Selected readings on US charter schools
This 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.
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.