Lawmakers considering different bills affecting charter schools in Colorado

Students at University Prep, a Denver elementary charter school, work on a computer-based assignment .
Colorado lawmakers are considering two bills affecting charter schools this session. One bill proposes to improve accountability. The other would open up a source of construction funds. (Marc Piscotty)

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Colorado lawmakers are once again considering changes to charter schools this legislative session, but unlike in past years, there’s now one big bill calling for a comprehensive list of changes that critics say will weaken charter schools.

Under the bill, charter schools, which are publicly funded but independently run, could have to pay more to use buildings owned by school districts. School districts would be allowed to keep more of the per-student funding for charters, and they would have more control over decisions to close the schools.

Lawmakers backing the bill say it’s needed to hold charter schools accountable. But charter school supporters have called the bill “harmful.”

A separate bill seeks to pave the way for more charter schools to get local funding for construction projects.

The issues addressed in the new comprehensive bill aren’t new concerns for critics of charter schools, but this may be the first time they’re all addressed in a single bill. It may be a sign of growing division on the merits of charter schools.

Democrats control both chambers of the legislature, and both bills have Democratic sponsors. But Democrats themselves don’t always agree on charter schools. In recent years, legislators have expanded funding for state-authorized charter schools and voted down bills that would have made it easier for school districts to reject charter schools.

Democratic Gov. Jared Polis founded two charter schools and is a supporter of the independently run schools. He opposes the comprehensive bill, saying it would undermine school choice.

Rep. Barbara McLachlan, a Democrat from Durango, said she does perceive a widening division among lawmakers regarding charter schools, and said that while she hasn’t made up her mind about the proposed restrictions on charters, she knows she would rather see more charters and districts working together.

“Instead of writing bills, one that is all pro-charter and one that is all anti-charter, you know, we waste a lot of time doing that,” McLachlan said. “I think eventually we’re going to have to come together.”

McLachlan sponsored the other bill, to help charters get construction funds. That’s the only one that has made its way through one of the legislative chambers. The comprehensive bill on accountability still awaits its first hearing, and is already seeing considerable pushback from pro-charter school groups.

A third bill that would have required districts to report more data about how charter schools are performing compared with district-run schools was killed earlier this month.

Here’s more information about the two bills that could still pass:

One bill focuses on strengthening charter school accountability

House Bill 1363, sponsored by Democrats Rep. Lorena Garcia, Rep. Tammy Story, and Sen. Lisa Cutter would change many rules for charter schools. Among them:

  • Charter schools would no longer be entitled to use buildings or space owned by school districts with limits on rent, and districts wouldn’t have to share lists of available space with charters. Denver Public Schools has long shared vacant buildings with charter schools and has even housed charter schools in the same buildings as district-run schools.
  • School districts could retain more of the per-pupil state funding allotted to charter schools based on their enrollment, beyond the current 5% cap. Currently, the amount retained up to that cap covers administrative and overhead costs, but under the bill, districts could also keep money to cover the costs of special education services provided to the charter. This change would eat into charter schools’ budgets and could make it harder for them to operate.
  • Charter school applications would have to include minimum enrollment thresholds, and schools would face closure if they don’t meet them. School districts are not currently allowed to close a charter school solely because of low enrollment.
  • New reporting rules would require a charter school website — and a district’s enrollment website — to include information about the laws and policies waived by the charter school, such as licensure laws for teachers.
  • Financial conflicts of interest would be strictly prohibited for charter school board members and the for-profit management companies that are sometimes hired to operate schools.
  • A change in how local school board decisions are appealed would eliminate a second appeal to the State Board of Education. At times the State Board has forced school districts to open or renew charter schools they’ve initially rejected. Most recently, the state also took away Adams 14′s ability to be the only authorizer for charter schools in the district, which paved the way for two charter schools that the district rejected, to open under authorization from the state Charter School Institute.
  • Community members would be allowed to appeal their district’s approval of a charter school.

Proponents of the bill say it’s needed to give local communities more control and to give charter schools requirements that are similar to what district-run schools have. The organizations that have signed on to support the bill include teachers unions.

Amie Baca-Oehlert, president of the Colorado Education Association, said she doesn’t consider the bill anti-charter, but rather, “pro-transparency and pro-accountability.”

“We’re supporting making sure that when parents are making decisions, they have the full picture, that they know where funding is coming from, what waivers of state law are being waived. That they understand what’s happening in their schools,” she said.

She said the union also supports allowing local school boards to make more decisions about charter schools in their communities.

Charter school advocates, meanwhile, are calling the bill harmful. Education reform groups and conservative groups such as Americans for Prosperity are against the bill, but so are other groups including the Douglas County school district, the Colorado Catholic Conference, El Paso County, and the Westminster Chamber of Commerce.

The Colorado League of Charter Schools condemned the bill, saying it “disrupts well-functioning systems and creates division between charter and traditional schools rather than improving public education.”

Dan Schaller, president of the league, said that the bill is frustrating because it brings up “some of the same fights of the past that don’t focus on kids.”

He said that if the bill was about accountability, it should focus on school outcomes. He also argues that some of the pieces of the bill are redundant and already addressed in law. Charter school boards, for example, are subject to the same conflict of interest laws that other school boards are, he said. And as far as being subject to closing because of declining enrollment, he said charter schools are already having to do that.

“Charters by their very nature have that self-regulating function built in,” Schaller said.

Gov. Polis’ office said in a statement: “Public charter schools are a popular option in Colorado, serving around 15% of our school-age children. This bill would weaken, rather than strengthen, school choice in Colorado and the Governor strongly opposes it.”

The other bill lets districts share tax money with more charters

In Colorado, charter schools can be authorized two ways: by a local school district or by the state Charter School Institute. House Bill 1154 would allow charter schools that are currently authorized by the Charter School Institute to ask to share in some of the proceeds of local voter-approved tax increases when they need funding for construction or building renovation projects.

Years ago, Colorado passed a law requiring that school districts share proceeds from their millage levy requests with their charter schools. But most districts took that to mean the charter schools they’ve approved, and not Charter School Institute Schools, even if those schools are physically located within their district.

The Charter School Institute currently authorizes 43 charter schools in the state, serving about 20,000 of Colorado’s approximately 880,000 students.

In some cases, lawmakers said during a hearing on the bill, charter schools approved by the state agency have not been allowed to share in that money. And even in cases where they ask to be included from the start, they have been turned down by school district administrators who often say that’s not allowed in the existing law.

The bill was modeled after a collaboration that took place in Durango.

McLachlan, the bill sponsor, said that in that community, the school district deliberately planned and included the state-approved charter schools in its tax request, and used that as a selling point for voters.

Voters in that community could be confident that all children in the community would benefit from the tax revenue, regardless of which school the children attended, McLachlan said.

The bill would not require districts to include charter schools authorized by the Charter School Institute, but aims to make it clear that districts can, if they choose to.

The bill was amended to lay out requirements on how these arrangements would take place, taking into account concerns from some lawmakers.

Those requirements include asking charter schools to show detailed plans ahead of time, and to explain why other funding sources aren’t enough for the capital projects. Then, school districts must enter into agreements with the charter schools that clarify how the bond proceeds would be shared and that specify that districts can take over the buildings to recover money owed if a charter school closes before the bonds are paid off.

The bill passed the House and has been introduced in the Senate.

Correction: This story was updated to reflect that Colorado law requires districts to share mill levy funding with district-approved charter schools, but not bond money.

Yesenia Robles is a reporter for Chalkbeat Colorado covering K-12 school districts and multilingual education. Contact Yesenia at yrobles@chalkbeat.org.

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