What are they, what makes them different and how do they compare to the district schools?
Anyone who drives around Fort Collins is going to be aware of a number of schools that don’t seem to fit the norm. From the austere Ridgeview Classical School on 1900 south Lemay to the colorful blocks of Global Village Academy on 2130 Horsetooth Rd. to the Mountain Sage Community School on 2310 E. Prospect, those with children approaching school age are bound to wonder if these alternatives are worth investigating.
A charter school operates under a “charter” which is a contract between the school and its authorizer, either a local school district, in this case, the Poudre School district or the Colorado Charter School Institute. The Fort Collins Montessori, Liberty Commons, Mountain Sage, Compass and Ridgeview are district authorized, all having applied to the local Board of Education. Global Village is a state charter as is the Academy of Arts and Knowledge and Colorado Early Colleges. A new school, the AXIS International Academy will open as a Colorado Charter School for the 2019-2020 school year. State run charter schools do not interact with the local school board.
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Charter Schools are not the same as private schools. All Colorado charter schools are public, nonreligious, and do not charge tuition or screen their students. They must answer to the school board, are governed by performance contracts and are accountable to the same standards as all other public schools in the state. They have to be nonprofit and are subject to the same “Public School Transparency Act” as all the other schools in the state, which requires they post detailed information online for public access.
To mention the word “Charter” often elicits a negative response. It is assumed that they are publicly funded private schools, that there’s no accountability, that they siphon public funds away from the district schools, and make no accommodations for special needs students. Also, the teachers don’t have to be certified. Another criticism of charter schools is that even though they apply alternative methodology to the district schools, they receive funding equal to the district schools. This currently amounts to $7,727.97 per pupil across the Poudre School district. State Representative Jeni Arndt takes issue with this distribution. She believes that because the charter schools don’t fit into the district plan, and have all created their own plan, they shouldn’t be allowed access to funds equal to schools that do follow the district plan. She is also concerned that the State Board of Education doesn’t oversee the charter schools, and this should also exclude them from receiving district funds.
School funding comes from both state funding and local property taxes, which varies from district to district based on property tax values. For the Poudre School District, it’s about 50/50 according to Dave Montoya, PSDs Director of finance. Additional funding comes from the mill levy override, providing support above and beyond the state and property taxes. The mill levy is decided by voters during election periods. Should the voters approve the mill levy, existing district charter schools get a share of that revenue. The district is allowed to charge the district charter schools a certain percentage on the administrative level up to 5%. The current charge is about 2%. The state legislature has changed the mill levy distribution because of the perception of a lack of fairness within the district schools statewide.
80% of the school budget is for employees. While Mr. Montoya agrees that there has been tension in the past over the budget issues between the district schools and charter schools, currently, there is much more of an effort toward collaboration and working together. Issues that caused the difficulties were much more about organization and meeting deadlines with paperwork than any real objection to the charter schools themselves. One of the greatest obstacles to financing education in Colorado is the lack of state funding. Estimates of Colorado school funding rank from 43rd to 48th in the U. S.
Charter schools vary within districts and parents usually make their decisions according to the curriculum offered. Global Village and the new AXIS school emphasize language immersion, teaching Spanish, French and Mandarin. Mountain Sage is a Waldorf School, following the methodology introduced by Rudolph Steiner in 1918 with an emphasis on arts and music and a “low tech” approach. The school educates students from kindergarten through the 8th grade.
Compass Charter is a high tech school where students learn from a hands-on, project-based model. Polaris also follows this model.
Ridgeview Classical School is described by Principal Derek Anderson as founded on the curriculum of 100 years ago. Students learn Latin in kindergarten and the Greek alphabet in 3rd grade. While many charter schools educate students only through the 8th grade, Ridgeview educates students from kindergarten through the 12th grade. Liberty Common School also educates students through the 12th grade as does Polaris.
Charters have no transportation services and parents have to drive their kids to school. Most do not have sports programs, playing fields or teams, so important to the traditional district school culture, though the Liberty Common School does have a sports program. Another issue discussed in an interview with PSD Board Director, Carolyn Reed, is that the charter schools are not always able to serve special needs students and that less than 2% provide reduced lunches. Some provide no hot lunches at all.
In an interview with the PSD school board president, Christophe Febvre, he stated that though there may have been a degree of tension between the district schools and charter schools in the past, much of that feeling has dissipated and the focus has returned to the students and “not the politics”. He agrees that charters provide a broad spectrum of services to a broad population. As Board President, he would like to “counter the trend, but from a good place.”
The debate is likely to heat up again. The November 10 edition of the online news magazine: Colorado Politics, reported that in addition to former CSU president Al Yates, the education transition team will include Jen Walmer, the director of Democrats for Education Reform, a political group that advocates for charter schools. Some have accused the group of seeking to restrict teacher unions.
Another is former U.S. Representative Bob Schaffer, a Republican and former member of the state board of education who also heads up the Liberty Commons schools. Yet another appointee to the transition panel is Mike Johnston, a former state senator. Johnston, is also a charter schools advocate.
The same article states “Some activists see certain school-district charter schools operated by outside groups, voucher programs to fund private schools, merit pay for teachers and other changes to public-education norms as part of an attempt to privatize education.”
Education activist, Patricia Crowley tweeted, “By choosing … voucher king Schaffer, @PolisForCO has just angered many, many, already active Public Ed. supporting suburban women. Bad move! Game on!”
Parents who are turned off to the “Rah Rah!” culture of the traditional district schools with their emphasis on their sports teams, athletes on a pedestal and the cliquishness that comes with it are likely to consider a charter school. Of course, they want the best for their children and it would appear pointless to ask a child what they want for themselves. But the truth is, most children want to be with their friends. Attending a school outside of their neighborhood might find them excluded from the local circle who they may have played with since they were babies. It is important to involve the child in the decision of which school to attend, get their opinion, even if a five-year-old seems too young to understand. Their input may be surprising.