Colorado Tried to Comply with ESSA But a Lawsuit is Proving Some Don’t Actually Want Every Student to Succeed

Just a couple weeks into the school year, six Colorado school districts and two education associations are still trying to stop a new law aimed at increasing the success of students in foster care.

Yes, you read that correctly, and believe it or not, it gets worse.

For added context, the Every Students Succeeds Act (ESSA) requires state departments of education to arrange transportation for foster care students to their school of origin so that they can maintain a stable education experience despite their often unstable living arrangements. Basically, regardless of where a child moves, he or she can stay in the school they were attending before entering foster care, or the school they were attending before any change in their foster care placement. Ideally, kids only have to change schools if the foster care agency determines it is in the best interest of the student.

For awhile, districts and counties did whatever it took to ensure that students were able to stay in their original schools. In some counties, case workers even drove students to and from schools.

So the state decided to step it up a notch and last spring became the first state to pass a $2.9 million bill that includes funding for transportation to a student’s school of origin. The Improving Educational Stability For Foster Youth Act went through several rounds of revision before passing in May. But it’s the language in section seven that was added right before the vote that’s got some seeing red…or is it really green 💵?

The amended language states: 

“The board of education of a school district may furnish transportation: (c) To and from public schools for any reasonable classification of pupils enrolled in the schools of the district who are resident residents of any other school district.”

Essentially, the bill says that districts can pay for the transportation of any student, not just foster kids, who are enrolled in the district but live in another district. So not only are foster kids gaining access to quality schools, but, technically so are students from low-income backgrounds and students of color who are often forced to attend low-quality schools due to lack of transportation.

And therein lies the rub.

While school choice proponents rejoice, others have seized on an opportunity to rebuke a bill aimed at supporting some of our most vulnerable students.

Those who filed the lawsuit argue that the amended language violates the state law requiring bills to contain only one subject that is clearly expressed in the bill’s title. They say they’re sympathetic to the challenges that students in foster care face and want to see this group of students supported, but not if it’s going to negatively affect them financially.

In an article in the Colorado Springs Gazette, Superintendent Chris Smith of Ellicott School District 22 said, “I agree with school choice, but I don’t agree with language that was put in the bill. It picks off our kids in our district, and that’s hard for us.”

Somehow I doubt it would be hard for him and others to accept students (and all their federal dollars) who were bussed into their districts.

Smith, who noted that he doesn’t have a huge marketing department to compete for students, went on to say, “When you bring a bus into our district and take our students to a charter school outside our district, you hurt our community and our schools.”

First of all, what’s this got to do with charter schools?

The bill in question was intentionally created to support the nearly 6,000 Colorado students in foster care. As wards of the state, it’s the state’s responsibility to make sure they’re set up for success and all of them deserve the opportunity to stay in their school if that’s what’s best for them. If it’s not, they deserve to have transportation to a school that’s better, period.

But since Mr. Smith wants to talk about charter schools, let’s talk about charter schools and the fact that thousands of families of color, often from low-income backgrounds, rely on charters to provide their kids a better education. It is not their problem if a district loses them to another district whose schools—charter or otherwise—have the ability to give their kids a fair shot.

Schools and districts don’t need to spend money on flashy marketing materials. They need to create innovative curricula and opportunities for personalized learning. They need to invest in highly trained and diverse teachers and school leaders. They should be motivated to expand access to a variety of quality school options and unafraid to be held accountable for those with low-performance. Most of all, they should jump at every opportunity to close achievement gaps for students who have been failed by them in the past. These are the things that will compel students and families to choose them and stay with them over time.

Senator Owen Hill who created the amended language said he had no intention of creating a broad victory for school choice. But, would it be so bad if that was the end result?

At the end of the day, the bill under fire accomplishes exactly what the federal government mandated and maybe more. Students in foster care get the confidence to learn in a stable environment. And it just so happens that students of color and from low-income backgrounds gain true choice through much needed access. But, if the plaintiffs are able to block implementation of the law until litigation is over, no one benefits.

On the other hand, if the suits are dismissed, as they should be, perhaps we will fulfill the promise in the federal law and actually help every student succeed.

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