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Democrats Work To Erase The Biggest School Choice Option In Colorado

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Image CreditNeon Tommy / Flickr / CC by-SA 2.0, cropped

The bill represents a full frontal assault on charter schools and the hundreds of thousands of families they serve across Colorado.

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Public charter schools are an integral part of Colorado’s educational ecosystem. The Centennial State is now home to more than 260 charter schools that serve north of 130,000 students — more than 15 percent of the state’s total public school enrollment.

Now some state lawmakers want to see these innovative, autonomous schools disappear. Introduced in early March following months of rumors and threats, Colorado House Bill 24-1363 takes aim at nearly every aspect of the state’s 30-year-old Charter Schools Act. The bill’s sponsors — Rep. Lorena Garcia, D-Adams/Jefferson, Rep. Tammy Story, D-Jefferson, and Sen. Lisa Cutter, D-Jefferson — introduced the bill despite widespread pushback and concern with early drafts from both sides of the political aisle.

The sponsors’ intent is clear: to end Colorado’s longstanding, highly successful charter school movement. Effectively every line in the 55-page bill represents a full frontal assault on charters and the hundreds of thousands of families they serve across Colorado. Let’s run through just a few of the most damaging provisions.

Race-Based School Boards

The bill would dismantle charter autonomy by attacking the two features that allow these schools to operate independently: waivers from certain laws and policies and independent, school-level governing boards.

HB24-1363 would eliminate existing automatic waivers for charters that, among other things, grant these schools the freedom to determine how they hire and fire staff, set salary schedules, and make decisions about educational programming and materials. Instead, these (and all other) waiver decisions would be subject to the Colorado State Board of Education, a body currently comprised of a 6-3 Democrat majority that tends to lean strongly against educational choice.

The bill would also dictate how charter governing boards — which are public bodies subject to state law — should be filled. These boards are filled internally by charter schools based on their needs and goals. They typically include parents and other community members who bring certain skill sets, relationships, or other value to the boards. HB24-1363 would require that these boards include a prescribed percentage of parents and “reflect the demographics of the community where the charter school is located.”

These requirements are unheard of for other public bodies. We do not dictate demographic quotas to local school boards, boards of county commissions, city councils, or (notably) the state legislature. They are also impossible to satisfy, as the bill does not define “community” or “demographics” and therefore leaves charters to wonder what exactly they should be looking for when recruiting board members. The requirements also ignore that charters are schools of choice that often pull students from well outside the communities where they are located.

School Boards Get to Choose if They Have Competition

If independently governed charters do not meet these requirements, they must explain themselves to their authorizers — usually local school boards — like children being called into the principal’s office. In this case, those authorizers effectively hold unlimited authority over a charter’s continued existence.

We say “unlimited authority” because HB24-1363 also tightens the iron fist under which most charters already exist. It guts the only appeals process available to charters treated unfairly by local school boards and provides new avenues for opponents to overturn charter approvals.

First, some quick background information. In Colorado, there are only two possible authorization pathways for charter schools: their local district school board or the Colorado Charter School Institute (CSI).

In nearly all cases, school districts have “exclusive chartering authority,” which means they retain sole discretion over which schools may exist within their geographic boundaries. In practice, this means charters denied by a local school board cannot even apply with CSI unless the school board “releases” them to do so. It’s worth noting that school district authorizers are being asked essentially to greenlight their own competition.

Charters unfairly treated by their authorizers may appeal denial decisions to the Colorado State Board of Education. After two such appeals, the state board may issue a final order to the local school board to overturn an unfair denial. This is the only recourse available to charters whose applications are denied.

HB24-1363 would eliminate the ability of the state board to issue binding decisions reversing denials from hostile local school boards, removing the final arrow in charter applicants’ political and legal quivers and imbuing school districts with unchallenged authority over these schools’ existence.

More Pressure to Prevent New Charter Schools

That’s not all the bill would do. It would also allow for full-blown moratoriums and new excuses for district boards to deny charter applications, such as in cases where those districts are experiencing declining enrollment. The unwritten wink behind that language: Seven of Colorado’s 10 largest school districts, along with many dozens of others, are already experiencing declining enrollment and have been since lockdowns.

Declining enrollment suggests more choice and innovation, not less, would be a strategy worth pursuing. The sponsors clearly disagree, preferring to add an extra padlock to the chains holding families in their traditional public schools.

One Random Person Can Overrule an Elected Board

Just to make sure that no illusion of safety still exists for charters, HB24-1363 makes one more change to the appeals process: It allows any individual within the geographic boundaries of a school district to challenge a school board’s approval of a charter application.

Think about that for a moment. After hundreds or even thousands of hours of work, planning, and negotiation, a charter that wins approval from a locally elected school board could find the rug ripped out from underneath it thanks to a single unelected political opponent who may have nothing at all to do with the school or the community it serves.

Any student of American government should be horrified at the idea that a single politically motivated individual could potentially override the vote of an elected body and run roughshod over the desires of hundreds of parents without having to establish legal standing or even a tangential connection to the conversation.

Will the legislature allow similar authority for any single citizen to undo the many harmful changes it has enacted in recent years without going through years of expensive litigation? We aren’t holding our breath, but we have a long list prepared just in case. 

All These Roadblocks Apply to Current Charter Schools

These new powers to deny charter schools do not just apply to new schools. They also apply to existing schools, which must seek renewal every few years. In practice, that means that local school boards would have the authority to close schools serving hundreds or even thousands of students with effectively no requirement to consider the effects on those students or their families.

For these and many other reasons, HB24-1363 represents an unconscionable attempt to undermine parental choice in Colorado. There is no room for negotiation on this bill, no path to compromise or agreement. There is also no room for complacency or inaction. The state legislature must defeat this bill, loudly and convincingly, before it can damage the futures of hundreds of thousands of Colorado students.


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