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Contract Schools Bring Innovative New Choices to Denver Public Schools

IP-6-2005 (June 2005)
Author: Marya DeGrow

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Executive Summary

In an effort to improve student achievement, Denver Public Schools (DPS) is expanding its school options, which already consist of numerous charter, magnet, and contract schools. The district’s willingness to innovate and to release some control over schools to outside providers is demonstrated by Denver’s four public contract schools.

Contract schools are run by entities other than the board of education. Contract schools may be operated by nonpublic schools, community groups, or management companies. The possible forms a contract school could take are nearly limitless. Contract schools, like charters, enjoy greater autonomy than traditional public schools; but contract schools are not regulated by Colorado charter school law.

Each DPS contract school is unique. Escuela Tlatelolco Centro de Estudios is a nonsectarian nonpublic school serving public school students in grades seven through 12. The New America School serves high school-aged immigrants who have limited English proficiency. Connections Academy is an online school for students in kindergarten through eighth grade. The Rocky Mountain School of Expeditionary Learning provides an experiential K-12 program.

As public school districts become more diverse in their educational offerings, several studies have urged school districts to allow individual schools the autonomy to control their educational program, budget, and staffing. School administrators must be able to bypass bureaucratic regulations and one-size-fits-all political compromises that hamper the effective management of public schools. One study suggests that boards of education should relinquish direct management of schools altogether.

Colorado’s contract and charter schools have the autonomy to make important decisions at the site level. However, Colorado charter schools typically have a better financial arrangement than contract schools: charter schools have access to grants not available to non-charter schools and have well-defined per pupil funding minimums set by state statute. School founders must be aware that districts may try to entice them into opening as contract rather than charter schools because of the financial benefit to the districts.

Districts should not abandon chartering schools in favor of contracting but should seek to do what is best for the sustainability of the particular school. Some national management companies have business models that are conducive to contracting. As contractors, nonpublic schools can maintain their independence from the district, while providing tuition-free services to the community. Contracts between districts and contractors should outline high, but attainable, standards, establish methods and procedures for evaluation, and provide for full implementation of the educational program. With clear expectations in place, districts must hold contractors accountable.

DPS has become a Colorado leader as it has expanded school choice. As a result of a DPS Board commissioned study, the district is taking steps to give its high schools more autonomy. DPS could become a national pioneer if the Board of Education relinquished direct control over all its schools by converting traditional schools into autonomous contract or charter schools. The Board’s main focus would then be to hold each school in the district accountable for its performance.

In Colorado, no laws hinder school districts from contracting, and friendly charter school laws offer freedom from many burdensome regulations. DPS and other Colorado school districts are wellpositioned to generate their own systemtransforming blend of contract and charter schools—if they will accept the challenge.