Reforming charter school law


The recent actions of the Steamboat Springs School Board could help fuel revisions to the Colorado Charter Schools Act.

Ten years have passed since Colorado became a pioneer in public education reform by passing the act. Forty other states and the District of Columbia also have passed charter school laws since the beginning of the 1990s.

Generally, the laws are intended to provide parents, teachers and community members the chance to offer innovative and nontraditional approaches to education in a semi-autonomous environment.

In Colorado, the charter law is generally proclaimed a success by state and education officials.

Nearly 100 charter schools have opened statewide since former Gov. Roy Romer signed the act into law, from tiny rural schools such as Strasburg's 13-student Prairie Creeks Charter School to giants like Colorado Springs'

The Classic Academy, a 1,630-student, kindergarten through 12th-grade school.

More than 28,000 Colorado students enrolled in charter schools for the 2002-03 school year.

"That's a pretty substantial population, and there are more schools coming every day," said Jim Griffin, executive director of the Colorado League of Charter Schools.

But all is not well with the state's charter system.

School districts such as Steamboat Springs and Boulder Valley are not only challenging the tenets of the law and the authority of the state but also threatening the very future of Colorado charter schools, according to some.

Lack of enforcement

On May 19, the Steamboat Springs School Board decided it would not follow a state order to approve a Montessori charter school application. The School Board passed a resolution declaring that, in the board's view, the state order amounted to an unfunded mandate and thus was optional according to state law.

The case has sparked statewide interest from education leaders, state lawmakers, charter proponents and even Gov. Bill Owens.

Shortly after the resolution passed, Colorado Board of Education Vice Chairman Jared Polis issued a statement threatening Steamboat Springs with removal of accreditation or "other state action" if a contract with the charter applicant wasn't negotiated or close to completion before the state board's June 11 retreat.

The case has exposed what many consider a major flaw in the state's charter school law -- lack of enforcement.

Under the charter law, those interested in establishing a charter school must present apply to the local school board for approval. If approved, the two sides prepare a contract allowing the charter school to open.

If an application is denied by a local school board, the applicants can appeal to the state Board of Education. The state board either upholds the local school board's decision or orders it to reconsider the application.

If a local board reconsiders and again denies the application, a second appeal can be made to the state board.

The state board makes a second and final decision. By law, this second state decision cannot be appealed.

Only a few of the charter application disputes have run through the entire appeals process.

The Steamboat Springs Montessori charter school is one.

Steamboat's School Board twice denied the Montessori charter application, primarily on the grounds that it would harm the district's financial standing.

The state board twice disagreed with the School Board and ordered it to approve the charter application.

But the Steamboat School Board refused to accept the state's order, instead issuing a resolution declaring the order optional under the state's unfunded mandate law.

"The biggest weakness (the state board) sees right now is some sort of enforcement mechanism," State Board Chairman Randy DeHoff said. "It really relies on cooperation from both parties. If that's not there, the only recourse is for the applicants to go to court."

Going to court is often beyond the financial means of charter applicants, DeHoff said.

"And the districts know that, so they play hardball," he said. "You can enforce the law, but you can't make people like it, and they'll do anything they can to make it difficult."

The appeals process was an attempt to balance the rights of parents and educators to embrace school choice and innovation with local school district control, said state Rep. Keith King, R-El Paso.

But without granting the state board the ability to "force the situation if a school board refuses to approve a charter," the law is powerless, King said.

"I think that's the real problem with the law right now," he said. "I think the state board needs more power from the standpoint if a district refuses to open a charter school."

Alternative authorities

In some states, state boards of education, special charter boards and even city mayors are delegated the authority to approve charter school applications.

King and others believe Colorado should consider creating a chartering authority that would have the power to grant charter applications.

The issue has been explored.

State Sen. Dan Grossman, D-Denver, sponsored a bill near the conclusion of the General Assembly's most recent session giving the state board chartering authority power.

Charter applicants, in certain instances, should be able to circumvent local districts, Grossman said. "You don't want to foreclose the opportunity for parents and community members to create a charter school because a local district is hostile toward it," Grossman said. "The state has recognized the charter movement is important."

Creating a chartering authority likely would upset many school districts in a state that has long supported local education control.

"If you're going to a state chartering authority, several things will happen," said Ken DeLay, executive director of the Colorado Association of School Boards. "One is that the oversight role of the local school district will not be there. There's a very significant decision at stake here -- who's going to make decisions for the Steamboat Springs School District? (The Steamboat School Board) has said 'we are.' Some people don't think that's right."

Unless a new chartering authority can reconcile the costs of charter schools, "all we can guess is it will be given more power to intervene and impose its will on local districts," Steamboat Springs School Board President Paul Fisher said.

