Colorado’s charter schools are wildly popular — and under attack once again.
They were authorized by law in the early 1990s, when a bipartisan coalition of lawmakers and the governor saw the wisdom of giving our state’s public schools more independence to blaze their own trails. Since then, the program has grown by leaps and bounds amid continuous and overwhelming demand.
Today, about 161 public charters educate more than 125,000 Colorado children statewide. That’s around 14% of kids who attend public school in the state. Most of the charters have to turn away applicants because there are far too many of them for the space available.
What makes charters so attractive? Their diversity. Some focus on math, science and tech with “STEM”-type programs; some tout the humanities; some, the arts. Different charters are driven by different educational philosophies. In other words, each offers an alternative to the cookie-cutter, one-size-fits-all approach of many neighborhood schools in many districts.
Charter students are diverse, too. They represent every race and ethnicity and come from households of every social and economic status and national origin. More to the point, many charters draw deeply from some of the state’s poorest neighborhoods. They provide a way out of failing neighborhood schools for some of the most desperate children. Charters often are their last, best hope.
Yet, some politicians want to take a wrecking ball to all of that.
In what has become a depressingly familiar narrative in recent years, another attempt is afoot at the State Capitol to sabotage charter schools. House Bill 1295, introduced last week, would rig the law to short-circuit appeals to the state by parents who contest decisions by local school districts that have denied applications for new charters or shut down existing ones. The bill cynically creates milewide loopholes through which districts could legally get away with it.
Current law empowers a charter program’s supporters to appeal such local board decisions to the Colorado State Board of Education. The board has in fact voted, sometimes unanimously, to override school district decisions. It’s a needed check on districts. Some school boards are institutionally biased against innovations like charter schools. Why? It’s all about self-interest.
If a student leaves a neighborhood school for a charter, most of the funding for the student follows along to the new school to cover the cost of the child’s education. You’d think school districts would appreciate having fewer kids to educate. But the bureaucrats in charge resent ceding control of that money to the independent charter school boards and the parents they represent. Never mind that the charter will spend the money more efficiently.
Another special interest even more adamantly opposed to the existence of charter schools is organized labor. The education unions that pound the table for ever-higher pay and benefits view charters as a mortal enemy.
What’s their beef? Few charters have teachers who want to join unions. Instead of collective-bargaining agreements, charter teachers have individual contracts that treat them like the professionals they are — and compensate them for the unique value they bring to children in the classroom. That’s anathema to unions.
Together, the education unions and the education bureaucracies form a formidable foe. And some glad-handing politicians are always happy to do their bidding. Sometimes it’s out of a vague loyalty to an ill-defined dogma, but almost always, it involves union largesse to their campaigns, directly and indirectly.
Their craven readiness to slam the charter-schoolhouse door on Colorado’s poorest, most at-risk children — disproportionately Black and Hispanic — is a disgrace.
The authors of HB 1295, state Rep. Jennifer Bacon, D-Denver, and state Sen. Tammy Story, D-Conifer, are complicit in just such a betrayal. Bacon’s role is particularly despicable because she should know better. She held onto her school board seat at Denver Public Schools, the state’s largest district, after her election to the General Assembly in 2020. You’d think her top priority would be helping the many schoolchildren historically neglected by her district.
Instead, as part of a new, anti-school choice/anti-education reform majority, she has been instrumental in the board’s recent sneak attacks on the charters that have brought so much hope — and bona fide achievement gains — to Denver kids.
And by many accounts she is still smarting from a decision by the state board last year overruling an attempt by Bacon and her board cohorts to stop the expansion of a local charter network. So, HB 1295 is also a vendetta.
The General Assembly’s ruling party hails from a proud tradition of support for charter schools. Denver Democrats like Peter Groff when he was Senate president; Terrance Carroll as House speaker, and Bill Ritter as governor were impassioned and inspiring charter school supporters.
Here’s hoping that inspires current legislative leadership to scuttle Bacon and Story’s bill. It is an insult to every family that ever dreamed of a better education for their kids.