CO Charter Schools Knocking It Out of the Park in Latest Report

It’s back-to-school season in Colorado. Some kiddos started class today, and many more will be hitting the books again over the next couple of weeks. By the time August is over, most of Colorado’s 900,000 PK-12 students will be back to learning and growing in the state’s public school system.

Well north of 100,000 of these students will be heading back to public charter schools. And as my policy friend Ross Izard points out in a recent column, that’s a pretty good place to be.

Every three years, the state of Colorado puts out its State of Charter Schools report. (For those who want to sound fancy, that makes it a “triennial” report.) The latest report was released last month, and was the basis for Ross’s new column. He also wrote about the 2013 report, concluding that Colorado charters were serving students and families well despite seriously unfair funding. In the three years since then, the charter sector has continued to improve despite the dogged funding issue.

I could write a whole bunch of stuff about what the report says, but Ross has already done a lot of that work. We can use his column as a guide as we break down the latest report’s findings. Lazy? Maybe. Informative? You bet.

First up are the report’s findings about the types of students served by public charter schools. From the column:

Charter schools in Colorado now educate a higher percentage of minority students than non-charter schools. They also outpace the state in the percentage of English-language learners served. Although public charter schools serve a lower percentage of low-income students than their traditional public counterparts, the gap is narrowing. The percentage of low-income charter students has roughly doubled since 2001.

Colorado charter schools continue to serve a lower percentage of students who require special education. However, a 2014 study on the subject in Colorado indicates that these differences are primarily explained by differences in application patterns and student classification, not the systematic “counseling out” of special education students often alleged by charter opponents. In fact, the study found that significantly fewer students with individualized education plans exited charter schools than exited traditional schools at the elementary level. There was no significant difference in exit rates at the middle school level.

Whoa! There’s a lot of information packed in there. I’ll let you digest it on your own, though I will say that you should take special note of the fact that despite the stubborn imprecations hurled by choice opponents, Colorado charter schools are, overall, now more racially diverse than non-charters. They still serve fewer low-income kids, but that gap is narrowing quickly. And, as Ross says, the “special education gap” persists, but we have solid empirical research showing that the phenomenon is not caused by systemic malicious intent on the part of the schools themselves.

Put that information in your back pocket. The next time someone tells you that charters discriminate against tough-to-educate students (note: that would be illegal under the Colorado Charter Schools Act), kindly inform them that they are full of it. If that doesn’t work, you can toss them the near-100-page State of Charter Schools report, which handily shows that charters serve diverse populations of students—and that those populations are growing more diverse over time.

Of course, it doesn’t much matter which kids you’re serving if you aren’t serving them well. Good news on that front: The report also finds that charters are doing great when it comes to academic performance. Check it out:

When it comes to academics, charter schools tend to surpass traditional public schools. With only a handful of exceptions, the 2016 State of Charter Schools report found that charters outperformed non-charters in both proficiency rates and student growth on statewide assessments. Though more analysis is needed, these positive results appear to hold true for both the older TCAP assessment and the newer, more difficult PARCC assessments.

Charters’ overall academic performance is obviously great news for charter school students. But we really shouldn’t be surprised; charters did well in the 2013 charter report too, and most of the best schools in the state at the elementary, middle, and high school levels were charters in 2014. I would expect those top-ten lists to look the same when Colorado School Grades gets back up and running this year after the state’s accountability timeout.

I will add one important caveat here: There’s wide variation in the charter sector when it comes to academic performance. Colorado charter schools are doing fabulously overall, but there are still a good number of them that need to do a lot better. And the report did find a few problems:

None of this is to say that all is perfect in Colorado’s charter sector. Charter school four-year graduation and postsecondary enrollment rates lag significantly behind those of traditional public schools in Colorado. These gaps are largely explained by the charter sector’s higher proportion of online and alternative schools, which often serve extremely difficult populations of students. Yet, demography must never become an excuse. As always, there is work to do.

Overall, though, charters are performing well and serving increasingly diverse populations of students. That’s great news, but I was most excited to see the incredible growth of the charter sector in Colorado. If we believe that parents know best for their children and that they will vigorously pursue the best educational opportunities available, we can plausibly use parental demand as a proxy for the quality of any given educational option. By that standard, charters are absolutely knocking it out of the park. Look at these figures:

Most importantly, the explosive expansion of Colorado’s charter sector indicates that these schools are serving a significant and growing demand for educational options on the part of Colorado parents. The state’s first two charter schools opened in 1993-94. By 2015-16, that number had grown to 226 — an 11,200 percent increase.

Charter enrollment growth has dramatically outpaced non-charter enrollment growth, and the gap continues to grow. In 2015-16, charter schools served more than 108,000 students statewide. That represents a 30 percent increase in enrollment since 2011-12.

No, that 11,200 percent is not a typo. If you need further evidence of how quickly the charter sector is expanding in Colorado, check out these graphs from the 2016 State of Charter Schools report (note that the state confusingly reports the first charters “operating” in 1994-95, while Ross correctly states that the first two schools opened in 1993-94):

That’s some serious growth, and enrollment growth in recent years shows clearly that parental demand for charter schools is not slowing. In fact, it is significantly outpacing supply. Reliable numbers are difficult to come across, but it is safe to say that tens of thousands of Colorado students are sitting on waiting lists or in lottery pools for charter schools. Meanwhile, between 10,000 and 15,000 seats sit empty in Colorado private schools. Scholarship tax credits, anyone?

Okay, okay. We’ll save that conversation for another time. For now, we’ll just bask in the good news that Colorado charter schools are helping diverse populations of students reach their goals and build their own success stories—and, in the process, helping to meet surging parental demand for choice in education. As always, there’s more to be done. But every now and then it’s okay to linger on the path to the summit and reflect on how far you’ve come. In Colorado, we’ve come a long, long way.