When it comes to school choice or school vouchers or charter schools, America is a patchwork.
We are a nation in transition.
Though not all of the maps above are up-to-the-minute, they do show this patchwork pattern.
Let's face it: America's public schools are broken. And this statement is no more true than in our major cities where public education has failed miserably. And this despite the influx of billions of dollars in state and federal money. For example while most suburban school districts routinely post a high school graduation rate of 90 to 100 percent, the nation's big cities lag far behind with graduation rates typically falling in the 60 to 70 percent range and some even falling at 50 percent or lower. And students who do graduate from these urban districts have often failed to master basic skills anywhere near their actual grade level.
It's a stark challenge -- one that needs to be addressed with bold, innovative programs that break through the cycle of failure and shake loose old systems, tired assumptions and entrenched (and often intractable) layers of bureaucracy.
Look at the map above once again.
You'll see that Colorado has charter schools as well as some type of private school choice and tax credit or voucher programs.
Colorado is a national leader in school choice and there is much to be learned from those who have charted new, visionary educational paths for the state.
And we did exactly that recently when we attended an intensive two-day school choice conference in Denver sponsored by the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity.
At one of the sessions, we heard from Dan Schaller of the Colorado League of Charter Schools.
Schaller talked about the success of Denver's charter schools.
Here's what we learned from him:
- The League is a non-profit dedicating to supporting 220+ charter schools in Colorado (55 in Denver). It advocates for, supports and keeps a focus on quality for Colorado's charter schools. It also provides support services and development services to charters.
- Colorado was one of the first states to approve charter schools in 1993. Colorado charters educate 108,000 kids or just over 12 percent of all students in the state. In Denver, the charters’ share of students is just over 18 percent. Colorado is second only to Arizona in students enrolled in charters.
- Colorado has one state-level authorizer for charters: the Colorado Charter School Institute.
- As you might expect, the Colorado Education Association has argued against charter schools saying that charters do not deserve the same level of funding accorded to public schools because charters “do not play by the same rules.” Charter school teachers are not unionized but, then again, Colorado public school teachers are not required to join the teachers union.
- Interestingly enough, Colorado is an “open enrollment” state so a student can attend a school beyond district lines, space permitting. There is both intra and inter open-enrollment. About 87,000 students attend schools beyond district lines.
- Colorado charter schools are now enrolling students of color and English language learners at higher rates than the state’s traditional public schools. And charter school students outperform their counterparts in public schools on standardized tests.
- Charter schools in Colorado are being funded at only 80% of the funding for public schools, largely because of a gap in local funding. Charter schools are not their own local education agencies. That role belongs to the local public school districts.
- All charter schools in Colorado have to be organized as non-profit entities but about three or four percent of charters in the state contract with for-profit agencies to provide services.
- In the mid 2000’s Denver’s schools were failing at such a rate that almost a quarter of the city’s students were leaving the public schools for nearby private schools or charters (then about seven percent of the total). This was a major turning point that signaled the need for more dramatic change.
- Since that time Denver has made great strides in bringing about collaboration and cooperation between its public and charter schools. In 2015 a school performance compact was adopted between the two entities.
- Denver has now gone from a 39% on-time graduation rate to a 65% on-time graduation rate for its students.
Schaller says the key lessons from all this are as follows:
1) You MUST have bipartisan support for charter schools to thrive and make a meaningful difference.
2) The focus on quality schools, regardless of type.
3) The focus must also be on results – results for KIDS.
4) Accountability and autonomy must go hand-in-hand.
Quite impressive, huh?
We'll have more to tell you about school choice and our findings from Colorado soon.