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Colorado Should Expand Power of Statewide Authorizer

A recent op-ed by Colorado Congressman Jared Polis highlights an important problem in Colorado, but it focuses on symptoms rather than the cause. Polis points out that charter school waitlists around the country (over 600,000 nationwide) prove that school choice is an important issue to parents seeking alternatives to traditional public K-12 education. In Colorado alone, charter school waitlists exceed 40,000, which is almost half the number of students already enrolled in Colorado charter schools. He recommends the federal government invest more in school choice, particularly the replication of high-performing charter schools that have effectively demonstrated what works in today’s classrooms.

Polis said:

“I believe that a robust federal charter school policy should encourage the establishment of more high-performing schools, replicate what works in education, and ensure robust accountability for public dollars. That’s why I have introduced the All Students Achieving Through Reform (All-STAR) Act. This bill updates and improves the federal government’s program to support the financing and growth of public charter schools across the country. It does so by enabling and encouraging new charter school startups in addition to the replication and expansion of high-quality charter schools.”

Although his legislation is welcome, there is a note of irony attached to it; replicating a successful model in Colorado will require substantial outside investment, which the state has historically rejected as distasteful.

Only a few states passed charter legislation in the early years of the charter movement. Minnesota led the pack in 1991 and California followed soon thereafter in 1992. But those two states could not be more different in terms of how the charter movement developed within them. Minnesota  clammed up and made entry difficult for charter school operators, while California welcomed CMOs, EMOs, and all manner of educational service providers (ESPs). Today, Minnesota has just over 150 charter schools and California has 1,065.

One of the reasons for California’s dramatic charter growth over the years is this openness to charter operators. Minnesota as of 2011 had only one EMO operating in the entire state, while California had 21. That may not seem like a big difference given the population discrepancy, but consider this: Minnesota also only had 1 CMO, while California had 234. Moreover, free-standing schools not run by charter operators comprised over 98% of Minnesota’s charter schools, and only 72% of California’s.

The advantages of contracting with a charter operator are many, and we cover a lot of important info in our FAQ. But school districts, which are almost always inherently anti-charter, are rabidly anti-EMO, so getting authorized at the district level is typically impossible for a charter operator.

Charter operators tend to rely on “statewide authorizers” to obtain chartership when local denial is anticipated. Statewide authorizers usually have the power to place charter schools in districts that are too stubborn to authorize one themselves, even when they need it. Michigan uses universities to authorize charter schools, and Texas uses its own agency at the state level (the TEA) to authorize charter schools. Florida’s state agency doesn’t actually authorize charters, but does provide a fair appeals process in the event the local district denies a charter for no good reason.

And this brings us back to Colorado. Representative Polis wants to expand federal influence, allowing charter schools to replicate, but his home state of Colorado is one of the most restrictive states in terms of allowing said replication.

Exceptions exist. For instance, KIPP has a small network in Denver, and that CMO isn’t from the area. DSST (Denver School of Science and Tech) has a small network as well, but the name clearly gives away the CMO’s native status.

Other than that, Colorado is not host to the same operator networks that Michigan is to National Heritage Academies, or that Florida is to Charter Schools USA, or that California is to Green Dot. All those charter operators are native to those states and they serve them well, but Colorado’s native operators can’t even absorb their own waitlists.

In any other charter-friendly state, non-native operators could swoop in, replicate their successful model in Colorado, and ease enrollment pressures. The problem with Colorado is that getting those charters as a non-native operator is actually quite difficult.

Of the 179 districts in Colorado, all of them have the power to charter. However, Colorado has an exception in their law that allows some of those districts “exclusive chartering authority,” meaning that the statewide authorizer that is so important to charter operators cannot authorize schools there. Currently, only 10 districts do not possess this exclusive authority.

This means the Colorado Charter Schools Institute (CCSI), the statewide authorizer, cannot grant charters to any operator targeting 169 of those districts, and with the power-to-charter in the local board’s hands in those situations, the chance of getting a charter as a non-native operator is very small indeed. In fact, of the 187 charter schools in Colorado in 2012-13, only 22 of them were authorized by the CCSI.

Of course, years of building relationships and preparing for entry could help a non-native charter operator ease into Colorado wherever it likes, but what does the state do with its charter waitlist in the meantime? …Nothing.

How do Denver-based CMOs replicate fast enough to absorb all those kids elsewhere? …They don’t.

What does Colorado tell its parents waiting for school choice? …”Sorry, Denver folks, you’ll just have to wait for KIPP and DSST to build more schools…everyone else in Fort Collins and Colorado Springs, well, just hang tight for a couple of years until we can get an EMO in here willing to fight for a charter.”

Colorado needs to expand the chartering power of its statewide authorizer, because the charter operators capable of truly investing in Colorado and replicating their successful model will not fight local battles if there’s a chance of being denied in the end.

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