To state Sen. Owen Hill, the issue is simple.
"We [should] treat all public school students equally within a district," the Colorado Springs Republican says.
Hill, chair of the Senate Education Committee as his second four-year term begins, says that's not happening right now because charter schools don't always get an equal share of mill levy increases approved by school district voters.
The money from those taxes isn't divvied up automatically based on pupil counts. Instead, it's distributed based on contracts that charters agree to when approved by a school district. Some districts might give charters a large share of those funds; some may not give them any.
Hill is co-sponsoring Senate Bill 61 — similar to a bill of his that failed last session — trying to change that system. The bill would require school districts to distribute mill levies on a per-pupil basis, starting in the 2017-18 school year, to charters and traditional public schools.
Some exceptions exist. If a mill levy was passed to fund something that a charter doesn't offer (like school buses), the charter won't get the money. If a charter school was authorized by a school district other than the one it was located within, then the authorizing district would only owe it the per-pupil amount for kids who reside in its boundaries. Charter schools authorized by the state's Charter School Institute would be compensated by the Department of Education based on a calculation of mill levies collected by "the charter school's accounting district."
To Hill, the bill aims to correct an unfair situation. Currently, he says, "[Parents have] got this situation where they go to one school on one side of the street and that school receives $10,000 for that child, or if they go to the school on the other side of the street, the school board will basically say, 'Well, all you get is $2,500 if your child goes there.' So now we're picking winners and losers among our kids."
But Hill's view isn't shared by all legislators or education workers.
What Hill leaves out, they say, is that charters aren't equal in any other way — they don't follow the same rules or meet the same standards. So why, they say, should they be treated the same only when it comes to funding?
When Colorado legalized charters in 1993, it was hoped they would foster innovation, serve different needs and give options to families in struggling areas.
Many specialize. In Colorado Springs, for instance, two new charters were recently authorized: Landmark Community School, a sober high school, and the Colorado Military Academy, a military-style K-12.
Charters may not get all the district funds they desire, but they receive no less than 95 percent of state per-pupil funding, often get a portion of district funding, and can apply for a variety of federal and private funds.
Back in 2014, for instance, Philanthropy News Digest reported, "Denver-based DSST Public Schools [a system of charter schools] has announced a $7 million pledge from cable television entrepreneur John C. Malone and the Malone Family Foundation." The Walton Family Foundation announced last year that it would give $1 billion over the next five years to expand charters and school choice.
Charters are not forced to abide by all laws and standards that apply to traditional public schools. According to the Colorado Department of Education, charter schools are automatically granted waivers to 17 state laws. Among them are "local board duties concerning competitive bidding" and "local board powers — accepting gifts, donations and grants." Unlike traditional schools, charters are not required to hire licensed teachers nor must they follow many employment rules that apply to firing and paying teachers.
What's more, charters can ask the State Board of Education to waive other laws. Charters are eligible to have all but three sections of laws waived. What that means, says Sen. Mike Merrifield, D-Colorado Springs and a former high school music teacher, is that charters get a pass on many expensive requirements, but are free to raise money in ways that are difficult or impossible for traditional public schools.
"I would be more inclined to be supportive [of Senate Bill 61] if [charters] would adhere to all the same requirements that local public schools do," Merrifield says.
Another critic: the state's largest teachers' union, the Colorado Education Association. CEA President Kerrie Dallman has a litany of complaints about SB61. Chief among them: "We have a chronically underfunded system, and what Owen Hill's bill does is pull money out of classrooms in order to direct it to these charter schools. What we ought to be doing is talk about growing the pie."
The charter system in general also has its detractors. A statewide poll of 500 registered voters in January 2016 found that "voters overwhelmingly favor charter school reform proposals."
The GBA Strategies poll, performed for In the Public Interest and the Center for Popular Democracy, found, for instance, that 88 percent wanted to "require state officials to conduct regular audits of charter schools' finances to detect fraud, waste or abuse of public funds"; 76 percent wanted to "require charter schools to publicly disclose they are exempt from some state or school district laws including the law requiring public school teachers to be licensed to teach"; and 74 percent wanted to "require companies and organizations that manage charter schools to disclose outside funding including gifts, grants, and donations." The margin of error was plus or minus 4.4 percentage points.
Last summer, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the Movement for Black Lives (which includes Black Lives Matter organizers) both came out against charter schools. The groups expressed concerns ranging from the privatization of the public school system to segregation based on perceived abilities, to lack of transparency and accountability. That's notable, because charters, remember, were originally seen as a better way to educate underserved communities.
Cheyenne Mountain School District 12 Superintendent Walt Cooper says his district has long had a great relationship with its charter, The Vanguard School, which is actually located just outside D-12's boundaries. D-12 authorized it agreeing that Vanguard would get a per-pupil portion of D-12's mill levies — but only for Vanguard students living within D-12's boundaries. Cooper says the agreement was fair, and it actually wouldn't change should SB61 pass (a key change from last year's version of the bill). But he opposed Hill's first bill, and he's not keen on SB61 either.
Cooper says he's a fan of local control, adding, "A one-size-fits-all approach does not work."
What's more, he says, there are differences between charters and traditional schools — and that's fine. But, he says, "Let's either all play by exactly the same rules ... or recognize [charters] for the fact that they are different and let's not try to make them the same."
Hill has a counter to the "charters are different" argument. School districts can apply for waivers to state laws too, he says.
That's true. Districts can apply for waivers for "innovation schools" with specific, approved plans. But they don't get automatic waivers, and aren't eligible for as many waivers as charters. Plus, Cooper says, the state board seems less inclined to grant waivers for traditional schools.
He recounts D-12's recent waiver application for its kindergarten program. Cooper says he worked with Vanguard, whose application for the same waiver was approved immediately, to produce his own application. But Cooper's proposal wasn't rubber-stamped. It took three months, three tries and appearing before the state board to get his application approved, with a three-year sunset.
"Basically, we copied their [Vanguard's] homework, and they got an A and we got a D," he says. "We were asking for exactly the same thing."
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