Charter School Students Are Public School Students, Too

K-12

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In recognition of National School Choice Week this week, we’re publishing a series of guest blog posts about various school choice issues. This post, written by Dan Schaller, director of governmental affairs at the Colorado League of Charter Schools, is the last of three. For more general information on school choice across all 50 states, be sure to see our comprehensive list of resources.

 “I looked at the faces of the kids who attend [the charter public schools in my community]. And I realized that they look exactly like the faces of the kids who attend the traditional public schools in my community. So I asked myself ‘What’s different? What’s different other than the type of school that they attend?’ Nothing. The answer is nothing.”
 – Colorado State Sen. Dominick Moreno

Charter schools have existed in Colorado for 25 years and now serve more than 120,000 students (or just over 13 percent of the pre-K-12 population) across the state. If combined into a single school district, Colorado’s charter schools would outnumber the second largest school district (Denver Public Schools) by over 25,000 students.

With a distribution of students of color that is 5 percentage points higher than that of the state’s traditional public schools, charter schools are serving a student population just as diverse as the rest of Colorado’s public schools.

Perhaps most importantly, Colorado charter public school students are outperforming their traditional public school peers by over 4.5 percentage points in both reading and math.

So why is it that the typical charter school student in Colorado — as is the case in most states across the country — still only receives 80 cents for every dollar their traditional public school peer receives? Why is one type of public school student being systematically shortchanged in this fashion year after year?

These were the questions the Colorado League of Charter Schools and a coalition of our bipartisan partners set out to answer in 2016 when we embarked on an ambitious effort to level the playing field for charter public school students. What we discovered was that, while charter school students were treated equally in the eyes of the state (receiving the same per-pupil distribution from state funds as their traditional public school counterparts), they were not in the realm of local tax revenue.

Specifically, local school districts in Colorado (which are allowed to solicit voters for additional tax revenue to supplement state distributions) were, in many cases, not sharing this local revenue equally with their charter schools. Over time, this had created a funding disparity of over $30 million per year for charter public schools and their students.

We worked to remedy this situation through legislation that said that, unless local tax revenue is being collected for a specific voter-approved program that a charter school of that district does not provide, charter school students should receive an equal distribution of these dollars. The measure that ultimately passed, H.B. 17-1375, received overwhelming bipartisan support in Colorado’s split legislature (with only 23 out of 100 legislators across both chambers voting against it). While there’s certainly still work to be done to attain complete equality for charter school students in Colorado, this bill represents a key step forward toward a level playing field.

As we head into National School Choice Week celebrations this week, it is worth reemphasizing that charter school students are public school students, too. As such, there is no reason their education should be valued any less. Until this central fact is recognized and rewarded — as we’ve now taken major steps toward accomplishing in Colorado — we’ll never fully realize the true school choice system our children need and deserve.

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