Colorado's Charter Schools: A Spark for Change and a Catalyst for Reform
Windler, William, Phi Delta Kappan
Although some people continue to perceive charter schools as a threat, Mr. Windler finds that their introduction into Colorado has benefited the state's entire public education system. More choices are available to parents, students, and teachers; levels of community and parent involvement have greatly increased; and districts have another means at their disposal for meeting state academic standards.
The Colorado General Assembly in 1993 heard the testimony of many citizens, and from this testimony emerged the Colorado Charter Schools Act. Its purpose is to enable parents, teachers, and community members "to take responsible risks and create new, innovative, more flexible ways of educating all children within the public school system."(1) The act speaks of promoting innovation and providing for flexibility through waivers of local policies and state statutes and regulations. It aims to create semi-autonomous schools with separate governing boards, to expand public schools of choice, to create high and rigorous academic standards, and to encourage systemic reform in all schools.
A charter school in Colorado is a public school that is operated by a group of parents, teachers, and/or community members as a semi-autonomous school of choice within a school district. A charter school operates under a contract or "charter" between the members of the charter school community and the local board of education. Enrollment is open, and tuition is free to any child who resides in the state. However, enrollment preference is given to children who reside within the school district that grants the charter. In a charter school, each student, parent, and teacher chooses to belong to the school community.
Right after Colorado's Charter Schools Act was signed into law in 1993, the commissioner of education and the state board of education created the Charter Schools Project Team, which consisted of several individuals from various units in the Colorado Department of Education (CDE). The broad charge to the team was to assist with the implementation of the new law. CDE consultants were trained to provide information about the charter school legislation to all clients and to answer specific questions about the various CDE program areas, such as accountability, accreditation, food service, special education, and facilities.
The team then made presentations statewide at conferences and seminars and responded to hundreds of requests for technical assistance from parent and community groups and potential charter applicants. Team members also brought together numerous representatives from community organizations and groups who could potentially provide assistance to people interested in applying for a charter. Emphasis was placed on working with community organizations that would assist "at-risk" communities in designing charter applications. CDE staff members also developed comprehensive charter school information packets and disseminated several thousand of them within six months of the enactment of the law.
The state board of education determined that CDE could not provide school districts or applicant groups with legal assistance or advice regarding political strategies but must remain neutral in those areas. One major consideration was the fact that the state board serves in a semi-judicial role when it hears appeals from applicants who have been denied charters by their local boards. When heating an appeal of a denial, the state board must determine whether a local board's decision to deny an application was in the best interests of the students, the school district, or the community.
If the state board finds that the denial was not in the best interests of students, the district, or the community, then it must remand the decision back to the local board for further consideration. If a charter application is denied a second time by a local board, and if the state board determines on a second appeal that the local denial is still contrary to the best interests of students, school district, or community, then the state board must order the local board of education to grant the charter. …