Get the Facts: Public School Choice in Colorado

Charter schools, school choice, magnet schools. You’ve probably been hearing these terms more and more. With so much misinformation surrounding these topics, we wanted to give you the facts and where these issues currently stand in Colorado.

What is school choice?

Broadly, public school choice means that families are provided a variety of options for their children’s education, and are empowered to make the best decision for their children’s needs. This could be to attend a traditional district-managed school, a public charter school, an online school, or be homeschooled.

Ideally, states with strong school choice options level the educational playing field. In Colorado, school choice has often provided children, especially underserved students, with greater access to high-performing schools and the opportunity to exit consistently low-performing schools. School choice also allows families to select schools that most closely align with their educational values and priorities, whether that is a focus on STEM subject areas, classical education, experiential learning, etc.

Open Enrollment in Colorado

In the traditional school framework, each neighborhood is assigned an elementary, middle, and high school, and students who live within those boundaries have first preference to attend their designated schools. Colorado is an open enrollment state, meaning that students can choose to attend their assigned neighborhood school or “choice in” to another public school within their district or even outside their district. Students can choice in to any public school, which includes magnet schools, innovation schools, options schools, and public charter schools.

Charter Schools in Colorado

In Colorado, charter schools are tuition-free public schools that are open to all students. Similar to traditional schools, public charter schools are funded with taxpayer dollars. A charter school operates under a performance contract with either the school district it will serve, for example Denver Public Schools, or the state’s authorizing agency, the Colorado Charter School Institute (CSI). If the school fails to serve students well, the authorizer can revoke or non-renew its contract and the school could be closed. Strong charter school authorizing policies are key to creating and sustaining high-performing charter schools.

Colorado charter schools typically have greater flexibility and autonomy than traditional public schools. This supports innovation in charter schools and helps them provide different learning environments. Examples of this include the Denver School of Science and Technology’s focus on STEM programming, the Denver Downtown Expeditionary School’s experiential-based approach to learning, and Monarch Montessori’s focus on the Montessori method. However, public charter schools are still held accountable to the same state accountability standards as every other public school. Charter schools must administer the same annual statewide assessments and are held accountable for their results. In addition to the state, Colorado charter schools are also held accountable by their authorizing entity (i.e. a school district or CSI) as well as an independent board of directors.

Innovation Schools

Similar to public charter schools, innovation schools have greater school-level autonomy and flexibility. This allows for unique approaches to learning and school control over educational programming, budgeting, personnel hiring and evaluation, and more. Unlike public charter schools, innovation schools are operated by the school district. Innovation schools also get to pick and choose which district services they want to pay for, and those they wish to do without.

Schools seeking innovation status must submit an innovation plan to their local board of education and, eventually, to the State Board of Education for approval. Groups of schools can choose to form an “innovation zone” as part of their innovation plan, allowing them to share services and costs. Colorado has nearly 90 innovation schools in 13 districts, including Pueblo City Schools District 60, Delta County 50(J), and Westminster 50.

Magnet Schools

Magnet schools are public schools that are operated by school districts and have a focused theme and aligned curricula, such as fine and performing arts (like the Denver School of the Arts), international studies (like the Corwin International Magnet School in Pueblo) and many others. Magnet schools must follow state and district academic standards, but those standards are taught within the overall theme of the school. Magnet schools are designed to attract a diverse student body from throughout the district and, unlike public charter schools, sometimes have entrance requirements.

Online Schooling 

Online schools are a relatively new option in school choice. Just as they sound, online schools are full-time schools or programs where instruction is provided on the internet. This gives students choice over the time, place, and path of learning. In Colorado, online schools can be public schools or public charter schools. Multi-district online schools may serve students from across the state while single-district online schools may only serve students in their home school district.


Parents who choose to educate their children at home must notify the Colorado Department of Education that they will be homeschooling their children and are periodically assessed for academic achievement. However, parents have significant freedom in choosing curriculum and teaching approaches.

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