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Center for Ed Reform Gives Colo. Charter School Law Another B: We Can Do Better

The Center for Education Reform (CER) today released its annual analysis of the state’s charter school laws, giving the nation a mediocre 2.1 Grade Point Average. CER’s gold standard measure looks at the practical effects of statutes and policies that govern the creation of high-quality, autonomous and accountable public charter schools to meet the demands of students and parents.

For example, does a charter school applicant have access to multiple authorizers? Is the state free from caps (both hard and soft) on the number of charter schools that can operate? Are charter schools funded equitably compared to other public schools?

In the 2012 report, Colorado maintained its solid B grade, but slipped from 6th to 9th in CER’s national rankings:

“After a flurry of education reform activity around ‘Race to the Top’, it seems that Colorado has gone quiet,” said CER President Jeanne Allen. “Even a good charter school law can become stronger.”

Definitely agree that room for improvement still exists. Why did Colorado slip three places, though? Partly because states like Indiana and New York raced ahead. But partly because Colorado lost an “implementation point” between the 2011 report and now. I will have to find out more about what exactly that means.

But it’s interesting that the very same day brought the release of a local Donnell-Kay Foundation report analyzing new school performance in Denver over the past five years. Author Alex Ooms looked at school-wide academic growth measures from the Colorado Department of Education, breaking down the results among charter schools, innovation schools, and traditional school redesigns. He notes:

While all school types have considerable variability, the range of charter school academic growth is almost two-thirds wider than either of the other two schools types. The median academic growth for charter schools is higher than the maximum performance of either innovation or redesign schools.

Translated, there are good and bad Denver charters, but the number of top-flight new charter schools blows away other kinds of new schools. Clearly, as the report notes, the results are buoyed by the outstanding academic success of the West Denver Prep and Denver School of Science and Technology charter networks. How do these top-notch charters take off despite existing limitations in Colorado’s charter school law?

Two answers jump to mind, though there may be more. First, a charter-friendly Denver school board mitigated some of the need for more alternative authorizers. Second, nonprofit foundation financial support helped to offset state funding equity issues. But neither of these, or other factors, represent a permanent solution.

As Allen notes in the new CER report, what’s important is whether the state law “can withstand political elections or partisan whims with regard to funding, operations and accountability.” On that count, Colorado has done a pretty good job, but progress remains to be made.

Of course, if Colorado families want to learn more about any school across the state — including charter schools — they need to bookmark our fantastic, still-going-strong School Choice for Kids website.