It isn't always easy to know what's being taught at charter schools in Colorado.
Charters, which won a major victory in securing equal funding as public schools last June, pride themselves on the freedom to find fresh, creative approaches to learning while claiming to meet or even exceed state education standards.
But with that legislative victory, Colorado's 238 charter schools were also required to disclose to the State Board of Education which curriculum standards they choose not to adopt. Along with waivers from following the traditional school calendar, state teacher hiring requirements and procedures for firing teachers, four charter schools on the Front Range opted not to adopt Comprehensive Human Sexuality Education, and 21 were waived from the state's Alcohol and Controlled Substance Education curriculum during the 2016-2017 school year.
These waivers are "non-automatic," meaning that they have to be approved by the state board. In return, the charter schools are required to offer a "replacement plan" to their local school districts and the public, intended to provide assurance that state standards are being met, according to Bill Kottenstette, executive director of school choice at the Colorado Department of Education.
But many charter schools' replacement plans provide little details on what students are taught about human sexuality, alcohol and controlled substances.
Addenbrooke Classical Academy, a preschool-12 charter school in Lakewood, simply writes in its replacement plan that the Jefferson County School Board granted the school authority to decide the curricula on these subjects, which will include "appropriate instruction on human anatomy, reproduction, and sexuality."
Golden View Classical Academy (GVCA), a K-11 charter school in Golden, also received waivers for both comprehensive human sexuality and alcohol and controlled-substance education. In its replacement plan, GVCA also emphasizes "appropriate" instruction on the subjects.
GVCA's family handbook offers some more insight into its conception of sex, alcohol and controlled-substance education — namely, an emphasis on sex within marriage and "premarital abstinence."
Two other charter schools also received waivers from comprehensive human sexuality education: Launch High School in Colorado Springs and the Community Leadership Academy/Victory Prep Middle and High Schools, which share an administration. None of these schools' replacement plans offer details about the curricula, and all describe their curricula as meeting the state's education standards, but in a way that aligns with the mission of their school.
As with all charter schools, the waivers allow GVCA to interpret the intent of Colorado Academic Standards and depart from the standard curricula that students in traditional public schools receive. Currently, the state's academic standards require that students "[a]pply knowledge and skills necessary to make personal decisions that promote healthy relationships and sexual and reproductive health" and "[a]pply knowledge and skills to make health enhancing decisions regarding the use of alcohol, tobacco, and other drugs."
Only Golden View Classical Academy returned Westword's requests for more details about its curricula.
GVCA principal Robert Garrow says that students are taught in fifth and ninth grades about the subjects in a way that aligns with the school's values.
"A lot of the health curricula out there assume that students are doing x, y or z, and that presents a cultural expectation of those things and then encourages it," says Garrow. "But there is a rich and recurring conversation around love, around commitment and responsibility, that we think is better suited to a K-12 school."
Adds Garrow: "When the Colorado Academic Standards speak of healthy choices, we interpret it: love, commitment, responsibility."
That leeway for interpretation is vital to charter schools; it's what makes them different from traditional public schools and allows for parents to make a different choice for their child's education while still remaining in the public school system.
"They have more freedom at the school level in terms of creating their own curriculum, their hiring, their budgeting...but the grand bargain is, in return for accountability," says Stacy Rader, a spokeswoman for the Colorado League of Charter Schools.
"The waivers allow them to teach and reach those accountability goals in a way that fits their unique mission and model," Rader adds, referring to the state academic standards.
When asked by Westword whether charter schools' interpretations of state standards could lead to religious-based abstinence education, Rader acknowledges that, "in theory," that could happen.
"Looking at the different replacement plans with you, I really don’t know the specifics for what those schools are doing and why," she says.
GVCA says that its interpretation of the state academic standards still falls within the state's intent with those guidelines. But what if their interpretation, self-described as centering on "abstinence," is determined to be too extreme by their authorizing school district — in this case, Jefferson County?
According to Kottenstette at the state board of education, school districts would be able to void the charter agreement only if the school violates what has been laid out in the replacement plan.
"In other words, if a school commits to doing X in their replacement policy, and if they do not do X, then [the school district] could hold them accountable for not meeting that term of the contract," he explains.
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It all comes back to the replacement plans, and since they offer little detail about charter schools' policies — focusing instead on interpreting state standards to fit their mission — it is unclear how the terms could be violated.
The abstinence-based education concerns Kerrie Dallman, president of the Colorado Education Association, which advocates for teachers and education staff in Colorado's public schools.
"It's abstinence, and marriage is only between a man and a woman," Dallman says. "That's concerning because it is certainly not keeping with the U.S. Supreme Court decision for marriage equality, and it does a disservice for kids in their schools who may be struggling with sexual-orientation identification."
Dallman also draws attention to GVCA's affiliation with Hillsdale College in Michigan, which operates sixteen charters around the country as part of its school-choice initiative and whose president considers Education Secretary Betsy DeVos — also a proponent of charter schools — a personal friend. The charter-school model is likely to continue to expand in Colorado under bi-partisan support from legislators.