#AmplifyChoice: The Case For Charter Schools

At the recent Amplify Choice event held in Denver, Colorado, participants heard from advocates and elected officials in the state on the issue of charter schools.

Amplify Choice Kick off SmallIn 1993, Colorado adopted a charter school law. Since it’s inception, Colorado has seen a healthy number of charter schools formed.

Currently, there are 226 charters schools and one-third of the state’s districts have a charter school in them.

That translated to 108,793 students, which is about 12% of the state student population in K-12. Denver (K-12) has 18% of their students  now attending a charter school.

From the mid 2000’s through 2005, Denver started to really embrace charters.

At the time, Denver had the lowest rates of academic growth of Colorado medium and large districts. Out of 98,000 open seats, 31, 000 were empty.

Almost a quarter of Denver students left Denver Public Schools for private schools in other districts or charters at the cost of $125 million a year to the district and less than 29% of students graduated in 4 years.

By Fall 2014, the percentage of students scoring at or above grade level increased from 33 to 48% in reading, writing and math. Flashing forward to today, 65% of students are now graduating on time.

In short, Denver charter schools are outperforming their traditional public school counterparts:

Schaller Charters OutPerform Slide sm

Dan Schaller, Director of Advocacy at the CO league of Charter Schools, gave a presentation on the successes and lessons learned with charter schools in Colorado. Schaller said that, “Denver’s embracing of charters is the key. In the last decade, charters have seen as a key strategy for improving education.”.

Schaller attributed Denver’s success with charters to their increased autonomy coupled with increased accountability.

Schaller stressed the point that charter schools are public schools and are funded as such. Schaller was asked about what the process entailed in stripping a charter if they aren’t working out.

Schaller commented that charters are subject to stringent accountability measures, stating that charters have, “3-5 year contracts” and a, “Stipulation of turn around status of 2 or more years, there has to be a process engaged to possibly end and take action before renewal date comes up.”.

It was also made known that Colorado charters are serving more students of color and ELL students than traditional schools. During the 2015-16 school year, 51,052 students of color attended a charter school. That’s 46.9% of the charter school population. See more Colorado Charter School Quick Facts.

In Colorado, students can enroll across district lines by using their open enrollment system.

Schaller’s presentation also highlighted the funding gap that so many other states also see when it comes to charter schools.

Colorado employs state and federal funding as well as what is called a Mill Levy Override to fund their districts. These overrides are a type of property tax used to help fund schools. In most districts, the Mill Levy Override fees are not being shared equitably with charters.

In a previous interview conducted with Schaller, he noted the disparity in funding — charters overall were receiving only 80 cents on the dollar in comparison with their traditional school counterparts.

“Charter school students represent 12 percent of the K–12 population,” Schaller said. “If charter schools were combined into their own district, they would be the largest district in the State of Colorado at this point. And yet, despite those big numbers, we still see that the typical charter school student is receiving 80 cents on the dollar compared with regular, traditional public school peers.”Heartland School News, 05/05/16

Following Schaller’s presentation was one on the politics and policies of charter schools. Rep. Angela Wilson (D-7) spoke more about the Mill Levy Override situation. Currently, around 61% of districts share the Mill Levy Override money with charters in their district, however the remaining districts do not cost charters an estimated $24 million a year.

Wilson alluded to a very long process of negotiations on the Mill Levy bill (SB 16-188), which ended up being returned to the House Committee for Education and “postponed indefinitely”.

Wilson warned, “Be aware of party politics, partisan politics — be patient, it is a long negotiating process. You won’t always get what you want, so keep going back.”

Wilson also said the one policy item she would like to see passed in the coming session was the Mill Levy Override. “There are 5 districts now that do it right, but there are 43,000 kids out there not getting the funding on an equal basis.” said Rep. Wilson.

Taking a look at North Carolina, there is also a funding gap. In an interview with Dr. Terry Stoops of the John Locke Foundation, the gap is over $1,000.

“According to the latest data available, the average district school in North Carolina receives at least $1,100 per student more than the typical charter school. Unlike district schools, charter schools do not receive state and local capital funding or county-funded debt service payments on their behalf.”

“Despite that funding disparity, charter school students tend to outperform their district school counterparts on state assessments.” said Dr. Stoops.

“North Carolina education officials appear to have little interest in eliminating the funding disparity between district and charter schools.” Stoops explained.  “Many of them seem content to treat charters as a system of separate and unequal public schools.”

“District school leaders want to perpetuate a system of inequitable funding because it impedes the growth of their primary competitor. It is not about the well-being of children. It is about dominating market share.” stated Stoops.

Stoops authored an article in January of this year outlining the gains in School Choice, noting that on the 20th anniversary of charter schools in the state, there were now around 82,000 students enrolled in 158 schools.

In the article, Dr. Stoops also noted that charter schools operate in 59 of the 100 counties in the state and that 16 more schools were on the approval slate for August of 2016.  That number of 16 never materialized and only 8 of that 16 were actually voted on and approved by the North Carolina State Board of Education.

What’s unusual about this turn of events is that all 16 were approved by the Charter School Advisory Board (CSAB), yet the State Board of Education only voted on those schools who received unanimous approval from CSAB.  This represents a break in the usual protocol for charter school approval by the State Board of Education.

CSAB didn’t take the change lying down. The group issued a resolution, requesting the State Board of Education consider each application approved by CSAB. Taylor also sits on the NC Board of Education.

Kari Travis reported on this battle for Carolina Journal.

The article cites Becky Taylor, a non-voting member of CSAB, who seems to have blown off CSAB’s recommendations.

This dismissal by Taylor comes despite thousands of pages being reviewed and interviews taken from applicants across the state. Travis captured Taylor’s comments:

“My concerns were about dialogue that indicated one way of going with the vote, and then when it came to the vote, it was like everybody forgot what they said,” Taylor said of the CSAB’s applications review. “And so I wasn’t sure what that was all about. I do trust the [advisory board] because we do have experts there, and we do rely on the experts, but I just did not hear their discussion matching up with their votes.”

Chairman of the State Board of Education, Bill Cobey, was cited in the article as well.

Cobey said rumors were untrue suggesting that the state board wants the CSAB to recommend only those charter applications that receive unanimous support. Additionally, he said, if the state board rejects a charter’s application one time, it does not prevent that charter operator from seeking and gaining approval in another year, saying every review is treated separately.

Walker disagreed, saying that the state board’s actions may affect how charters are approved in the future.

Meanwhile, those 8 schools approved by CSAB who spent countless hours going through the process and who paid $1,000 each to apply are now back at square one.

Read the full article at Carolina Journal.

Resources: 2016 State of Charter Schools Triennial Report (CO Dept. of Education)

About A.P. Dillon

A.P. Dillon is a reporter currently writing at The North State Journal. She resides in the Triangle area of North Carolina. Find her on Twitter: @APDillon_ Tips: APDillon@Protonmail.com
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