Vail Daily column: Charter school fixes
The 2016 legislative session has been relatively quiet on the education policy front. Frankly, for most associated with our schools, this has been a welcome change.
Perhaps the biggest education legislation put forth this year comes with the introduction of Senate Bills 187 and 188, which collectively contain provisions to equalize funding for charter schools in the state with traditional district schools. The bills also propose a list of other wanted changes from the state’s charter school lobby.
To be clear, most school districts in the state already equalize funding with their district-authorized charter schools, which means that these districts provide their charter schools with an equalized portion of local property taxes. This is the case for Eagle County Schools and our district-authorized charter school, the Eagle County Charter Academy.
In contrast, Stone Creek Charter School is authorized by a state agency called the Charter School Institute and is not part of the local school district. Stone Creek is an example for which funding is not equalized because the state has not provided this leveled funding for the charter schools it operates.
Knives are already drawn on these bills. Charter school advocates (including their state lobbyists and significant support from billionaire-funded national groups) say that some charter schools are unfairly resourced because of the way school funding is structured in Colorado.
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Advocates from the traditional school lobby (representing teachers, administrators and local boards of education) say some charter schools cherry-pick only low-risk and wealthy students and are already provided additional funds because they are the darlings of education reform philanthropists. The school lobby’s biggest gripe is that these bills walk all over the idea of local decision-making and feel more like big government meddling.
In my view, both sides have valid points.
The original idea behind charters was about innovation and freeing these schools from burdensome mandates and red tape. Today, however, the concept of charters morphed into a different meaning with the introduction of market-based educational reforms, where the big idea is to provide families with school choice and spawn competition, just like in a free-market. Parents choose the best schools and the poorer performing ones fail and are closed. Or at least so goes the theory.
Charters were supposed to be able to deliver education better and cheaper than traditional schools. The fact that the charter school lobby is now asking to have their funds equalized should provide some insight into how that promise has played out.
Looking beyond our borders, the best performing international systems do not have charter schools. Instead, high performing international systems work diligently (in most cases, for decades) to build up their existing schools, innovating from within through a focus on quality instruction and creating systems to address the effects of poverty on learning.
In most of the United States, and certainly here in Colorado, we are on a different path and seem to have clearly embraced the market-based approach. There are dozens of charter schools (both district and independently authorized) operating across the state with thousands of students enrolled. Charters are now an important and integral part of our school landscape in Colorado.
It should be clear by now that I’m skeptical of these market based reforms. However, if we are going to have charter schools, the state should fund them adequately so they can provide quality services for their students — as we should with any public school.
But there is much more baked into these bills than funding equalization and this is the problem. These bills contain a laundry list of other changes that are simply wants from the charter school side.
Here are some specific changes I think need to be made to these bills to improve them as public policy:
• The current legislation prescribes a formulaic approach to how local districts must share funds with charter schools. This one-size-fits-all approach is big government at its worst and will almost certainly lead to perverse and misdirected spending. A better model would be to require school districts and their charters to negotiate in good faith on a locally developed and mutually agreeable sharing plan, with an opportunity to appeal to a third-party (like the court system) if the local negotiation fails.
• The legislation requires local school districts to equalize their funding, but does nothing real to equalize funding for the schools authorized by the state. I can’t tell if the legislation is implying these students are worth less or if this is simply political cowardice. In the grand scheme of things, the dollars required to equalize funding for the state charter schools (like Eagle County’s Stone Creek) is not large in relation to the entire state budget. If funding equalization is a good idea for local districts, it’s a good idea for the state, too. The legislature needs to pony up the funds to equalize these schools.
• The legislation includes a bunch of other provisions that actually lower the accountability and reporting requirements for charter schools. Charters are supposed to be provided greater flexibility. In exchange for this flexibility comes greater accountability. These bills need to be about the big issue — funding equity.
To create good public policy, the legislature would be well-served to consider the valid points from both sides and try to work toward a reasonable compromise bill that will stand the test of time.
Jason E. Glass is the superintendent of Eagle County Schools. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.