By Jenna Schmidt
For years students whose learning style was better served in a public charter school in Jefferson County were funded like second-class citizens. Deciding that was not fair, the Board of Education voted 3-2 to ensure that charter school students receive an equitable share of district dollars. Board members Witt, Newkirk, and Williams supported the fair funding.
As recently as two years ago, the funding disparity between students in district-run schools versus those in public charter schools was more than $1,000 per-pupil, a disparity now fully erased over the last two years.
During the June 18 budget discussion, board director Jill Fellman expressed her reluctance to support fair funding. “I value all children equally,” she said, “and I am pleased that we are on a path to do so financially with charter schools. However, I am still concerned about [charter schools’] accountability to the district.”
Ms. Fellman should know that in Colorado all charter schools, as public schools, are accountable to their local school boards. Charter school students are required to take the same battery of state assessments as their neighborhood and option school peers. Based on Ms. Fellman’s comments some community members and parents may wonder, though, what role the school district plays in holding charters accountable to help ensure success.
The answer is the district school board has ultimate authority to monitor whether charter schools are serving students. In addition, charter schools are governed by their own boards. Colorado law explicitly holds the authorizer (in this case the Jeffco School Board) accountable for the academic and financial “end results” of charter schools. Contract terms between the district and a charter set the specific parameters for success. In 2014, Jeffco Public Schools added a full-time achievement director to oversee its 17 now authorized charters, the latest of which was approved to open this fall.
Charters submit their budgets to the district for review by the achievement director and the finance office, and have to resubmit them if there are significant enrollment shortages. This process serves as a kind of early detection system to help keep big problems from developing. Charter finances also are included in the district’s audit.
On the academic side, Jeffco officials review charter schools’ student achievement data through the district’s reporting systems. At each contract renewal the board is provided data on student achievement and can ask for interim reports. The Jeffco Board is responsible to be sure that charter schools are producing the achievement results expected. When charter schools don’t perform as expected, they can be closed. In fact, in 2005 Jeffco closed the Center for Discovery Learning Charter School, in large part because student achievement fell short of what the board desired.
Other areas where the district is actively involved in assisting and overseeing charters include school safety and security, and special education. The school district provides special education services to charter schools and shares best practices for keeping students safe and secure.
Jeffco’s duty as authorizer is to provide significant oversight and support, but not to micromanage the diverse offerings charters provide to students and families. The Jeffco board’s periodic reviews of both the academic achievement and financial status of charters provides a good balance of oversight while allowing for local control. Making the charter achievement director a full-time position has expanded the oversight Jeffco provides to charter schools.
Jeffco’s charter schools provide learning pedagogies not available in district-run schools. Families can chose from Montessori programs, Classical and Core Knowledge options, and a Waldorf school. Charter schools must still provide and maintain their own facilities. However, by providing equitable operating funds for all Jeffco students, the board has reassured families that the funding will be available to meet their students’ needs.