Charter Pulse

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COLORADO’s charter schools: Their history and their future

Colorado League of Charter SchoolsThis year marks the 20th anniversary of the passage of the Colorado Charter  Schools Act, thanks to the hard work of Gov. Roy Romer,  state Rep. Peggy Kerns,  Gov.  Bill Owens,  former Lt. Gov. Barbara O’Brien, and many others.

Over the past 20 years, charter schools have proven that they are more than  just a movement —  they are a vital sector of K-12 public education in Colorado  and across the country. While their future is now rich with promise, Colorado’s  charter experience was very different at the beginning.

Survival (1993-1998)

1993 – Colorado has two charter schools serving 187 students

Shortly after the enactment of the charter law in 1993, the first two  Colorado charter schools opened with little controversy. Very soon after,  however, in communities across the state, the opposition began in full force. In  middle-class suburbs of Adams and Jefferson counties, parent-led charter  applications were denied by dismissive school boards. In Pueblo, the teachers’  union tried to stymie a new school with legal challenges. In the San Luis  Valley, families in Crestone encountered years of district resistance to their  charter plans. Yet thanks to persistent leaders behind each of these schools,  and the State Board of Education’s willingness to reverse erroneous district  school board decisions, charter schools in each of those places flourish today.

Even in Denver, where charters are now abundant and thriving, the early years  were marked by hostile opposition to any charter idea, to the point of  challenging the constitutionality of the Charter Act.

It began when Denver Public Schools denied a charter application for Thurgood  Marshall Charter Middle School. DPS challenged the Colorado State Board of  Education’s right to review charter applications on appeal. This battle went all  the way to the Colorado Supreme Court.

In 1999, Chief Justice Mary Mullarkey, writing for a unanimous court, found  that the language in the Charter Act giving the State Board of Education the  power to review charter applications on appeal “does not infringe  unconstitutionally on a local (school) board’s control of instruction,” and  ordered DPS to “negotiate in good faith” with school proponents.

By that point, however, it had been years since the charter application had  been submitted, and Thurgood Marshall never opened. But the resulting message  was clear:  The Charter Act was constitutional, and the appellate powers were  not going to tolerate  recalcitrant school districts blocking the opportunities  afforded to charter applicants under the law.

In early 1994, I helped state charter pioneers launch the Colorado League of  Charter Schools. As a result, I witnessed nearly all the drama of those early  years. I now look back with surprise at both the naiveté and resilience of this  phase of Colorado’s charter history. Thanks to support from the Gates Family  Foundation, the league was able to form and provide some very basic support for  the first charter schools and their founders as they battled resistance at every  turn.

Charter schools grew quickly during this survival phase, and when the limit  on new charters (60) expired on July 1, 1998, it was a modest sign of arrival.

Building a foundation  (1998-2008)

1998 – 61 charter schools serving 13,990 students

By 1999, charter schools were firmly enough established that our mindset  could shift from “are we going to survive?” to “what sort of world do we want to  exist in?” It was time to solidify a foundation to sustain a growing movement.

During this era, we saw charter school funding increase from 80 percent  to  95 percent of per pupil revenues. For the first time, facilities found some  solutions, namely per pupil funding from the state, access to district bond  elections, state credit enhancement, and the nation’s most advanced  private-sector financing community.

During this time, charter schools gained ground, and popularity, and saw  increasing support from various sources. Organizations such as the Walton Family  Foundation and the Daniels Fund provided much-needed funding and energy to boost  charter efforts, and the Colorado Department of Education’s Schools of Choice  Unit successfully managed federal start-up grant funding for new charter  schools.

We learned about charter management organizations  as the KIPP network of  schools opened its first site in Colorado, and Denver School of Science and  Technology (DSST) grew from concept to reality.

The Charter Act was used to create a variety of innovative charter school  models, ranging from the Rocky Mountain Deaf School, to schools for adjudicated  youth, to schools for pregnant and parenting teens, to small rural schools, to  online schools, and to early college programs.

After years of watching charter schools butt heads with defiant school  districts, the legislature created the Colorado Charter School Institute, our  first non-district charter school authorizer. This provided an authorizing  option other than the local school board, particularly in places where local  boards had not always played fair in their authorizer role.

It was becoming abundantly clear that charter schools were more than just an  experiment to be tested and dismissed. Charters were becoming a permanent part  of the K-12 public school landscape.

Influence and impact (2008-present)

2008 – 143 charter school serving 60,627 students

By 2008, charter schools continued to mature, and the influence of charters  on the balance of our public school system continued to grow.

Charter schools were the leading edge of a cultural shift at the  parent/school choice level. Since 1993, the presence of charters has run  parallel with the rapid expansion of parents taking advantage of the Public  Schools of Choice Act in Colorado.

Today, mainstream district schools market themselves to prospective parents  in a way that would have been foreign 20 years ago. This is due to the fact that  parents have changed the way they shop for schools. Gone are the days when  parents simply enrolled their children into their “assigned” neighborhood  schools. Parents now research public school options and make choices based on  their child’s individual learning style. Colorado charter schools have caused  all boats to rise, making the public education system much stronger as a whole.

Thanks to the people, ideas and innovations of Colorado’s charter efforts, a  host of profound policy evolutions have played out in recent years. The Schools  of Innovation Act was passed, allowing some traditional public schools to be  self-governed similarly to charters. The Colorado Growth Model, our state’s  student assessment system, came out of a project at the Colorado League of  Charter Schools. The group drove other systemwide projects as well, including  new laws strengthening charter school authorizer quality in Colorado (HB  10-1412), and a state accountability framework specifically for alternative  education campuses.

Today, Colorado charter schools have grown so large that if they were all  combined into one school district, it would be the largest in the state,  surpassing DPS and Jeffco.

The growth continues. This fall, it is projected that 200 Colorado charter  schools will serve more than 97,000 students, representing 13 percent of  Colorado’s K-12 public school enrollment.

Charting the future 

Today – Colorado has 187 charter schools serving 88,924 students

What does the future hold for Colorado charter schools? We believe:

• The charter law provides an opportunity for entrepreneurial change in an  otherwise static K-12 system;

• Charter schools can and should continue to redefine expectations for our  public school system as to student performance as well as financially and  operationally;

• Self-governing public schools can take the place of the traditional public  school bureaucracy; and

• Charter schools make our  system stronger through choice and  competition.

We are excited to be leading an effort poised for another 20 years of  improving public education for Colorado’s children.

Charter schools in Colorado (Source: Colorado  Department of Education)

1993: 2 charter schools, 2 districts, 187 students

2013: 187 charter schools, 45 districts, 88,924 students

Source: The Denver Post – by Jim Griffin served as the Colorado League of Charter Schools’ president  from the organization’s inception in 1994 until earlier this month. He was succeeded by Nora E. Flood, who contributed to this commentary.

View more articles on Colorado charter schools

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One comment on “COLORADO’s charter schools: Their history and their future

  1. You have a good blog and I liked this post. I will be looking forward to your future posts. Keep up the good work.

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This entry was posted on May 26, 2013 by in Charter Schools, Colorado and tagged .

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