Vail Daily column: What is a charter school? | VailDaily.com

Vail Daily column: What is a charter school?

Election season is upon us. Nine civic-minded residents have stepped up to run for the Eagle County School Board and, at least in part, what may be determined by this election is the direction the Eagle County Charter Academy will take heading into the foreseeable future.

Like a well-loved Hacky Sack, the term “charter school” is kicked about without much thought to what it is. And despite what some would claim are the various hiccups and stutters of the ECCA, it has persisted as a member of our community for a healthy 20 years. Whether you are for it or a’gin it — or have never given it any particular thought — for some members of the community, it has been, and remains, divisive. Maybe, then, we should all know a little something about what a charter school really is.

THEY OPERATE VIA A CONTRACT

In the state of Colorado, charter schools are public schools that operate via a contract with an “authorizer” such as the local school district or, in some cases, the Colorado Charter School Institute. The Colorado Charter School Institute is an independent agency of the Colorado Department of Education and is the only independent, statewide charter school authorizer in Colorado. The Colorado Charter School Institute authorizes 34 Colorado charter schools statewide, among them, Eagle County’s Stone Creek Charter School. As noted above, other charter schools, such as the ECCA, are “authorized” under contract or “charter” with the local school district.

The enactment of charter schools sought the creation of schools with “high, rigorous standards for pupil performance,” with special emphasis on expanded opportunities for low-achieving students. … Instead, some have argued, the express purpose of “lifting up” challenged learners has been left behind where low-achieving students and minorities have been under-represented or even subtly excluded.

‘SCHOOL OF CHOICE’

A charter school in Colorado is operated by a group of parents, teachers and/or community members as a semi-autonomous “school of choice” within the particular school district, operating under the contract or “charter” contract between the members of the charter school community and the local board of education. Thus, why some see board elections as so key.

In a charter school, each student, parent and teacher chooses to be there. The “charter” as defined in the Charter Schools Act (Sections 22-30.5-101 et. seq. C.R.S.), passed into law in 1993, spells out the school goals, standards, education design, governance and operations. The degree of autonomy to be exercised by the charter school on such issues as personnel, curriculum and facilities is negotiated between the charter applicants and the local school district and is reflected in the charter. School-centered governance, autonomy and a clear design for how and what students will learn are the essential characteristics of a charter school.

Partially autonomous

Under Colorado law, a charter school is not a separate legal entity independent of the school district. Instead, for those not authorized by Colorado Charter School Institute, it is a public school defined uniquely by its charter and is partially autonomous while remaining within the school district. The approved charter application and accompanying agreements are the charter which serve as a contract between the charter school and the local board of education.

In authorizing charter schools, the General Assembly intended to create an avenue for parents, teachers and community members “to take responsible risks and create new, innovative, more flexible ways of educating all children within the public school system.”

The Charter Schools Act notes that, “Different pupils learn differently.”

The enactment of charter schools sought the creation of schools with “high, rigorous standards for pupil performance,” with special emphasis on expanded opportunities for low-achieving students. The General Assembly sought “to create an atmosphere in Colorado’s public schools where research and development in developing different learning opportunities is actively pursued.” Instead, some have argued, the express purpose of “lifting up” challenged learners has been left behind where low-achieving students and minorities have been under-represented or even subtly excluded.

As originally conceived, charter schools were intended to afford a means of expanding choice in Colorado public schools. Ideally, the charter process was intended to provide an avenue for educators, communities and parents to harness innovative thinking to create “out of the box” learning opportunities for “special” thinkers. They were intended to offer teachers a chance to be part of designing and working in semi-autonomous, creative schools under clearly defined (and articulated) philosophical approaches.

DEVIL IS IN THE DETAILS

Some of the special features of charter schools include that, as a semi-autonomous institution, the local school district will not automatically assign students to the school. Instead, parents must apply to a charter school if they choose to enroll their child in the school. A charter school generally has more flexibility than traditional public schools as regards curriculum, fiscal management and overall school operations, and may offer educational programs that are more innovative than traditional public schools. A charter school may request waivers from certain provisions of state law and any state or local rule, regulation, policy or procedure relating to schools in the school district.

While a charter school has flexibility through waivers, in exchange for this flexibility, the school is bound by its contract to be held accountable for meeting the performance-based objectives specified in the charter. When the charter is not followed, the remedy can be revocation of the charter. In essence, so doing would be based on principles of contract and the grounds of revocation would be breach.

Charter schools are the same — and different — than other public schools and reflect the common desire of all parents to give their kids the best. The devil, though, like so many well-intended things, is in the details. Thankfully, most times, when conscientious people put their minds to it, whatever differences may exist can be worked out with a little honest give-and-take.

Rohn K. Robbins is an attorney licensed before the bars of Colorado and California who practices in the Vail Valley with the law firm of Stevens, Littman, Biddision, Tharp and Weinberg LLC. His practice areas include business and commercial transactions, real estate and development, family law, custody, divorce and civil litigation. He may be reached at 970-926-4461 or at either of his email addresses, robbins@slblaw.com or robbins@colorado.net.