CLASS STRUGGLE

THE WINNERS AND LOSERS AFTER A YEAR OF THE CHARTER-SCHOOL LAW.

It has been just over a year since Colorado legislators gave the go-ahead for amateur reformers to dabble in public education. The Charter Schools Act, which was signed into law last June, for the first time permitted parents and other community members to conceive, develop and operate their own publicly funded classrooms. Since then, sixteen new schools have been approved for business.

Of course, each new school initially had to be given the okay by a local district--which, if it approved, also had to fund the charter by removing money from its existing public schools. Despite that potential for tension, and the kinks inherent during the trial period of any radical legislation, a number of people and institutions still look like winners. But others have little reason to be pleased with the year-old law.

Topping the winners' list are local boards of education, particularly those in Denver and Jefferson County, Colorado's two largest school districts. They end up on top for not losing control to the state.

It was not an idle concern. The chunk of charter-school legislation that worried local boards the most was the override authority it gave to the elected state Board of Education. According to the act, if a local school board rejects a charter proposal, the applicants may appeal to the state.

The state then may agree with the local board's thumbs-down--effectively killing the proposal. Or it can ask the local board to reconsider. If the local district again refuses, the applicants can make a final appeal to the state, which then can force the district to accept the new school.

Despite that power, however, the state has shown considerable restraint. As of this week, the state board has heard thirteen appeals--and remanded only two of them back to local boards for reconsideration.

Also winners are the parents of Durango who wanted educational choice. First of all, give the southwestern Colorado district credit for permitting two schools--as many as in Denver--in a town of 12,000. Next, give the two schools themselves credit for maintaining their integrity.

Recently, the quasi-public Durango Foundation for Educational Excellence urged the two schools to combine. As an incentive, the foundation last summer dangled a $9,000 grant if the charters, the Excel School and Community of Learners, could merge into a single school. Last fall, however, Excel--which stresses high expectations and traditional learning--and Community of Learners--which leans toward "experiential learning"--decided to maintain separate identities. Since then, each has filled its enrollment goals. They even ended up splitting the $9,000 grant.

Another winner: Jefferson County parents and kids looking for an alternative. Until this year, Jeffco, the state's largest district, had not approved any new "alternative schools" for nearly two decades.

Many people interpreted the district's reaction to the charter-school legislation as additional evidence of resistance to change--the Jeffco board rejected eleven of fourteen applications for new schools. However, parents now have three more options than they did in the past and more new schools than any other single district: Community Involved Charter School, Sci-Tech Academy and Jefferson Academy.

But the district's public-school administration probably ranks as the biggest loser of the first charter-school year. That's because Jeffco's approval of three new institutions (despite then-Superintendent Lew Finch's allergic reaction to the idea) came only after administrators got publicly slapped on their collective wrists twice during the process.

The first dressing-down occurred last spring, when Jeffco shot down Jefferson Academy, a charter school based on the rigorous academics of Jeffco's own Dennison Fundamental School, whose waiting list stands at more than 1,500. The move perplexed the state board, which during the academy's appeal openly chastised Jeffco.

In voting unanimously to remand the charter proposal back to Jeffco, the state board observed that Jefferson Academy should have been approved "right away and very enthusiastically." The district sheepishly gave its okay the second time around.

Jeffco was dinged again two months ago, during the final moments of the legislative session. The problem began when the district served notice that it expected the charter schools to hold lottery drawings to determine their enrollments. There was nothing illegal about this; the 1993 law left it to the local districts to determine how the charter schools filled their classrooms.

But the idea of random selection had a devastating effect on parents. This was particularly true among those who had labored for several months to give birth to a new school--and who were then told their children might not even be able to attend.

As a result of numerous complaints, legislators this spring quietly passed a small piece of "fix-it" legislation. Its centerpiece was a provision that the new charters may determine their own enrollment policies. Although the words "Jefferson County" appeared nowhere in the law, "it was a bill pretty much generated by the way the administration and officials were treating charter schools in Jefferson County," says representative Peggy Kerns, a main sponsor of the original charter law.

Charter-school proponents in Denver didn't fare particularly well during the opening year of charter schooling, either. That's because, despite their living in the second-largest district in the state--which received more than a dozen charter-school applications--parents likely will see only one new option for their children this fall. And even approving that sole offering didn't represent a particularly big risk for Denver Public Schools.

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