Colorado charters likely to receive more equitable funding

Colorado charters likely to receive more equitable funding

(Colo.) Charters and traditional public schools will get an equal share of voter-approved property tax revenue pending Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper’s signature on a last second measure passed by state lawmakers last week.

The bi-partisan bill was quickly pushed through the Legislature in just two days short of the close of the 2017 legislative session. In addition to the changes it would make to school funding, the bill also increases financial transparency requirements for charters.

“(The bill) is a bi-partisan compromise that first and foremost provides equitable funding for all Colorado's children no matter what type of school they attend,” one of the bill’s four co-sponsors, Sen. Angela Williams, D-Denver, said in a statement. “The bill also improves our education system by requiring additional transparency and accountability from charter schools without creating additional burdens for schools.”

Although charter schools are not a new fixture in education, and currently operate in 42 states and the District of Columbia, they remain a controversial part of the schooling landscape. Because charters are funded by taxpayer money but operate independently of school districts, opponents argue that these schools drain funds from traditional public schools while allowed to meet lower standards of accountability in terms of academics and civil rights protections.

But as a proponent of charter and private schools, Donald Trump promised to fund a $20 billion school choice program during his presidential campaign, and appointed Betsy DeVos–a longtime advocate of charter schools in her home state of Michigan–as U.S. Secretary of Education.

According to the Colorado Department of Education, charter schools in the state have seen a 30 percent increase in enrollment since 2013. Also, supporters point out, the more than 108,000 students enrolled in charter schools during last year comprise a more racially diverse population than other public schools.

Additionally, these students earn higher scores on state tests than their district peers. Education officials found that, on average, 78 percent of charter students in third grade scored either proficient or advanced on reading assessments compared to 73 percent of district students, according to the state.

Despite these academic achievements, teachers at charter schools in Colorado make about $14,000 less annually than their traditional school counterparts.

Part of the problem could be that only about a third of Colorado’s 178 school districts share funding property tax increases with charter schools. A legislative report found that, in all, approximately $34 million in local tax increases are not being shared equitably with charter schools.

Currently, traditional district schools may withhold mill levy revenue from local charters, as well as 5 percent of per-pupil funding distributed.

If Hickenlooper signs the charter funding bill, districts will be required to develop plans to share mill levy funds by Fiscal Year 2019-20, but will be allowed to continue to withhold 5 percent of per-pupil revenue. Districts could either develop a plan to share 95 percent of the additional tax revenue with local charter schools, or outline how they intend to spend the money to best meet the needs of all students in the district, regardless of whether they attend a charter or traditional school.

Charters, meanwhile, would be required to post certain tax documents on their websites so that they are easily accessible for families. Additionally, they would no longer be automatically granted up to two waivers from the education department regarding financial accountability requirements.

Hickenlooper is expected to sign the bill.