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Charter schools learn survival skill
Ten years after start in Colorado, sides still fighting over turf
The Denver Post


By Monte Whaley
Denver Post Education Writer

Ten years after charter schools arrived in Colorado, they are still fighting much of the education establishment over turf, money and control.

Three school districts have slapped on moratoriums to keep the alternative schools from growing. The planned birth of a charter school in Steamboat Springs has split the community and could soon be settled in court.

Charges also persist that charter schools - which are public schools that work independently of local school districts - skim the best students and funding from struggling neighborhood schools to create de-facto private schools at taxpayer expense.

"It seems very straightforward to me that affluent children are easier to teach than poorer children," said state Rep. Jack Pommer, D-Boulder. "And charter schools separate those two groups."

State Sen. Sue Windels, D-Arvada, wants to use the 10th anniversary of charter schools in the state as a springboard to investigate whether they have delivered what their proponents promised.

"I want to look at where we began with charter schools, where we are now and where we should be," Windels said. "Sometimes, if we never stop and evaluate something, we stray off course and not always in the best direction."

Charter schools were created to let parents, former teachers and administrators pick the curriculum and hire the teachers they want with little oversight from school districts.

Proponents say Colorado's foray into charter schools has worked so well that they can stand any scrutiny.

Students in elementary and middle charter schools generally perform better on the annual Colorado Student Assessment Program exam than their public school counterparts.

Also, a greater percentage of charter schools get an "excellent" rating on the state's School Accountability Reports - 20 percent compared with 8 percent of public schools.

Most charter schools are in Colorado's suburbs, which contributes to higher test scores and the perception that charter schools cater to privileged, academically prepared white students, said Denise Mund, consultant with the Colorado Department of Education.

"We were known as the white suburban charter-school state for a long time," she said.

The 86 charter schools that operated in the 2001-02 school year served fewer minority students than noncharters - 27 percent compared with 33.2 percent of the total enrollment for regular public schools. Charter schools also had fewer kids on free and reduced-cost lunches - 17.8 percent compared with 28 percent of the traditional public school enrollment.

The landscape is slowly changing as more groups and organizations such as Edison Schools, Sturm Foundation, Walton Foundation and the Colorado Children's Campaign aim programs and funding to help charter schools in urban areas, Mund said.

Life Skills Center of Denver opened this fall and focuses on students in grades nine through 12 who have dropped out or are at risk of leaving school. The school is approved to accommodate up to 300 students.

Many charter schools served about 200 students last year while emphasizing the back-to-basics core curriculum approach. Others stressed the Montessori approach or more experimental methods of learning such as Outward Bound.

Charter schools today range from the 1,865-student Academy of Charter Schools in Denver, which stresses academic rigor, to the 93-student Boulder Prep High School, which works with juvenile offenders.


Motivated students

The ability of parents to develop schools based on student needs and to provide competition for mainstream public schools were the ideas behind the 1993 Charter Schools Act, said its co-sponsor, Gov. Bill Owens, who was a state legislator at the time.

"I believed that a charter school would provide alternatives that would bring more energy into public schools," Owens said. "They would also fill badly needed niches for many students that the public system could not provide."

Gaddy Noy understands why people are attracted to charter schools. Noy, 17, is the thin, polite student body president at the Jefferson Academy, where there are 50 students in his senior class.

Teachers are highly motivated and personable at Jefferson, while there are few, if any, of the cliques that plague much larger suburban schools, Noy said.

"If you want to get involved in this school, you can," Noy said. "There are few barriers here."

He is not sure he would do so well at a more traditional school.

"I think I'd be a lot more shy," he said.

The Rocky Mountain Deaf School, meanwhile, serves such a group of specialized students that no other school in Colorado - private or public - could meet their needs, say parents and teachers.

Students there are taught both American Sign Language and English, based on the idea that deaf children should be able to fully communicate with all their peers and teachers, said school director Priscilla Gutierrez.

That's fine with parent Jennifer Pfau, who says her son is learning to be an independent, bilingual student.

"In all the other programs, all the learning is through a third person," Pfau said. "I want him to have direct contact with a teacher. Otherwise they come dependent on an interpreter for communication.

"I know that if he went to any other public school, he'd be isolated, all by himself."


Drain on public schools?

Resistance to establishing charter schools in Colorado was fierce, Owens said. The bill barely passed the legislature, and only after several restrictions were attached.

