Colorado is blessed to offer an array of public K-12 education options. Through open enrollment, students have significant opportunity to select a suitable school within the district where they live or across district lines.
Our state law makes possible a diverse range of learning environments under the broad umbrella of a publicly accountable education system. The availability of options largely depends on programs initiated or approved by the local school board, but other avenues exist as well.
Traditional neighborhood public schools long have been the backbone of the K-12 system, and most Colorado children even today attend one of these schools. Yet various other options have been created over time to accommodate the demands of parents seeking successful opportunities.
Some of Colorado’s 178 school districts have opened option schools, with a special focus, such as the arts or science and technology, or with a distinct educational program or philosophy. In the 1970s, Jefferson County was one of the earliest districts to expand choice in this way, by creating the progressive Open Living School and the back-to-basics Dennison Fundamental School.
Typically, option schools don’t have automatic attendance zones. In order to enroll, families have to apply through a lottery process. Back in the day, the first-come, first-served system to get on a Dennison waiting list prompted some parents to camp out overnight, or—as the joke went—to sign up an infant child on the way home from being delivered at the hospital.
Some parents and teachers looking to start different educational programs to serve children’s needs later built the momentum to help pass Colorado’s charter school law. Many districts were not responsive to the call for additional options. So, lawmakers from both parties, including a Democratic governor and a future Republican governor, teamed up to pass the nation’s third such law in 1993.
Today, Colorado’s 200 charter school campuses educate about one in every nine public school students statewide. Taken as a whole, their student bodies very closely resemble the racial makeup and family incomes of the public school population at large. Still, most charters receive fewer funds per student than their district-run counterparts, primarily due to collecting a significantly smaller share of funds accumulated through voter-approved property tax overrides.
Charter applicants draw up detailed plans to organize a school, and submit them to an authorizer—which is usually the local board of education. Applications include requests for specific waivers (some automatic, some optional) from a list of state laws, allowing more flexibility to innovate. Their employees still must pass background checks, and charters cannot escape requirements for state testing. Accountability rests with the independent governing board, primarily, and includes the possibility of closure if the school fails to perform.
Some state leaders saw the greater freedom and flexibility available to charters, and sought to give the same opportunity to existing public schools. The bipartisan Innovation Schools Act of 2008 was primarily devised to give greater autonomy to Denver’s most struggling and challenging schools.
Teachers and school leaders sign off on their own Innovation Plan that outlines freedom from specific state laws, district policies, and negotiated provisions that they believe hold them back from success. With approval from the local board, a school can forge its own path in everything from curriculum and calendar to principal training and teacher contracts. They cannot waive any more laws than charter schools can.
Two-thirds of Colorado’s 48 innovation schools are located in Denver. Most of the rest can be found in Colorado Springs and Pueblo, though the Kit Carson School District on the Eastern Plains was the first to secure the status as a district of innovation (recognized by the State Board of Education). The particular plans governing these 48 schools are diverse and wide-ranging, reflecting the unique needs of individual students and communities.
Whether traditional, option, charter, or innovation, all four types of public school are tuition-free and accessible through open enrollment. It’s important to remember that these four classifications simply represent different mechanisms. Their programs and personnel, with the help of parents, make the difference.
Some classifications have additional freedom and autonomy to test and share new strategies they may find effective. One may find that the more decisions are made closer to the student, the parent, and the teacher, the better the result. But in the end, all public schools should be attuned to the same goal: an excellent education for each and every child who comes in the door.