Williams — Transparency, Accountability, Bipartisanship: How Colorado Built One of America’s Strongest Charter School Sectors
In February, the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools published its annual evaluation of state charter school laws, titled "Measuring Up to the Model: A Ranking of State Public Charter School Laws, Ninth Edition." The ranking system focuses on the extent to which each state’s laws ensure that charter schools are treated fairly, given the appropriate level of independence, and are held accountable. Much to our delight, Colorado has made significant progress in its ranking due to the recent legislation passed to ensure equitable funding for charter school students. Colorado now holds the second position in the ranking, following Indiana.
This positive news validates what those of us involved in Colorado’s charter school community have known for a long time: our state boasts one of the strongest charter school sectors in the country. Transparency, accountability, bipartisanship, and exceptional performance are the defining features of Colorado’s charter schools.
According to state law, all charter schools in Colorado are public, secular, open to all students, and do not charge tuition. They are not allowed to selectively admit students based on any screening process.
Contrary to common misconception, there are no private charter schools in Colorado. Like traditional school districts, charter schools can avail services from private vendors (although fewer than 3 percent of Colorado charters currently contract with education management organizations for service provision in their schools). However, charter schools themselves cannot operate as for-profit entities. The majority of charter schools in Colorado are homegrown initiatives aimed at enhancing public school options in local communities. As an example, DSST Public Schools started with a single location and expanded to multiple campuses due to its success in serving Denver’s most vulnerable students.
Outstanding academic performance is a distinguishing feature of Colorado’s public charter school sector. These schools serve a more diverse student population compared to other public schools in the state, with 5 percent more students of color and English learners. Moreover, charter school students in Colorado are exceeding the state average by more than 4.5 percentage points in both reading and math.
Colorado’s public charter schools bear the same responsibility as all other public schools in the state to meet the prescribed standards and assessments. Each charter school operates under a performance contract with its district or the Charter School Institute, which outlines the targets that the school must achieve. If a school fails to meet these performance targets or deliver positive outcomes for its students, the contract can be revoked. Traditional public schools do not have such stringent accountability measures.
All charter schools in Colorado are subjected to the Public School Financial Transparency Act, which mandates them to regularly disclose detailed financial information online for public access. This ensures complete transparency regarding charter school activities.
Thanks to the bipartisan support that Colorado’s charter schools have received since their inception 25 years ago, we have successfully created a national model of what public charter schools can and should be for our students. Moving forward into the next 25 years, we will build upon these achievements and learnings to ensure that all children in Colorado have equitable access to high-quality public school options.
Angela Williams serves as the state senator for Colorado’s Senate District 33, which covers parts of the Denver metropolitan area.