Vail Daily column: Rubber stamp approval
February 23, 2016
Last week, I wrote a fairly critical article of Colorado's State Board of Education, and the decision they reached on a 5-2 vote for not supporting three districts (including ours) for their work around the Seal of Biliteracy for graduates. In this piece, I'll be going at the State Board once again on another matter — their rubber stamp approval process for charter schools.
Charter schools are publicly funded, but are run by an operator outside of the public school system. The term "charter" refers to the agreement between the authorizer and the operator on exactly how the school will function and how it will be held accountable for serving students. In Colorado, charter schools can be authorized by a local school district or by the Colorado Charter School Institute, which was created by the Colorado State Legislature in 2004 as an independent state agency.
We have two charter schools in Eagle County. The Eagle County Charter Academy is authorized by the Eagle County Schools local Board of Education. Stone Creek Charter Academy is authorized by the Charter School Institute. Both schools are operated and run by people at the local level who live and work here in our community.
Many school districts in Colorado have what's called "exclusive chartering authority" when it comes to new charter schools opening within their boundaries. This means for a new charter school to open, the operator must submit an application to the local school board, which reviews it for quality before approving the school to open.
This application and review is an important quality check in the charter school process. We should not let any person, group, or organization open and start a school with public dollars. Good charter applications should address instructional approaches, fiscal management plans, and building and facility plans in a manner that the authorizer feels confident students will receive a quality education and that public dollars will not be misused.
If a charter operator and an authorizer can't agree to terms in the application process, the state board gets involved and provides due process for the operator to have their case heard by a group outside of the local level. The state board is responsible for checking to make sure that the charter application was fairly reviewed and that decisions are being reached in the best interests of students and the community.
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Rubber Stamp Despite concerns
Recently, charter operators put in applications in Sheridan and Englewood and Cherry Creek Schools. In each of these cases, the local boards of education thoroughly reviewed the applications for quality. Also, the local school board had outside and charter-friendly organizations review these applications to provide an objective perspective on their quality. In each case, both the community level review and the outside review identified a number of critical concerns and called the applications high risk.
Not surprisingly, after failing both a local and an objective review, the local school boards rejected the charter applications. Both charter operators, Delta Schools and Academica, appealed to the State Board of Education for review.
In both of these cases, in spite of significant concerns raised by the local communities and raised through the outside review, the State Board of Education rubber stamped these charter applications and basically forced the school districts to authorize them for opening. Even more baffling, some members of the state board acknowledged the significant concerns in these applications, but voted to approve them anyway.
It is as if the state board believes any charter application is a good application. However, even a cursory review of the large number of charter schools who fail for financial mismanagement or poor performance indicates that we should be applying a critical review of them before they open, not waving ahead any half-baked plan that comes forth.
I've heard several state board members preach about supporting local control when it comes to schools, but they don't walk the talk when it comes to their actions. When the local school board and the local community say they don't want or need some carpet-bagging charter operator to open a school in their community due to serious quality concerns, and the state board approves them anyway. This is not supporting local control. To say that you support local control and then make these kinds of decisions is duplicitous and not in the best interests of students in local communities.
Charter schools are an important part of the public school landscape in Colorado. But because they operate under a more lax regulatory system, they should be critically reviewed before opening and monitored with transparency and accountability once they open their doors.
Rubber stamping approval of weak charter applications damages the credibility of the entire charter movement. Going forward, let's hope the state board adheres to quality first when it comes to charter applications — and walks the talk when it comes to supporting local control of schools.
Jason E. Glass is the superintendent of Eagle County Schools. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.