged child that lives within their boundaries. Families move, utilize Colorado’s open-enrollment law to send their children to neighboring districts, opt for homeschooling or private schools, and the list goes on. These are simply family choices, not “theft” from a government system. Enrollment in a public charter school is no different.
The Merit Academy story
For an example of the level of vitriol involved in some districts, look no further than the saga of Merit Academy in Woodland Park School District. There, a hostile school board vigorously opposed the opening of a new, parent-backed classical charter school, arguing that it would “steal” enrollment from the district’s handful of standard public schools—never mind the fact that the district had already lost 26 percent of its enrollment over the past five years as families opted to send their children to other schools across district lines.
Merit Academy managed to open under a rarely used—and now more or less extinct, thanks to the efforts of both the legislature and the courts—alternative authorization pathway through a local board of cooperative educational services (BOCES). Only after the local school board flipped to a more choice-friendly majority was the school finally welcomed as a full-fledged charter school.
But winning charter authorization doesn’t always mean happily ever after. Even now, the district goes out of its way to ensure that Merit and its staff know they are unwelcome. Merit students and staff must walk all the way around the large, half-empty building that they share with a district-run middle school to enter the campus through a rear door, and the district has installed locking metal “crash doors” in the hallways between Merit’s allocated space and the “competing” middle school. Until very recently, Merit students had to eat outside—in the mountains, in the fall—because the space given to Merit did not include a place for students to eat lunch.
Merit is far from the only example of a charter school that has faced open hostility from the local school districts holding the keys to their authorization. Ascent Classical Academy’s proposed new campus in Durango has also faced an incredibly heated battle for authorization—one that it ultimately lost at the local level (the school is now pursuing state-level authorization options). And these are just two of dozens of examples of the intense politics involved in opening the doors of a new public charter school in a school district uninterested in having to compete for students.
Charters denied by their local districts have only two options, both of which ultimately lead back to major political bottlenecks. The first is appealing the decision to the Colorado State Board of Education—an arduous process that has grown increasingly risky as the partisan makeup of the State Board has shifted against charters. The second is seeking authorization through the Colorado Charter School Institute (CSI), which is the only non-district charter authorizer in the state.
In order for schools to win authorization from CSI, however, they typically must first be “released” by their local districts to seek such authorization. Yes, the same school districts that denied their application initially. You can guess how that process goes in many cases. And even once they are released, the authorization process through CSI can itself be arduous (albeit far less politically charged).
There are other types of choice schools in Colorado—magnet and option schools, single- and multi-district online schools, schools authorized by boards of cooperative educational services, etc.—but these pathways are often fraught with their own challenges. For instance, an ongoing legal battle in Colorado Springs has, for the time being, shut down the ability of BOCES to authorize new schools in districts that do not provide written approval—once again driving the conversation back into the hands of the very bodies causing the logjam to begin with.
Even if these roadblocks are manageable, the fact remains that many of these options are too niche or small scale to meet the needs of the thousands of Colorado parents looking for a change.
So, what is Colorado to do about this problem? Assuming that we all share an interest in meeting the demands of parents and the needs of students—a dangerous assumption in the realm of politics, I know—there are a number of options on the table:
- Allow the Colorado State Board of Education to directly authorize charter schools. Iowa has such a law on the books, which means Colorado lawmakers already have a starting place.
- Allow non-educational government entities to authorize charter schools. For instance, Wyoming will soon allow the State Loan and Investment Board—made up of the five highest-ranking elected officials in the state—to authorize new charter schools.
- Remove the roadblocks for school founders wishing to seek authorization through the Colorado Charter School Institute, particularly in instances where the local school district has displayed a pattern of hostile or unfair behavior toward charter applicants.
- Allow institutions of higher education to authorize public charter schools. For instance, Florida recently enacted legislation allowing state institutions of higher education “sponsor” charter schools that can help meet regional education or workforce demands.
- Eliminate or scale back exclusive chartering authority. For instance, state lawmakers could make it significantly more difficult for districts to win or maintain exclusive chartering authority—especially in instances where those districts display a long history of animosity toward charters.
- Expand alternative, non-charter authorization pathways. For instance, the state could uphold the ability of boards of cooperative educational services (BOCES) to authorize choice schools where they are needed, even if that happens to be within the boundaries of a non-member school district.
Any one of these policy shifts could lead to a sea change in Colorado education—a change that would allow Colorado families to access the type of public education they want for their children. This year, as the legislature convenes once again to discuss the future of K-12 education in our state, the subject of school authorization ought to be top of mind.
Ross Izard is a senior fellow at the Independence Institute’s Education Policy Center and a charter school parent.
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