In Colorado, Fulfillment of the Charter-School Dream

Published May 1, 2000

A recent report from the U.S. Department of Education documented the phenomenal growth of charter schools, while a state-level study done in Colorado was showing how these quasi-independent schools can work at their best.

In its fourth-year report on charter schools, The State of Charter Schools 2000, DoEd reported that 421 charter schools opened in the 12 months before September 1999–a 40 percent jump, the most brisk increase yet. In all, more than 1,700 charter schools have come into existence since 1991, and they serve a quarter of a million students.

Thirty-seven states and the District of Columbia have passed charter laws. In fact, with 4.4 percent of its students in charter schools–the highest percentage in the country–the District is one of the places where charters have especially thrived as parents seek alternatives to inadequate government schools.

According to the report, 58 percent of charter founders said they wished to “realize an alternative vision of education,” while 23 percent aspired to serving a special population of children, such as those considered “at risk.”

While DoEd was focusing on quantity, a report from the Colorado Department of Education was giving a good sense of the quality of charter schools in a state that takes educational choice seriously. Its study made clear that charter schools are outpacing the conventional government-run schools. On average, charter students were scoring 10 to 16 percentage points above statewide averages, and three-fourths of charter schools also were out-performing their home districts and schools with comparable demographic profiles.

The Colorado report gave a snapshot in the 1998-99 school year of 51 charter schools that had been in operation at least two years. These schools constituted 3.3 percent of Colorado’s public schools and served 13,000 students (1.9 percent of total enrollment). Another 18 charter schools were not studied because they are less than two years old.

The Core Knowledge curriculum developed by University of Virginia English professor E.D. Hirsch Jr., a prominent critic of the education-school mentality, was by far the most popular model among Colorado charter organizers. Twenty-two of the 51 schools used Core Knowledge. The state study shows their confidence was not misplaced: According to the report, 14 of the Core Knowledge schools “exceeded the expectations set for their performance,” and the other eight “generally met” the expectations.

The Colorado study found that the charter schools “enjoy striking (sometimes extraordinary) levels of parent involvement,” a factor universally valued as an ingredient in school success. Evaluators said that being able to seek out the school best for their child gave parents “a greater sense of commitment” to the school. In addition, parents appreciated that their schools welcomed their involvement and created opportunities for their participation.

The Colorado charter schools exhibited a kind of diversity that is sometimes overlooked: They “were diverse in size, educational programs, educational philosophies, approach to governance, and assessment strategies. The diversity met the intent of the Colorado Charter Schools Act to offer new educational options to students and their parents.” The varied data provide a fascinating profile of charter schools in a state that could well serve as a reform model for other states. Here are some highlights:

Size: Average enrollment was 245 students; the median was 192 students. Only 6 percent of the charters had more than 500 students, while 51 percent enrolled fewer than 200.

Structure: Less than one-third fit the traditional grade-level configurations of elementary, middle, and high school. Most allowed students to make continuous progress.

Disabilities: About three-fourths of charters shared responsibility for disabled students with their authorizing districts. The rest either assumed total responsibility or paid the district to do the job.

Poverty: About one in five charter students were eligible for free or reduced-price lunches; the state average was 27 percent.

Minorities: Among reporting charter schools, 20 percent of enrollees were racial/ethnic minority students; the state average was 29 percent. The charters served 868 pupils with disabilities, representing 6.7 percent of their enrollments. The state average was 10.2 percent.

Parental Involvement: Parents were represented on the governing boards of 90 percent of charter schools. In 34 of the 47 charters reporting the composition of their boards, parents held a majority.

Robert Holland is a senior fellow at the Arlington, Virginia-based Lexington Institute. His e-mail address is [email protected].