Education, Politics, Uncategorized

Benigno: Let’s expand on 30 years of charter school success

Thirty years ago, on June 3, the bi-partisan Colorado Charter School Act was signed into law by Democratic Gov. Roy Romer.

It was a victorious day when the bill passed both of Colorado’s legislative chambers, allowing thousands of children to choose public charter schools where they could succeed academically. Charter school supporters, including Gov. Romer, knew some children were not receiving the education they needed and deserved in the traditional public school system. They hoped that by giving educators more autonomy to design new public schools, children would be better served, especially the most vulnerable.

After three decades of lessons learned, it is time to re-evaluate student access to charter schools. About 270 charter schools serve 15% of students enrolled in Colorado public schools. School district support of these autonomous public schools ebbs and flows depending on the politics of the school board. Students in districts unfriendly to educational options are at a disadvantage. Too many students have little choice of specialized charter school models such as STEM, college prep, classical education, international languages, or performing arts. And, in most districts where they exist, there is little hope of enrolling in good charter schools because demand is much greater than supply. The legislature can easily make common sense changes that will open the door for more children to have access to schools that will better serve their educational needs.

Eleven years after the law’s enactment, the state legislature and Republican Gov. Bill Owens created a new avenue for charter school authorization: the Colorado Charter School Institute (CSI).

CSI serves as an independent statewide charter school authorizer. Before CSI, the only avenue for charter school authorization was to receive approval through a school district. Families who wanted more educational options were at the mercy of local school boards, which all too often were (and still are) hostile to new competition within their geographic boundaries. The vision for CSI was to change that paradigm, but constraints on where and when the organization can authorize schools reduces the number of options it can provide families.

Under the law that created CSI, school districts can request exclusive chartering authority (ECA) from the state. ECA empowers school districts to prevent charter school founders or leaders from applying to CSI for authorization within the district’s boundaries. The proposed school must ask the school district for permission to apply to CSI. Districts that don’t want the competition in the first place rarely release a charter applicant to CSI.

ECA can theoretically be revoked if challenged and proven that the district has a pattern of unfair and inequitable treatment of charter schools. However, this revocation almost never happens in practice. Only six Colorado school districts currently don’t hold exclusive chartering authority either because it was revoked or they never asked for it.

Exclusive chartering authority is, at its very core, a mechanism to constrain and limit educational choice for families. As a state, we should only consider what is best for students and remove the privilege of ECA from districts. They will still hold their constitutional right to control their public schools. They will simply no longer have the unilateral authority to effectively trap students in schools that do not meet their needs.

These problems are not hypothetical. It’s tragic that in Adams County School District 14, pre-COVID, 87 percent of the district’s students were below grade level in math. Some families asked University Prep Charter Schools to open a charter school in their district. The district approved the new school but later battled for over a year about the details of opening the school. On a recent split vote, the majority of the Colorado State Board of Education members revoked the Adams 14 School District’s exclusive chartering authority. With related litigation looming, University Prep has now applied to CSI to authorize the school.

Last year in Durango, 600 families requested that the district approve the authorization of a new classical education charter school. The proposed charter school appealed twice to the State Board of Education and lost on the final appeal. The school asked the Durango School District to allow them to apply to CSI. Still, the families were denied a school. The loss was a tragedy for many families who desperately pleaded with the district for a classical education school.

Ironically, in a previous tragedy in 1993, David D’Evelyn, a co-founder of Independence Institute, lost his life in a small plane crash en route to Durango to assist the Durango School District as it considered opening a charter school just days before the historic signing of the Charter School Act.

Disruptive innovation continues to change our lives. Yet, for 30 years, the powerful education lobby has continued to fight change. In 1993, the Colorado Association for School Boards, the Colorado Association of School Executives, and the Colorado Education Association fought hard against charter school legislation that offered autonomous public schools as an alternative to heavily regulated traditional district-run schools. The governor and the legislature should take on the fight again and eliminate exclusive chartering authority for school districts and allow all children to pursue their dreams and goals.

It is time we unshackle educational options and stop maintaining systems that result in tragic outcomes for too many students.

Pam Benigno is the director of the Independence Institute’s Education Policy Center. 


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