Saturday, August 27, 2011

When is a Charter School a Charter School?

There's been some confusion in Colorado lately, with the creation of the Douglas County School District's Choice Scholarship School (CSS). The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and others brought a lawsuit against the district because CSS was formed to implement the district's choice scholarship (i.e., voucher) program. The judge hearing the lawsuit ruled in favor of the plaintiff and shut down the charter school. Many have asked me what I think about this being a charter school.

First, my response has nothing to do with the school's mission to implement the district's choice scholarship program. I believe the real issues are related to "what is a charter school"?

The federal Elementary and Secondary Act defines what a charter school is.

(a) in accordance with a specific state statute authorizing the granting of charters to schools, is exempt from significant state or local rules that inhibit the flexible operation and management of public schools, but not from any rules relating to the other requirements of this paragraph;

(b) is created by a developer as a public school, or is adapted by a developer from an existing public school, and is operated under public supervision and control;

(c) operates in pursuit of a specific set of educational objectives determined by the school's developer and agreed to by the authorized public chartering agency;

(d) provides a program of elementary or secondary education, or both;

(e) is nonsectarian in its programs, admissions policies, employment practices, and all other operations, and is not affiliated with a sectarian school or religious institution;

(f) does not charge tuition;

(g) complies with the Age Discrimination Act of 1975, Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, and Part B of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act;

(h) is a school to which parents choose to send their children, and that admits students on the basis of a lottery, if more students apply for admission than can be accommodated;

(i) agrees to comply with the same federal and state audit requirements as do other elementary and secondary schools in the state, unless such requirements are specifically waived for the purpose of this program;

(j) meets all applicable federal, state, and local health and safety requirements;

(k) operates in accordance with state law; and

(l) has a written performance contract with the authorized public chartering agency in the state that includes a description of how student performance will be measured pursuant to state assessments that are required of other schools and pursuant to any other assessments agreeable to the authorizing agency.

In addition, the Colorado Charter Schools Act explains what a charter school is. A charter school operates with financial autonomy, via a charter/contract, and with waivers from certain laws, rules or district policies. There's a line between the charter school and its authorizer, most often the local school district. This line is determined by the charter school contract.

An authorizer may have say over governance issues by reviewing bylaws in the charter application and then either approving or not approving the charter school. However, an authorizer doesn't have the authority to appoint governing board members or say that certain individuals cannot be on a charter school governing board.

Historically in the state, a handful of districts have created "charter schools" with ulterior motives to get the federal startup grant or seek some other type of incentive. Eventually these charter schools close when they don't get the grant or the incentive otherwise goes away. These could be called "ChINO's" or Charters in Name Only.

What constitutes a public charter school is defined in both federal and state law. In Colorado, because we're a "local control" state, that's left to the individual school district to determine. In other words, it's the local school board that decides IF they grant a charter to an applicant and what that school looks like. There isn't a group of individuals authorized to "police" if it's really a charter school. That determination is often played out over time or litigated based on specific characteristics.

There are numerous shades of gray between clear autonomy in charter schools and those that are more closely aligned with their school district. For example, a district requires all their charter schools to run their financials through the district whereas other charter schools get a check every month that they put into their own bank account. There are different philosophies for charter school authorizers and different perceptions of what is an acceptable relationship. Regardless of its nature, the charter contract describes if it's a ChINO or a real charter school.

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