The Steamboat Springs School Board's refusal to negotiate a contract with the proposed Montessori Charter School has gotten the state's attention.
State Board of Education member Jared Polis called it "a direct threat against the charter school movement." State Board Chairman Randy DeHoff called it a "direct challenge" to the board's authority.
DeHoff and Polis are right. The Steamboat School Board is threatening the charter school movement and the State Board's authority, and we believe the local board is right to do so.
This is not a step taken lightly. The Montessori Steering Committee has said it is prepared to file a lawsuit against the school district. If the case does proceed to court, the school district could lose more money than if it simply complied with the state's order and worked to establish a Montessori school. But given the stakes, it is a risk worth taking.
There will be a number of school districts across the state watching the Steamboat Springs case with interest. Boulder Valley and Jefferson County in particular have seen charter school after charter school in their districts whittle away at their funding.
The Steamboat Springs case raises three major issues that need to be resolved:
n Is the charter school law, established more than a decade ago, doing what it was designed to accomplish? In theory, charter schools should be most prevalent in low-performing districts, where families desperately need school options. But the law has been used widely in wealthy, high-performing districts, where residents are more apt to have the time, money and resources necessary to pursue charters. The end result is that charters can damage school districts while failing to help those most in need.
n Does the charter school law undermine the state constitution? In general, the state constitution gives local school boards the authority to guide educational decisions in their districts. The State Board of Education's power to order school districts to create charter schools would seem to conflict with that concept of local control.
n Does the state's order to Steamboat Springs equate to an unfunded mandate, as the Steamboat Springs School Board maintains? Montessori proponents would argue that the per-pupil funding used for the charter school amounts to a wash for the school district. But inevitably it is not practical for the school district to reduce expenses in an amount equal to lost funding because of students departing to charter schools.
We disagree with the movement to create a Montessori Charter School. As we have said before, the Montessori group has failed to establish that such a school is needed given the success of our existing public schools and the financial impact it would have on those schools. Still, it would be wrong to blame the Montessori Steering Committee for the steps it has taken. The group has simply followed the rules the state has established for charter schools.
But in our estimation, the rules aren't working, and someone needed to draw a line in the sand. That's why, despite the risks involved, the School Board's decision to continue to fight the Montessori charter application is the right one.