Expanding school choice in Colorado requires overcoming obstacles to authorization, the Independence Institute reports.
By Eileen Griffin
Colorado school choice is limited by the process for authorizing new schools, the Independence Institute reports.
Colorado offers parents a variety of education options from public schools, magnets, and charters to online academies, homeschools, and learning pods.
However, the addition of new charter schools is often stymied by a cumbersome authorization process, says Education Policy Center Senior Fellow Ross Izard, in a study titled “Public School Choice and Authorization in Colorado: Current Practices and New Pathways,” published by the Independence Institute.
Public School Competition
Public charter schools are governed by their own independent boards, but must be authorized to operate in the state.
Charter schools must be authorized by the locally elected board of education or the Colorado Charter School Institute (CSI). Even with CSI approval, the local school board must grant permission for that authorization by “releasing” the applicant to the CSI, according to Izard.
“Given that it is these school boards that are denying the charter application in the first place—and often after protracted and heated battles—gaining such release can be difficult,” writes Izard. “Even if permission is granted, the CSI authorization process itself is arduous and sometimes lengthy.”
School Board Politics
Local school board members are elected every four years and they face political pressure from an influential bloc of voters: school district employees.
Several schools have been denied approval under this process, despite waiting lists of students for existing charters, writes Izard.
“School districts are often reluctant to allow charter schools to start or grow because they perceive those schools as ‘stealing’ students—and the funding attached to them—from the traditional public schools operated by the school district,” writes Izard. “Perversely, this bias against charter schools can be particularly severe in cases where charter schools can demonstrate significant parental demand—an illustration of the frequent mismatch between school district interests and the desires of parents.”
A Third Way
There is a rarely used alternative route to authorizing a new school under Colorado’s law governing boards of cooperative educational services (BOCES), says Izard.
BOCES are formed by a group of districts to share services, such as special education, transportation, or specialized staff. BOCES can also authorize non-charter public schools of choice.
There are 21 BOCES currently operating in Colorado, and nine schools authorized by BOCES.
“Like other choice schools, these campuses often provide specialized programs to students
in one or more BOCES member districts,” writes Izard.
For example, Rocky Mountain School of Expeditionary Learning focuses heavily on the principles of Outward Bound, Yampah Mountain High School provides personalized learning plans to students (including blended learning), and School of Excellence serves students with diverse social, emotional, and behavioral needs.
Parents Want More Choice
Three Denver mothers, Audra Burgos, Brittney Cardwell, and Claudia Carrillo, wrote an opinion piece for the Colorado Sun expressing the need to improve Colorado’s school choice program.
“There are so many reasons we’ve used choice, and so many ways our families and our kids have benefited from choice,” the trio write. “This is what we want for every family and child in Denver.”
The three mothers say that school choice is necessary and important.
“We are all motivated by our desire to do what’s best for our kids and our families,” the mothers write. “Collectively, we are enrolled in all types of schools—district-run, charter, and innovation. We’re not motivated by a desire to send our kids to one school over another. We’re simply looking for the best fit for our children’s specific needs.”
School choice policy has remained unchanged in Colorado since the 2008 Innovation Schools Act, but some state leaders are discussing the need for more school choice.
“All of us face a public school system that is hemorrhaging quality teachers and will fail to meet the needs of far too many students unless we focus on students instead of a system,” Senate Minority Leader Paul Lundeen (R-Monument) said during the first General Assembly of 2023.
State Rep. Rose Pugliese (R-Colorado Springs), a single mother of two, told Colorado Politics that school choice is very important for parents.
“I’m very dedicated to making sure that parents have a strong role in the education of their children,” Pugliese told the outlet. “I’m a huge advocate for choice because not all schools are right for every child.”
Pugliese has been assigned to the House Education Committee for the current session. While on the committee, she wants to make sure parents have more access to options and resources.
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