Selected readings on US charter schools
Twenty years ago this week, Gov. Roy Romer signed the single most significant piece of school reform legislation of the past generation. As a result, 97,000 students will enroll this fall in charter schools, a number larger than the attendance in any single school district.
Self-governing charter schools may not have transformed education quality since 1993 — we’ve got a ways to go — but they’ve clearly improved achievement in certain locales. Charters dominate the ranks of Denver’s best schools, for example, and many charters in other districts have logged impressive results as well.
But the real revolution ushered in by charters — and by the other great advance of that era, open enrollment within and across districts — has to do with parental expectations. Coloradans now expect choice. They expect to shop around for the right school for their children, to compare programs and even outcomes.
They do not naturally assume their local district will always provide the best possible option at the facility next door.
Jim Griffin, the long-time former head of the Colorado League of Charter Schools, says those schools appeal not only to Americans’ appreciation of choice, but to their entrepreneurial spirit and belief in self-government, too. And he notes the movement’s momentum has yet to slow.
“This is the biggest year in terms of new charter schools since 1997,” Griffin told me.
Cracking the door open to school choice wasn’t easy, of course. It took supporters years of work and multiple setbacks in the legislature before open enrollment and charters emerged intact. And that story of relentless resolve has now been recounted, step by step, in a 37-page booklet released by The Independence Institute titled “On the Road of Innovation: Colorado’s Charter School Law Turns 20.”
Authors Pam Benigno and Kyle Morin are painstakingly evenhanded. They give credit to everyone from Democrats Roy Romer, Peggy Kerns and Barbara O’Brien (among others) to Republicans Bill Owens, Terry Considine, Jeanne Faatz (now a Denver councilwoman and a neglected hero in the choice movement) and Charles Froelicher, head of the Gates Foundation. And they’re so remarkably gentle with school choice opponents who managed to sabotage one bill after another beginning in the late 1980s that you aren’t even told who most of them are, assuming you couldn’t guess, until more than halfway through the tale.
“A formidable alliance coalesced against [the charter bill that finally passed]” they write. “The Colorado Education Association (CEA), Colorado Association of School Boards (CASB), Colorado Association of School Executives (CASE), and the Colorado Parent Teacher Association (PTA) united to form the Coalition for Great Schools.”
Sounds like a roll call of the education establishment, doesn’t it? No wonder choice was such a hard sell.
Twenty years ago, there were only six magnet schools in the state, the authors point out.
Twenty years ago, districts such as Denver and Jefferson County stonewalled parents who asked them to replicate popular alternative programs, always finding reasons that more choice wasn’t practical.
Even after Colorado’s charter bill passed — the nation’s third — many school districts “essentially viewed charter schools as groups of parents unaware of what they were doing,” Benigno and Morin remind us.
Today such condescension has largely melted away and the door to innovation is open to visionaries who attract grass-roots support.
It’s tempting for school reformers to lapse into pessimism regarding the pace of change. The story of Colorado’s charter movement proves, however, that the good guys can prevail.
Source: The Denver Post – by Vincent Carroll