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Offer greater school choice in Colorado

By Pamela Benigno

Gov. Ritter’s inaugural address stated a worthy goal: “To provide employers the best educated workforce in the nation, reduce the dropout rate, and close the achievement gap.”

The governor should start with looking at the most successful public schools in the state. If he did so, he could see that school choice increases student achievement. The logical next step would be to place the public school system in the hands of “professional parents.”

Parents know what programs work. Proof is revealed in the state’s top-scoring schools in 2006. Based on the scores used to rate schools for the School Accountability Reports, the 16 top-scoring middle schools are all charter or district option schools–all of which were created or initiated by parents. Five of the top 10 elementary schools and six of the top 10 high schools are also charter or district option schools.

In the Colorado Promise campaign document, the governor wrote, “Many of our students struggle with basic math and reading skills…. I will place greater emphasis on student achievement for all children.”

It is a fine idea to want to place greater emphasis on student achievement. But since the 1990s, we have seen several reforms that were supposed to increase student achievement, including standards, assessments, school report cards, and No Child Left Behind.

Nevertheless, as we come upon the 10th anniversary of the Colorado Student Assessment Program (CSAP), gains in student achievement have been painfully slow.

In the past nine years, the percentage of fourth graders who read at or above the proficient level has increased from 55 percent to 68 percent. Last year, 18,000 fourth-grade students were reading below Colorado’s expectations.

Colorado’s 178 public school systems collectively employ more than 100,000 people. Statewide, there is one school district employee for every eight students. Yet one third of our students in grades three through 10 are not proficient in reading. Just spending more money on the same old system won’t fix the reading problem.

But parents know how to increase reading scores. A good example is the state’s 2006 top-scoring elementary school. In 1974 a group of Jefferson County parents wrote a proposal to establish a school that would focus on the fundamentals, including an emphasis on phonics. The parents wrote, “Successful reading is the backbone of an educated society.” The phonics-based reading program is still used in the school today, and is supported by scientific research.

Studies show that when parents actively choose a school for their children, they become more involved in their children’s education, and the result is higher student achievement.

Currently, there are not enough of the most sought-after schools. Tens of thousands of families wait for seats to open in their chosen schools.

Some school districts understand how student achievement can be increased by parental choice. Mapleton Public School District in Adams County has become an innovative district of choice where all parents may select a school for their children. According to superintendent Charlotte Ciancio, “The new schools acknowledge the need to create learning environments that are personalized and engage parents and students in choosing their future.”

To increase the number of quality charter schools, and to help parents who seek to open a charter school, the governor should support expanding the authority of the State Charter School Institute. The agency was created to be an alternative chartering authority that would set high standards for charter schools. Because school districts can receive exclusive chartering authority, there are only 10 school districts where the Institute can charter a school.

Most school district administrators are not particularly fond of charter schools, but many parents are. Parents and children would be better off if the Legislature removed the artificial restrictions on who can submit a charter application to the State Charter School Institute.

Vocal parents expressing their desire for alternatives have prompted school districts to open district-operated schools that have a particular focus, such as Montessori or the fine arts. Additionally, to compete with the popular Core Knowledge charter schools, some neighborhood schools have adopted the Core Knowledge program. However, parents shouldn’t have to wait for districts to act when chartering is an available option.

The governor would be wise to expand school-choice options for families. Other reform efforts have increased student achievement, but too slowly. Thousands of children are being sacrificed to protect the status quo. Standards, assessments, and school report cards have equipped parents with the tools they need to be educated consumers.

Open the doors for more choice, and watch parents stand up and deliver. Then student achievement will increase.

Pamela Benigno is the director of the Education Policy Center at the Independence Institute in Golden.

This column originally appeared in the opinion section of the Longmont Daily Times-Call on February 4, 2007.