Guest Post: Colorado Charter Schools Lead the Way

Colorado Succeeds is proud to partner with the Colorado League of Charter Schools’ to protect and advance high-quality school choice in our state. We are pleased to share these important reflections from the League’s President, Dan Schaller, who shares our commitment to equity, school choice, and access.

Nearly 30 years ago, a bipartisan group of 30 state legislators came together to address the need for a better alternative to educate Colorado students. Their solution was the Colorado Charter Schools Act, which was passed by a bipartisan General Assembly and signed into law by Democratic Governor Roy Romer, making the Centennial State the third state in the nation to have a charter schools law on the books. The Act empowered parents, teachers, and community members “to take responsible risks and create new, innovative, more flexible ways of educating all children within the public school system.”

Today, there is no real debate about whether Colorado charter schools are meeting the needs of students and families. By almost any measure, they have achieved tremendous success. For example, today there are more than 135,000 students in 269 public charter schools, which is more than 15% of Colorado’s public school student population. This places Colorado second in the nation in terms of the percentage of students and families that have chosen charter schools, which coincidentally matches the consistent #2 national ranking our charter school law receives because of its focus on both autonomy and accountability. It is clear that parents and students value the public school options that charters in Colorado represent. 

And despite myths to the contrary, Colorado public charter schools serve a diverse set of students. Recent data demonstrate that, compared to non-charter schools statewide, Colorado charters serve higher percentages of both students of color and English language learners. What’s more, Colorado’s charter schools have shown they are consistently narrowing the achievement gap for students from most historically marginalized groups.

Test scores also demonstrate the effectiveness of what charter schools in Colorado are providing. Prior to the pandemic, objective analyses consistently found that charter school students outscored state performance averages across virtually all achievement categories. Now we have our first glimpse into results post-pandemic – and they continue to tell a very compelling story. Based on the results of the most recent round of state tests, 85 percent of charter school students attend a school with a “performance” rating on the state’s School Performance Framework, the highest of four levels. Meanwhile, just 66 percent of traditional public-school students attend schools in the same category – a 19 percentage point difference. The gap is even wider when looking only at schools serving large numbers of students from low-income families. Two-thirds of charter students attending schools where at least 75 percent of students are eligible for free or reduced-price lunch are in “performance” schools. This compares with just 19 percent of students in high-poverty traditional public schools. 

So where do we stand after Tuesday’s election and as we look ahead to the future? What are the pressing issues we must confront today to continue to lead the country in creating high-quality charter school opportunities for students and families? 

We must continue to hold the bipartisan middle ground. 

From their inception, charter schools in Colorado have always been a bipartisan proposition, and thankfully we continue to occupy that space today. Our most recent polling indicates that by 2-to-1 margins Colorado voters are favorable toward charter schools (53% favorable to 27% unfavorable). This positive opinion of charter schools extends across women (54% favorable to 26% unfavorable), men (52% favorable to 28% unfavorable), and the critical bloc of unaffiliated voters (53% favorable to 30% unfavorable). Look no further than our Democratic Governor Jared Polis – not only a charter school supporter but a founder of two Colorado charter schools himself – for signs that the bipartisan consensus remains intact. 

We must remain active, engaged – and together. 

But that bipartisan consensus is by no means a guarantee. We’ve seen signs of it eroding nationally and in other states, and there are definite signs of erosion in certain parts of Colorado as well. If we hope for it to last, we not only need to do our part modeling what bipartisanship looks like (remaining part of the collective charter school community, putting aside differences, finding common ground), we also need to ensure we remain active and engaged when it comes to issues impacting our schools and students. One of the hallmarks of charter schools in Colorado is that it’s virtually impossible to find a legislative district without at least one charter school in it. But this seeming advantage is only as beneficial as the degree to which we leverage it. Which means we all – charter leaders, teachers, parents, supporters – need to be much more consistent advocates for our schools and their students. 

We must address inequities in funding and create a more consistently favorable landscape for high-quality public schools across our state. 

When I talk to current and prospective school leaders in Colorado, two of the main barriers to the continued expansion of high-quality schools that I hear most frequently are funding parity and authorizing consistency. Two districts right next to each other can treat charters wildly differently (and unfairly), and schools can be funded at dramatically different levels simply by virtue of whom they’re authorized by. We need equity for students attending schools overseen by our state authorizer (the Colorado Charter School Institute), and we need a more consistent system by which charter authorizing practices are regularly assessed and, if necessary, addressed from one district to the next. Confronting these ongoing challenges – which the League remains intently focused on – is the only way to create the consistency and certainty necessary to foster the continued growth of high-quality schools across Colorado. 

We must continue to create high-quality educational options where they are needed most.

Given the myriad challenges that come with operating schools these days (politics, staffing, enrollment, etc.), it can be tempting to look inward and focus solely on the immediate problems in front of one’s own school community. But the unfortunate reality is that, particularly coming out of the pandemic, the needs of students across our state are more pressing and acute than ever. Many Colorado charters have shown that they are able to offer students and families the high-quality educational opportunities they need, particularly in some of our most historically underserved communities. We must continue to rise to this challenge and push for the additional high-quality options our kids deserve. Nothing less than the future of our students and society depends on it.

This piece originally appeared on CharterFolk and was reposted with permission from the author and publication.

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