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Proposal upending Colorado charter school system fails in House committee | News


A bill backed mostly by teachers’ unions that would upend the state’s charter school system failed in the House Education Committee Thursday.

House Bill 1363 was sponsored by Democratic Reps. Tammy Story of Evergreen and Lorena Garcia of Adams County. The bill failed on a 3-8 vote, with four Democrats and the committee’s four Republicans voting against it.

The measure was not expected to win approval, given longstanding support for charter schools from many Democratic lawmakers and likely opposition from Gov. Jared Polis, who has founded several charter schools in the past.

The eight-hour hearing drew dozens of charter school advocates to the education committee. Most of those who testified Thursday, including the Colorado Children’s Campaign and the Colorado Catholic Conference, opposed the bill.

Opposition to the bill didn’t just come from charter school families. It also came from groups such as Education Reform Now, an arm of Democrats for Education Reform, and a New York hedge fund-backed group that supports charter schools and opposes teachers’ unions. The hedge fund group has spent over $5 million in the last four years to support state Democratic candidates through various independent expenditure committees.

As introduced, HB 1363 would have made the following changes:

• At least one-third of a charter school board must be made up of parents or guardians of students attending the school, as well as reflect the community demographics;

• Prohibits automatic waivers (granted by the state board of education) from being included in charter contracts executed or renewed on or after July 1, 2024. Those automatic waivers were created as a paperwork reduction exercise tied to replacement plans;

• Prohibits charter contracts from waiving educator personnel performance evaluation system requirements;

• Repeals the requirement that a school district provide a list of vacant or underused buildings and land to district charter schools and prohibits district charter schools from using those vacant facilities;

• Repeals the ability of charter school applicants to seek a second decision from the state board when a local board rejects a charter school application a second time.

• Grants district accountability committees the ability to review charter school renewals; currently, they only review initial applications.

Story told the education committee that charter schools were expected to be schools of innovation, a far departure from how school districts operate.

These schools “have now evolved away from that primary intent,” she said. They need to be transparent and accountable to the public when using tax dollars. Charter schools have access to gifts, grants, donations and public funding. “I expect most charter schools to be good public stewards, but financial records are not publicly available,” she claimed.

She added that families deserve to know what laws and rules charter schools opt out of and how that would be addressed. According to the bill, just like public schools, if a charter school’s enrollment declines, the school could be closed.

Santiago Lopez is superintendent of the New America Schools, the charter school network founded by Polis. Lopez told the committee he strongly opposed the bill and initially tried to reach out to Garcia without a response. Eventually, he was able to contact her to discuss the bill and learned they both support neighborhood schools.

Lopez said Charter schools are a neighborhood school choice, but this bill will allow districts to revoke a charter because of the district’s declining enrollments. He added that repealing a charter’s ability to use vacant district buildings or lands is a discriminatory practice.

Garcia said the bill was not intended to shut schools down.

Garcia said that a few issues draw more emotion than education for children. “We’re not here to debate anyone’s concern for children or anyone’s desire for high-quality education. Every one of us wants this,” she said. The intention is that all students and families are in the best place to choose the best schools, which is only possible when families have all the information to make that decision. She explained that that includes knowing about waivers, where funds come from and external influences on curricula.

Former state Rep. Judy Solano testified about the problem with waivers. Most have to do with teacher employment, she said. One waiver deals with curricula, which should not be an automatic waiver as parents should know what textbooks the charter uses, she said. Teachers are waived from benefits and protections that they get in traditional public schools. They are “at will” employees under an automatic waiver that has existed for 30 years, Solano said. If a charter school wants to hire at-will employees, they need to be able to say why they need that instead of certified teachers, Solano told the committee; that should be a matter for school board oversight.

Riley Kitts of Democrats for Education Reform also testified against it. Throughout the process, the bill has felt like something done toward charter schools, not with charter schools, he said. The sponsors have refused to share amendments. He said his local public schools and the local PTA don’t provide transparency on their fundraising. This bill is supposed to be about parity, and it’s not, Kitz said.

The hearing was dominated by parents and families whose kids attend charter schools, as well as charter school students.

Perla Perez, an eighth grader at Richard Flores Magon Academy, told the committee that her school accepts everyone and that she feels supported by teachers and amazing staff. “I love my school,” she said, a place where culture is celebrated, such as Cinco de Mayo. Charter schools help students find ways to succeed in life, she explained.

“Our teachers are passionate about helping us succeed,” said Jaylah Valdivia, an eight-year student at Magon Academy. “Our school is like a big family, a place where we feel supported and inspired every day.”

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