Landmark Legislative Session for Colorado's Charter Schools
May 13, 2016
Thanks to the heroic work of our Democratic leaders like Representative Angela Williams and Senator Mike Johnston who were willing to take up this fight on behalf of our kids, as well as our committed network of education champions all across our great state, Colorado’s thriving public charter schools are stronger than ever.
This session we achieved important gains in access to facilities and resources for public charters, greater regulatory flexibility, and additional accountability for district authorizers. Taken together, this package of common-sense reforms helps open up new doors of opportunity for our charters schools and students and will ensure that the innovative spirit of our public charters remains alive and well in the years ahead.
- Facilities & Resources. When it comes to creating more high-quality educational options for our kids, we can’t do that without the land and buildings necessary to open new schools. That’s why we pushed for new policies that require districts to not only let charters know of any vacant or available facilities that could be used for schools, but also require districts to consider competitive bids from charters to develop that unused land or property.
This legislation also expands the Charter Capital Construction Fund program, which is used to help finance the construction of land and buildings, by another $3 million. That brings our total allocation up to $25 million for the 2016-17 school year – an exponential increase from just $7 million two years ago. Plus, school maintenance costs are now an allowable expense for these Capital Construction funds, so we can be sure our kids are learning in clean, updated classrooms and our teachers can focus on their lessons – not worry about the leak in the ceiling.
We’ve also leveled the playing field for public charters when it comes to participating in the state’s top capital construction grant programs. Now charters, just like every other kind of school, are eligible after three years to apply – as opposed to five years. These may seem like minor policy changes and technicalities, but the truth is that opening up these critical resources to our public charter schools is essential to their long-term success.
- Regulatory Flexibility. Our schools are at their best when they are free to focus on student success and student learning, rather than spending time filling out complicated and duplicative reports. To that end, we’ve secured updated policies that reduce UIP reporting requirements from once a year to once every other year for designated “performance” schools. For charter networks or charters operating on multiple campuses, they are now allowed to undergo one comprehensive financial audit. In addition, the open meetings requirement for CSI schools has changed from requiring two board members present to three.
Getting trapped in this sort of regulatory red tape threatens the very innovative spirit that public charters are known for, which is why streamlining the process will help ensure that our charters are adequately regulated without being overburdened or held back.
- Accountability for Authorizers. Local authorizers wield an enormous amount of power over our public charter schools. Thankfully, there are a number of fantastic authorizers across Colorado helping to nurture the growth of high-performing schools, but as it stands now, there are little to no standards for authorizers and limited recourse for charters to contest the occasional bad actor in the space. To help standardize the process and install guardrails, we pushed for expanded grounds upon which schools can challenge a district’s exclusive chartering authority (ECA). The legislation establishes common best practices for authorizers and allows for a review of any practices that might go against these agreed upon standards. It also clears up the accounting rules between district authorizers and charters to make the process more fair and transparent, so that we can be sure our students are getting the resources they’ve been promised.
These are all important policy achievements that will make a huge difference in how our charters operate and will help enable faster and more effective expansion of these high-quality options in every corner of the state. But, I would argue that our biggest win this session – and our biggest opportunity for the future – came in advancing the case for funding equity for public charters.
While we didn’t get the legislation we wanted this time around, the robust debate and tireless work of our Democratic champions on Senate Bills 187 and 188 has brought this important topic to the forefront like never before. Right now, charter students in Colorado on average receive only 80 cents on the dollar in funding compared to their traditional public school peers – largely due to unfair gaps in local funding policies. But together, we’ve laid the groundwork to advance charter school funding equity and mill sharing to combat these disparities, so that every public school student in Colorado will finally get their fair share of resources in the classroom. I look forward to building on this momentum and continuing our push for equity and common sense reforms on behalf of our students.
There’s still much more work to be done, but we can all be incredibly proud of how far we’ve come in a few short months. I cannot thank our Democratic leaders, local education advocates, and brave families enough for their continued support. It’s because of you that we’ve achieved so much – and I look forward to doubling down on this progress to ensure that every child in Colorado receives the world-class public education they deserve.
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