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CLASS STRUGGLE

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.

As of July, DPS had approved two charter schools: Clayton Charter School and the Denver Youth Academy. And this week, the state Board of Education ordered the district to accept a third, Thurgood Marshall Middle School.

Of the three schools, however, only one will open in September--mainly because of time pressures. The Denver Youth Academy recently was granted an extension until 1995. David Martinez, deputy director of the academy, says too many details still need to be worked out (lack of an approved building for the school, for one).

And although the state directed DPS to accept the Marshall charter, it was with the understanding that the school would not open until the fall of 1995.

That leaves Clayton, an offshoot of the Clayton Foundation, a $10 million charitable organization, as the sole new offering for city parents and students. The school promises to be a sound one--the foundation has been studying early childhood development for many years. Still, its approval by DPS isn't necessarily a good sign for future charters.

That's because the decision to approve Clayton was hardly daring. In fact, Clayton was a relative no-brainer for the district because it will cost DPS relatively little. The foundation is donating $450,000 and will provide the building for the school, which plans to accept 88 prekindergarten-through-second-grade students the first year. And because of its deep pockets, Clayton applied for the minimum amount of public funding from DPS, a request the district happily granted.

Although Clayton won't cost the district much, the charter legislation itself has been far from cost-free. That leaves state taxpayers as slight losers. One reason: Each time a local district rejects a charter proposal and the state board meets to hear the appeal--which so far it has done thirteen times--the state cash register rings up another bill.

The Colorado Department of Education coughs up about $1,000 each time the state board convenes to hear an appeal. Much of that is in travel costs. Board members come to Denver from as far away as Pueblo and two of them spend the night in a hotel on the state's tab. Copying costs and mailings add to the bill.

And that doesn't include the additional invoices that pile up at the department's office as a result of the charter legislation. The Attorney General's office, whose lawyers often are called on to sort through legal questions during appeals, charges the department $42.90 an hour for its services. The department also has assigned one staff person to work on charters almost fulltime since the legislation passed last year.

In addition, local taxpayers pick up the tab when a district fights a charter application. DPS, for instance, has an attorney on staff. But it also farmed out some of the legal work necessary to convince the state that the city didn't need eleven of the thirteen charter schools. A spokesman says the fees came to less than $10,000.

One of the biggest losers in the Charter Schools Act's inaugural dance has to be the teachers' unions. The Colorado Education Association, the state's largest union, opposed charter-school legislation when it was proposed two years ago. It is becoming clear why.

Many charter-school organizers contend that some of the failures of traditional education can be laid at the feet of the unions and the restrictions (tenure in particular) that they place on both teachers and administrators. So it should come as no surprise that many of the new schools are hiring instructors only if they're not union members.

In Denver, for instance, Clayton Charter School will not use the Denver Classroom Teachers Association. Nor will Jeffco's Community Involved School allow its teachers to join the Jefferson County Education Association. And in Durango both the Excel and Community of Learners schools have decided to hire instructors only if they avoid the Durango Education Association.

"We felt that the inability to hire and fire our teachers was restricting one of the basic tenets of our model," explains Bruce Short, chairman of the Community of Learners board. "Our teachers won't have to pay union dues, and they will get a lot of respect from us."

 

Left with the most acrimonious charter-school debate so far is Pueblo Public School District No. 67. It centers on either racism or bad timing; the answer will have to be decided in a courtroom at great public expense, making Pueblo a potentially big loser.

Last fall, Pueblo hosted one of only two charters to open in 1993. This fall a second is scheduled to begin classes. At the same time, however, the district plans to shut two public elementary schools that served mostly Hispanic students. The local board contends the move was necessary because enrollment at the two buildings had dropped too low.

Several parents in Pueblo haven't bought that explanation, though. In April, eight of them filed a class-action lawsuit against the district. They charge that the district paid for the two new charter schools at the expense of the local Hispanic community. The suit, which also alleges that the entire year-old charter legislation is discriminatory, is scheduled to go to trial in late August.


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