One included limiting the amount of per-pupil revenue a charter school could receive to about 80 percent of what a regular public school could get.

"A lot of impediments were put in the way," Owens said.

But by the time Owens became governor in 1999 and his fellow Republicans began taking control of the state legislature, charter schools started getting more perks.

Charter schools now get an average of about 95 percent of the per-pupil revenue available to other public schools.

Lawmakers two years ago voted to allow school districts to include charter-school construction projects in local bond issues. This past year, the legislature gave $5 million for charter-school capital construction in a budget year where the state's deficit soared to $800 million.

Opponents say the attention given to charter schools is misguided, claiming they drain money from traditional public schools, especially at a time when revenue is down and enrollment is declining in many school districts.

They point to a controversial study done by the Denver consulting firm of Augenblick & Myers, which said charter schools are costing regular public schools millions of dollars.

The drain comes from kids leaving regular classrooms for charter schools and taking their per-pupil revenue, they say. School districts also lose time and resources in helping charter organizers find and maintain budgets and meet other requirements.

Charter groups - including the Colorado League of Charter Schools - blasted the report, saying charter schools help public schools by keeping kids from going to private schools or from being home-schooled.

Owens also criticized the report.

"That report is not worth the paper it's written on," Owens said.

But struggling school districts say it has validity. A loss of two or three students from a neighborhood school is hard to compensate for in the budget, said Boulder Valley school board member Stan Garnett.

"If it were a matter of closing down another middle school and putting the money in a charter school, it would be much easier to manage," Garnett said.

The issue of whether one community has too many charter schools will come to the ballot box in November in Steamboat Springs, where the local school board voted not to allow a Montessori charter school to open.

The nonbinding vote would ask voters whether they want a second charter school in a district already struggling with budget problems.

The Steamboat Springs school board twice ignored the State Board of Education, which ordered the charter to open. Charter proponents are suing while lawmakers say they may introduce a bill next year that will allow parents to go directly to the state to get a charter school going.

"We just feel this district ought to be able to meet the needs of all kids in this community," said Steamboat Springs parent and charter-school organizer Jody Patten.


Personal relationships

Colorado has 95 charter schools open today. Since their inception, only six have closed - some because of fiscal reasons, anemic enrollment or conflicts with their local school board, say school officials.

Others, such as the Jefferson Academy in Jefferson County, have fought their way out of financial and public-relations quagmires to earn high marks from local officials and parents.

Colorado's charter-school record is remarkable, considering the history of charter schools in other states, Mund of the state Education Department said.

Arizona, for instance, was known as "the Wild West of charter schools" nationally. People with little background in education and even less business savvy opened and then shortly closed charter schools, leaving hundreds of kids without schools in the late 1990s.

Colorado's charter-school law was designed for slow, steady growth and oversight by local school boards, Mund said.

"There is more of a personal relationship with local boards, and they have a better idea of what is going on," Mund said.

The state Education Department, which oversees education policy in Colorado, is also charter-school-friendly.

The department provides help to charter-school organizers on business management and in grant writing. Charter schools this year also divided $6.7 million in grants that helped underwrite startup and administrative costs.

Most charter schools in Colorado are run by parents and community members in everything from old bowling alleys and abandoned warehouses to long-vacant school buildings.

Statewide, there were 28,785 charter-school students, making up about 3.8 percent of Colorado's total public school enrollment of 751,862, according to the state Education Department.

As many as 30,000 students are on waiting lists for the state's charter schools, Mund said, as interest in what they have to offer stays strong.

Owens said charter schools are forcing traditional schools to become more innovative, but many local school officials still resent their semi-autonomous nature.

"There is an almost never-ending perpetual battle in some of our school districts over who would make the ultimate decision over charter schools," Owens said.

Boulder Valley, Steamboat Springs and Poudre Valley school districts have all voted against approving any more charter schools until enrollment and local revenue pick up.

Denver Public Schools - recognized as the most charter-friendly by the League of Charter Schools last year - is also signaling it may tug the welcome mat for charter schools.

Still, charter schools have gained a foothold in Colorado, and as long as parents ask for them, school districts have learned to be accommodating, said Garnett, the Boulder Valley school board member and a charter-school critic.

"I still run into people that have strong feelings about charter schools," Garnett said. "But there is a lot less than there used to be. Most people who didn't live through the fuss over charter schools in the early 1990s wonder what the fuss was all about."