Charter schools are on the verge of closing their special education gap

Charter schools may seem like a relatively recent phenomenon, but next year Colorado will be celebrating the 30e anniversary of the first charter school in our state.

Dan Schaller

When it authorized charter schools in 1993, the Colorado General Assembly empowered parents, teachers and community members “to take responsible risks and create new, innovative and more flexible ways to educate all children in the public school system”. This flexibility was intended to allow charter schools to serve as laboratories of educational innovation that would help students increase their level of achievement.

For the next 30 years, charter schools have delivered on that promise.

Today, 266 public charter schools educate 134,000 students, more than 15% of Colorado’s public student population. It’s nearly 50% larger than Colorado’s largest school district, Denver Public Schools, which serves 92,000 students.

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These numbers confirm that students and families across our state support the innovation and flexibility offered by charter schools in their communities. One of the reasons for this is that charter schools help students succeed. U.S. News & World Report recently determined that seven of our state’s top 10 high schools and nine of the top 20 colleges are public charter schools. And a 2019 analysis from the Colorado Department of Education found that charter school students surpass state performance averages in virtually every category of achievement. Our state’s public charter schools raise the bar for student academic performance.

And despite many myths and criticisms to the contrary, public charter schools serve a diverse set of students. In fact, Colorado charter school students are on average more diverse than their traditional public school peers. Recent data demonstrates that, compared to non-state charter schools, Colorado Charter Schools Serve Higher Percentages students of color and English language learners. Additionally, charter schools in Colorado have been shown to consistently close the achievement gap for students from many of these historically marginalized groups.

If there’s one area where a gap remains in charter schools, it’s in the special education space. Indeed, numerous legal, structural, and funding inequities have hampered the ability of charter schools to serve more students with disabilities. But none of these factors have anything to do with charter schools’ desire or willingness to serve students with special needs.

In fact, a 2015 in-depth analysis of charter schools in Colorado, commissioned by the Colorado League of Charter Schools and authored by Civil Rights Solutionsfound that “No participant in a public charter school gave any indication that they were unwilling to serve students with disabilities. Colorado’s public charter schools are ready and willing to serve students with disabilities, and with changes in Colorado law and policy that address the concerns detailed here, they will be better equipped to do so.”

That’s why we proposed and lobbied for House Bill 22-1294 at the Colorado State Capitol this year. The bill, which passed nearly unanimously and which Governor Jared Polis signed into law last month, removes barriers and creates additional pathways for charter schools to better serve students with special needs, including the ability for some charter schools to gain state administrative unit status. .

Under current state law, charter schools cannot become their own administrative units for special education purposes. This means that school districts retain ultimate control over special education funding and placements within their boundaries, and if they decide that a given charter school is not suitable for a specific student with special needs, they may remove that student from the charter school. .

By allowing groups of qualified charter schools to achieve administrative unit status, the new law aims to level the playing field for charter schools and ensure that more students with special needs have access to the high-quality public school options they deserve.

There is no doubt that Colorado public school students are globally behind academically due to the ongoing effects of the pandemic. Over the past two years, our students have reached a state of crisis due to severe school staff shortages, continued absenteeism and quarantines, online learning challenges, and intermittent school closures. Broadly speaking, we now need to help all of our students meet these challenges, and more specifically, we need to help students with special needs attend quality public schools that are ready to serve them.

The best public schools in Colorado are a mix of innovation schools, charter schools, and traditional public schools. If we continue to nurture a healthy ecosystem of options for families, and if we continue to learn and share best practices from each of them, our children will recover from the damage caused during the pandemic. And that benefits us all, not just our children.


Dan Schaller of Denver is president of the Colorado Charter School League.


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