A school bus is seen on Wednesday, July 7, 2021 in Fountain. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun)

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More Colorado students than ever are enrolled in charter schools, and those students posted higher test scores than those of students in district-run schools during a pandemic-disrupted school year.

At the same time, Colorado charter schools continue to enroll students with disabilities at some of the lowest rates in the nation, and many parents don’t think charter schools will accommodate kids with specialized education plans related to disabilities.

Two reports out this week point to the potential promise of charter schools and changes that still need to happen for them to function like truly public schools, open to all students.

More than 15% of all Colorado students now attend charter schools, putting the state third behind only Arizona and Washington, D.C., for proportion of charter school enrollment, according to a report from the Keystone Policy Center, a nonprofit that works on a wide range of policy issues. Charter school enrollment rose during the pandemic even as enrollment in traditional district-run schools declined.

The analysis excluded online charter schools, which also attracted more students during the pandemic.

“Enrollment didn’t drop in the charters, and it actually grew, which suggests something about how the schools were interacting with their communities,” Senior Policy Director Van Schoales said.

Colorado did not closely track whether schools offered remote or in-person learning in the 2020-21 school year, and many charter schools followed the COVID practices of the district in which they were located, so it’s hard to say how remote learning shaped parent choices.

General frustration with pandemic schooling may have prompted more families to exercise school choice. Families that wanted fewer COVID restrictions as well as those who wanted more safety precautions might have found options among charter schools, said Alex Medler, executive director of the Colorado Association of Charter School Authorizers, who was not involved in the Keystone report.

“Everything has been massively disrupted, so parents who might not have thought to exercise choice have become more motivated to do so,” he said.

The Keystone Policy Center also found that charter schools on average had higher participation in state standardized tests than did district-run schools and their students performed better. And while test scores are often strongly tied to students’ race and socioeconomic background, that was less true at charter schools, the report found. At the same time, there was considerable variation among charter schools, with some posting dramatically worse results than those of district-run schools.

“It’s easier when you have freedom and flexibility to either do really well or fail really hard,” Schoales said.

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