The League of Charter Schools' Griffin said local districts should not have sole authorization power.

"For districts to be the exclusive route by which to order a charter school is a problem," Griffin said. "There are districts who play fair and there are other districts who are hostile (toward charter schools). Authorizers need to be immune from the local politics that keep districts from being good authorizers."

DeHoff, who supports the idea of an alternative chartering authority, said local districts should never be taken completely out of the chartering process.

But he said the actions of the Steamboat Springs School Board increase the likelihood a separate chartering authority will be created.

"This is definitely the line in the sand," DeHoff said. "Something has to change."

Grossman's bill offered charter applicants a choice: go though the application process with their local school districts or take a one-shot chance with the state board.

The bill, introduced just two weeks before the legislative session ended, was postponed indefinitely. While Grossman acknowledges deficiencies in his bill, such as capital construction and local sighting issues, he said a revised edition of the bill will likely make its way back to the General Assembly next January.

School districts such as Steamboat believe changes need to be made to the law, albeit changes significantly different than those some lawmakers seek.

Financial impact

In ruling twice against accepting the Montessori charter school application, the Steamboat Springs School Board said the financial impact the charter would have on the district's other students was too great to accept.

Colorado public schools are financed through a complex formula that designates a per-pupil dollar amount to each of the state's 178 districts. If a district's per-pupil dollar amount is $5,000, it is guaranteed $5,000 in revenue for every student enrolled by October of that school year.

Each student who enrolls in a charter school takes his or her per-pupil amount to that charter school.

Under current law, charter schools are entitled to at least 95 percent of each student's per-pupil dollar amount. Districts can retain up to 5 percent for central administrative overhead costs for charter-related services.

In smaller districts -- there are about 1,900 students in the Steamboat district -- losing even a few students to a charter school can have a very real impact, Fisher said.

"The flaw that exists today is the failure to recognize that the law costs money -- and it doesn't deal with that issue," Fisher said. "Some people don't accept the idea that there's a cost to implementing charters."

The state, Fisher argues, unfairly leaves that financial burden to the local districts to figure out.

DeLay has similar concerns with the law's failure to address charter schools financial impact to districts. "(The Colorado Association of School Boards) is not opposed to more charter schools or having charter schools," he said. "What we are opposed to is mandating more charter schools without fully investigating the cost of charter schools."

Fisher and DeLay suggest financial reimbursement to districts that support charter schools.

Griffin says the financial argument waged by some districts is "ridiculous."

It is the financial responsibility of a school board to make sound financial plans for its district, Griffin said.

"To me, it's a big planning issue, and that's the responsibility of the School Board," Griffin said. "I don't have a lot of sympathy for them."

Too many districts annually overspend and fail to allocate money to reserves, Griffin said.

King thinks charter applicants need to be given access to their district's per-pupil funding when dealing with districts hostile toward charter schools.

"Somehow, applicants should have a way to capture money to go ahead and open the school, especially if it's been remanded twice," King said. He suggested district funds could be transferred to a charter school directly from the state board or the General Assembly.

"(The state) could be lining up money to cover the charter school's cost by withholding money from the district," Griffin said.

Boulder's moratorium

Steamboat Springs is not the only district that has taken measures to prevent or limit the opening of charter schools.

On May 28, 2002, the Boulder Valley School District Board of Education passed a resolution that placed a moratorium on district charter schools.

In so doing, the board refused to consider any additional charter applications.

At the time, board members said the district's five charter schools, combined with its traditional district schools, provided substantial educational choice for area parents and that other issues within the district, such as segregation in its schools, should take top priority.

Like the Steamboat Springs School Board, the Boulder Valley School Board also said charter schools restrict the ability of the district to create a financially sound budget and provide adequate resources and services to other district students.

Griffin, King and Grossman, among others, say Boulder Valley's charter moratorium is illegal and undermines the purpose of the charter school law.

In this instance, the problem may lie not in the absence of relevant language but rather the vague wording of the Colorado Charter Schools Act.

"A local board of education may reasonably limit the number of charter schools in the school district," the law states.

In the absence of a court interpretation of what a reasonable limit is, it appears Boulder Valley will continue to ban any and all charter school applications.

Colorado charter law likely will change.

It has been amended several times since it passed, but has avoided sweeping changes.

Now, irked lawmakers, failures of the law and the actions of some school districts leave some believing change is just a matter of time.

"(The law) will be changed in the next legislative session," Griffin said. "The energy is there. The Steamboat Springs School District right now is our poster child. They're giving us exactly what we need."

-- To reach Brent Boyer call 871-4234

or e-mail


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