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Opinion: With new law in place, charter schools are poised to close their special-education gap

It’s the one area where charter schools have lagged others. Now the roadblocks have been removed

Charter schools may feel like a relatively recent phenomenon, but next year, Colorado will celebrate the 30th anniversary of the first charter school in our state.

Dan Schaller

When it authorized charter schools in 1993, the Colorado General Assembly allowed parents, teachers and community members “to take responsible risks and create new, innovative, more flexible ways of educating all children within the public school system.” That flexibility was intended to allow charter schools to serve as laboratories of teaching innovation that would help students increase their achievement level.

In the intervening 30 years, charter schools have made good on that promise.

Today, 266 public charter schools educate 134,000 students, which is more than 15% of Colorado’s public student population. That is almost 50% larger than Colorado’s largest school district, Denver Public Schools, which serves 92,000 students.

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These numbers validate that students and families across our state support the innovation and flexibility afforded by charter schools in their communities. One of the reasons why is because charter schools are helping students succeed. U.S. News & World Report recently determined that seven of the 10 highest-performing high schools in our state and nine of the top 20 middle schools are public charter schools. And a 2019 analysis from the Colorado Department of Education found that charter school students outscore state performance averages across virtually all achievement categories. Public charter schools in our state are raising the bar for student academic performance.

And despite many myths and critiques to the contrary, public charter schools are serving a diverse set of students. In fact, charter school students in Colorado are more diverse on average than their traditional public school peers. Recent data demonstrate that, compared to non-charter schools statewide, Colorado charter schools serve higher percentages of both students of color and English-language learners. What’s more, Colorado’s charter schools have shown they are consistently narrowing the achievement gap for students from many of these historically marginalized groups.

If there’s one area where a charter school gap remains, it’s in the space of special education. That’s because there are many legal, structural and funding inequities that have hampered charter schools’ ability to serve larger numbers of students with disabilities. But none of these factors has anything to do with charter schools’ desire or willingness to serve special needs students.

In fact, an extensive 2015 analysis of Colorado charter schools, commissioned by the Colorado League of Charter Schools and written by Civil Rights Solutions, found that “No charter public school participant gave any indication that it was unwilling to serve students with disabilities. To the contrary, from the data collected in this study, it is apparent that charter public schools in Colorado are ready and willing to serve students with disabilities, and with changes in Colorado law and policy that address the concerns detailed here, they will be better equipped to do so.”

That is why we proposed and lobbied for House Bill 22-1294 at the Colorado State Capitol this year. The bill, which passed nearly unanimously and Gov. Jared Polis signed into law last month, removes barriers and creates additional pathways for charter schools to better serve students with special needs, including the ability for certain charter schools to pursue administrative unit status from the state.

Under current state law, charter schools are precluded from becoming their own administrative units for special education purposes. This means that school districts retain ultimate control over special education funding and placements within their boundaries, and if they decide that a given charter school is not a good fit for a specific student with special needs, they can steer that student away from the charter school.

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By enabling qualified groups of charter schools to pursue administrative unit status, the new law seeks to level the playing field for charter schools and help ensure that more students with special needs have access to the high‐quality public school options they deserve.

There is no question that public school students in Colorado overall are academically behind due to the ongoing effects of the pandemic. During the past two years, our students have reached a state of crisis due to severe school staff shortages, ongoing absenteeism and quarantines, the challenges of learning online, and intermittent school closures. Generally, we must now help all our students rise above these challenges, and specifically we must support special-needs students to attend quality public schools that are prepared to serve them.

The best public schools in Colorado are a mix of innovation schools, charter schools and traditional public schools. If we continue to nurture a healthy ecosystem of options for families, and we continue to learn and share best practices from all of them, our children will recover from the harm done during the pandemic. And that benefits all of us, not just our kids.


Dan Schaller, of Denver, is president of the Colorado League of Charter Schools.


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