Colorado Considers New Restrictions on Charter Schools

Published March 15, 2010

The Colorado legislature is debating a trio of bills to tighten oversight of the Rocky Mountain State’s charter schools, while 38,000 children wait for a desk to open at one of the state’s 160 charters.

House Bill 10-1343, the cornerstone bill by Colorado House Speaker Terrance Carroll (D-Denver), would direct the state board of education to set quality standards for charter operations, finance, and governance by January 2011. The legislation would regulate benefits, cap charter school administrators’ compensation, and establish anti-nepotism and conflict-of-interest rules.

Autonomy Could Be Impeded

Proponents of the new rules say they are necessary to combat potential corruption while allowing for new charters to help meet growing student demand.

“Currently, taxpayers have no way to respond to what could be unfavorable benefits and salaries at charter schools,” said Stefanie Garcia, president of the Pueblo City Schools Board of Education, a district where recent scandals arose over operations within the Cesar Chavez School Network, a charter school management company.

“Charter schools still use public money, and there needs to be public accountability,” Garcia said. “I think this will improve school choice on both sides.”

Not everyone shares this optimism. Kim Miller, board president of Ridgeview Classical Schools, a public K-12 charter school rated among the top-three schools in Colorado since it was founded in 2001, worries that implementing sweeping standards could impede the autonomy of charter schools.

“Charter schools were designed to bring out-of-the-box thinking to education,” said Miller. “Uniform standards will legislate everyone back into the box. What works for one charter school doesn’t necessarily work for all charter schools, so there shouldn’t be one way to evaluate performance.”

New Ethics Regulations

A second bill, HB10-1344, “Concerning the Establishment of Quality Standards for Chartering Authorities,” would set specific quality standards for state education officials to measure against in granting new charters and overseeing their performance. It would define the term “authorizer” for the first time in the Charter Schools Act.

Jim Griffin, co-drafter of the bills and president of the Colorado Charter School Institute, an authorizing organization, says the goal of the legislation is to adopt principles and practices of the National Association of Charter School Authorization (NACSA).

“NACSA standards are a year and a half old. Enough time has passed to feel confident that we should put them into practice here,” said Griffin. “This isn’t just random.”

The two Colorado bills are designed to encourage appropriate relationships between state authorizing authorities and charter school operators, not to punish would-be charter schools, Griffin says. The bills would also protect against improprieties by state authorities, he argues.

Due-Process Concerns

Griffin is sensitive to reformers’ concerns about new rules impeding expansion of charters to accommodate the thousands of students waiting for access to them.

“More standards doesn’t mean more process; it means the right process,” Griffin said. “Currently, districts impose processes that are arbitrary—they are politically designed. We want objective and transparent written standards for the world to see.”

A third bill, HB10-1345, “Concerning the Granting of Emergency Powers,” gives the Colorado’s Commissioner of Education the power to appoint a fiduciary representative to take over a charter school in the case of financial insolvency, excessively high administrator salaries or other “emergencies” upon the request of the authorizer.

“This is a really strong bill,” said Amy Slothower, executive director of Get Smart Schools, a Denver-based nonprofit that works with local charter schools. “At Get Smart Schools if we are going to make an investment in a school, the last thing we want is the inability for someone to step in when that school isn’t serving its students.”

Miller agrees that not all charter schools are fulfilling their missions. “Schools that are not doing well should be closed,” she said. “We shouldn’t bureaucratize schools that are doing well in order to punish schools that just need to be closed.”

Miller notes that HB10-1345 puts power in the hands of a commissioner. “Politics are coming into play and not the best interest of the students,” she said. Overregulation, she warns, “would be a parallel system to the public schools.”

Kelly Gorton ([email protected]) writes from California.