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Colorado Charter Schools Serving Students and Families Well

More Colorado families are choosing their children’s educational path than ever before. As of last year, charter schools were serving 11 percent of Colorado’s K-12 public school students. That’s more than 96,000 charter students attending more than 210 charter schools.

Despite the rapid growth of charter education in Colorado, however, some outdated myths persist. Many still incorrectly view charters as havens for the privileged or ineffective distractions from the traditional public school system. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Instead, Colorado’s charter schools are mirroring positive national trends by serving more disadvantaged kids more effectively. More impressive, they are doing it in spite of persistent funding inequities.

A 2013 Colorado Department of Education report notes that Colorado’s charter schools now serve a share of minority children nearly identical to the state’s traditional public school system. Although they still lag behind traditional public schools in overall percentages of low-income students, Colorado charters now serve nearly double the proportion of these students that they did in 2001.

Similar trends can be seen nationwide, where more than half of charter school students now come from families living in poverty.

Charter schools also appear to be serving students better. A nationwide 2013 study by the Center for Research on Education Outcomes at Stanford University found that charters generally have made significant overall improvements since their unimpressive showing in the organization’s 2009 report.

Once again, this positive trend is evident in Colorado. Despite some inconsistencies among student groups and grade levels, Colorado charters generally performed better than non-charters on state academic measures in CDE’s most recent study.

Perhaps the most impressive example of charter success is a national 2013 study of middle-school student achievement in Knowledge is Power Program charter schools. Conducted by Mathematica Policy Research, the study found significant gains across a number of subjects and student subgroups.

The program operates three charter schools in the Denver area, and they too are producing remarkable results for some of Colorado’s most under-served students. About 95 percent of the program’s Denver schools qualify for federal lunch aid, and 98 percent are minorities. Yet last year, two of the schools were ranked among the top six in Denver Public Schools for academic growth. Every senior at KIPP Denver Collegiate High School was accepted to college.

Most notable is the fact that Colorado’s charters are operating at significantly lower funding levels than their public counterparts. For years, the state’s charter schools have been significantly underfunded compared to traditional public schools. Jefferson County’s school board recently took steps to narrow the funding gap in that district, but inequities persist across Colorado and the United States.

Despite uneven funding, charters are finding ways to accomplish their mission. Indeed, far from squandering money that would be better used in traditional public schools, charter schools appear to be producing more with less.

A new report by Patrick Wolf and his colleagues at the University of Arkansas finds that charter schools nationwide achieved higher levels of productivity — “bang for the buck” — than traditional public schools. According to the report, Colorado’s charters are more productive than their traditional public counterparts in terms of both academic gains and economic returns.

The Arkansas study helps illustrate a larger point: well-run charters can — and often do — produce amazing results.

Certainly, the charter sector is not fully out of the woods. While CDE finds that Colorado charters generally outperform their traditional public counterparts, there is certainly room for improvement. Some schools in both sectors could serve their students better.

Further progress will take time, study, and a careful review of what works and what does not. Tough decisions will need to be made.

Even so, it is clear the promise of public charter schools is alive, well, and growing in Colorado and across the nation. As the charter sector continues to expand and improve, it deserves to be recognized for its progress rather than stigmatized by outdated opinions.

Ross Izard is an education policy analyst for the Independence Institute, a free market think tank in Denver. This article originally appeared in the Greeley Tribune on July 31, 2014.