Colorado Is Showing Everyone Up in Funding Its Charter Schools

Can you feel that tension? It’s just about everywhere in this country. A mighty tug of war between traditional public schools and public charter schools. Both fighting for their right to exist (even though extinction on either side is very unlikely). Those who champion traditional public schools contend that charters are sucking them dry—draining away important tax dollars and making it hard for them to do their jobs. Charter advocates demand quality choices in public education, largely in response to a traditional system that has failed generations of students. The latest battleground is in Broward County, Florida, where a fight over money is likely headed to court. And meanwhile out west, Colorado just got through its charter-funding legislative battle relatively unscathed. The two of us come from these two different states, but we also come from different political backgrounds (one a centrist liberal who worked for Chicago lefties like Mayor Richard M. Daley and former Chicago Public Schools CEO Arne Duncan, the other an open-minded conservative who served under Governor Rick Scott). We’re both unabashedly pro-charter and pro-school accountability, as long as we’re talking about high-quality options and taking meaningful action for schools that struggle most to give kids the education they deserve. Some have suggested charter and traditional schools can’t continue to coexist for much longer. But we live in two states that are trying to strike a balance, particularly when it comes to funding public schools. While Colorado and Florida both passed laws to share local tax money with charter schools, the path leading there and the public reaction afterward were strikingly different. Understanding those differences may shed some light on the issue for other states. Perhaps they can learn from the mistakes in our states, and from the things we got right.

The Fight in Florida

In mid-June, Florida’s governor signed a gargantuan education bill that, among many other things, allowed charters schools to get some of the local tax money school districts bring in to repair buildings and pay down debt. The law also set aside money for the state to bring top-performing charter schools to places where the traditional school has gotten a D or F rating for at least three years in a row. While lawmakers came to agree on the changes (though some regretted it), school districts revolted. By early July, one of Florida’s largest school districts, Broward County Public Schools, positioned itself to sue the state over the new law. Days later, another district joined them. They argue that sharing local tax money isn’t fair—traditional schools need every penny they can get since they’ve been getting less state funding for building maintenance over the last few years compared to charter schools. Forgive us, but this money argument feels like much ado about nothing. While it’s true, charter schools have gotten more state money, they’ve also gotten less—ahem, we mean no—local money. Our hunch is that it probably equals out. State lawmakers decide how much state money schools get every year. Since charter schools are now allowed to dip into the local pot, it’s very likely they’ll get less from the state going forward. Speaking of pot…

The Calm in Colorado

In Colorado just a few weeks earlier, lawmakers passed a similar law giving charter schools access to local tax dollars. While there was some kicking and screaming on the fringes (the far-union left and the extreme anti-regulation right), most found themselves in the productive middle. Months later, nobody's threatening to sue. So why the stark contrast? Well, part of it can be explained by the legal context in each state. The Florida Constitution says local school districts get to decide if a charter school opens and if it needs to be shut down. There is no state charter school authorizer. One argument in the anticipated lawsuit is that allowing the state to green-light charter schools (as an alternative to perpetually failing traditional schools) is simply unconstitutional. In Colorado, local districts make charter school decisions, similar to Florida’s setup, but Colorado also has a statewide charter authorizer (and it’s not the state’s education department). Other reasons for the difference are harder to explain. In Colorado, the discussions appeared to center on what students need to be successful, while in Florida the arguments are more muddled—what students need, who’s getting more money, teachers feeling bashed, test-based accountability for schools, and on and on. In fact, opponents of the law claim it “ made changes to 69 different statutes relating to education.” Also, education leaders in Colorado have put the primary focus on how to serve all kids, not how to split up the money, thereby breaking down the walls between charter and traditional public schools and approaching access to quality choices and accountability as a shared responsibility.

Remember That It's About the Kids

It’s much 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. In Florida, roughly 55,000 kids are stuck in failing schools. Ninety-two of those schools have been getting a D or an F for at least three years. Their need for better options is undeniable, and charter schools have been stepping up. In Florida, charter school students, especially minorities, score better on tests than kids in traditional schools. Not every charter school is a winner, but there’s evidence that some really are giving families a better option. Instead of territorialism and guarding local dollars, the discussion should be more about how to work together to continue to improve results. Once we’ve done that, then we’ll be better informed to decide how best to share the funds to do it. Colorado still has a long way to go in terms of student achievement, but yawning political, territorial divides are generally not standing in the way. Consistently improving public schools is a complex puzzle nobody has solved yet. Some are seeing better progress than others, but we haven’t been able to replicate success everywhere. Our best chance at getting there won’t come from unfocused fighting, or trying to do too much at once. It’ll come from a willingness to step into other people’s shoes, from having honest conversations about the strengths and weaknesses in the the system, and from working together on long-term plans to improve all public schools for all of our kids, no matter where we live.
Lane Wright
Lane Wright is Director of Strategic Growth at Education Post. In addition to this role, he tells stories that help families understand how their schools are doing, how to make them better and how policy plays a role. He’s a former journalist and former press secretary to Florida’s governor, and he’s got a knack for breaking down complex education reform policy issues into easy-to-understand ...

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