Colorado Continues to Find Common Ground in District-Charter Debate, Even When It Comes to Splitting Up the Money

By Michael Vaughn

The walls between Colorado’s traditional district-run schools and its charters continue to come down, opening up more options for families. On Wednesday, the Colorado legislature on the last day of its session passed a first-of-its-kind bill that ensures charter schools get a fair share of local tax dollars. It’s a stark contrast to the heated political and ideological debates raging in many places across the country about “privatization” versus “government monopolies.”

Not that we don’t have special-interest screaming from the fringes here—the unions and “progressives” on the Left who disdain anything outside the traditional system and the free-market zealots on the Right who do the same to anything with a whiff of government oversight or involvement. Yet the Colorado conversation tends to move past the sand-kicking and name-calling and end up somewhere in the reasonable, productive middle.

And the grownups we elected to get stuff done actually get around to sensible dialogue about doing stuff that helps families and kids.

This week’s charter-funding compromise is the latest example, and the legislature deserves credit and kudos for that.

And so do Colorado’s education leaders, who have also helped break down the district-charter walls and make the compromise possible by taking shared responsibility for accountability and access. It’s far easier to have a productive conversation about the fair share of the funding between traditional and charter schools when both types are doing their fair share of serving and getting results with all kids.

That means making it easier for all families to have access to all schools, through efforts like Denver’s SchoolChoice common-enrollment system, which all of the city’s charters signed up for to replace a maze of school-application systems that effectively blocked access to their schools for many families.

When communities see districts leaning on charters to be more accessible, it breaks down the “cherry picking” wall that impedes real choice and better service. And when charters step up, like they did in Denver, and show they want to make it easier for all families to access their schools, it opens people’s minds about charters.

The walls also come down when there’s shared responsibility for results. Instead of lots of trash-talking or data-dueling, there’s a more general focus here on whether all schools are measuring up to performance standards—the same standards for all schools, which is Colorado’s School Performance Framework.

And then there’s this remarkable story from Chalkbeat, about a struggling Denver charter school collaborating with a successful charter about what would amount essentially to a peaceful, voluntary takeover of the school. It quotes the principal of the underperforming Cesar Chavez Academy, Mary Ann Mahoney, as saying: “Is there something I can do that creates a for-sure quality program for our kids? Our (charter) renewal is really up in the air for next year, and school closure can be so painful for families and communities.”

When there’s a fair amount of taking responsibility for results, making access to schools easier, and even the sharing of effective strategies between district-run and charter schools, the walls come down.

And the conversation doesn’t always devolve into diatribes about two different systems and what separates them. It’s more about one system and what unites everybody involved: educating kids. And that helps provide common ground for what is usually among the most divisive of discussions: how to split up the money.

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