Nora Flood, Senior Vice President of School Services at the Colorado League of Charter Schools, argues that the proposed school finance act should include equitable funding for charter school students.

Students from the Rocky Mountain Deaf School perform the national anthem at last week's charter school rally at the Capitol.
Students from the Rocky Mountain Deaf School perform the national anthem at last week’s charter school rally at the Capitol.

The Colorado Charter Schools Act passed 20 years ago this spring. Since the first two schools opened in the fall of 1993, the charter school “movement” has burgeoned into a full-fledged “sector” of K-12 public education. There are now, in the 2012-13 school year, nearly 89,000 students attending 187 charter school campuses in Colorado. This represents just shy of 11 percent of the total K-12 public school enrollment in the state. Charter schools continue to provide a platform for innovation and entrepreneurship, and choice for families and students.

Charter schools operate under contracts with their authorizing school districts or with the one statewide authorizer, the Colorado Charter School Institute. They receive per pupil funding for their students, and then pay a percentage (up to 5 percent) back to the authorizer for administrative overhead. Since the vast majority of the state’s charter schools are not in district-owned facilities, they must pay for their lease, mortgage or bond, and all facilities upkeep and maintenance out of their operating budget. They also pay back to the district for special education services and other purchased services, often with no choice in the matter as to which services and at what cost.

Charter schools are held accountable to the same state-mandated academic standards, and charter school students take the same statewide testing as do students in district-run public schools. Because they are governed by independent boards, they are also held accountable to additional standards in financial operations and governance. Charter schools pay mightily for their right to autonomy in exchange for increased accountability, and over the course of twenty years, 29 charter schools have closed.

So, the question becomes, 20 years in, do we, as a state, consider charter school students to be public school students?

There are school districts that authorize charter schools that do indeed consider charter school students to be “our kids, too.” They open up underutilized or vacant district buildings to charter schools, oversee the charter schools in a fair, objective and transparent way, and share dollars from various funding streams equitably. They want charter schools to succeed, and more importantly, they want charter school students to succeed. They understand the financial challenges charter schools face, and they negotiate contracts that provide some semblance of equity. This, unfortunately, is not the case with all districts in the state. Too many authorizing districts do not see charter school students as “our kids, too.” Instead, there can be the attitude that, “if it’s not in the law, and it’s not in the contract, we’re not required to do it.”

We are at a philosophical crossroads in Colorado. Do we, as a state and as individuals, consider charter school students to be public school students? Check the box. Yes or no.

Yes? Then how do we ensure equitable funding for the 89,000 students in charter schools?

If your answer is no, then I challenge you to stand before the parents of charter school students and explain why. We need to get politics out of the way and talk about the children. If the last School Finance Act revision was almost 20 years ago, will it be another 20 years, when we have many more students enrolled in charter schools, before we revisit the equity issue? Would the state tolerate this differential treatment for any other group of children under any other scenario? Who will explain to the tax-paying parents of charter students that their children will not benefit from mill levy funding that they pay into?

We are at a philosophical crossroads in Colorado….where do you stand?