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In a Nutshell: Charters and Vouchers

Access to High-Quality Schools | 04/21/2017

Lauren Craig
State Operations Coordinator

In a Nutshell: Charters and Vouchers (and why they are not the same thing)

We’ve all heard a lot about charter schools and vouchers this year. Everyone from legislators at the Capitol in Denver to officials at the U.S. Department of Education – even the President of the United States – is talking about them. Unfortunately, all too often charter schools and vouchers are getting lumped into the same conversation, but they are very different.  In this piece, we want to explain what charter schools and vouchers are, how they are different, and what they mean for students.

Before we jump in, we want to note that Stand for Children Colorado supports public school choice and equitable access to high-quality schools. Charter schools provide options for children and families and are sometimes the only high-performing schools serving a community. As public schools, they are accountable for the same results as traditional public schools. We believe charter schools that are not serving their students should not be allowed to continue operating. We do not support vouchers. We believe that public funds are for public schools and should not be used to support private schools.

What are ‘Charter Schools’?

Charter schools in Colorado are public schools that are authorized by their local school district or the state’s Charter School Institute. Despite misconceptions, they do not charge tuition and cannot discriminate against a student based on race, neighborhood, or special needs. In fact, 46.9% of charter school students are minorities (compared to 45.7% of students in traditional public schools). Charter schools are held accountable for the same goals as traditional public schools and are required to teach our Colorado Academic Standards. While the approach to teaching the standards may be unique to a specific charter school, their ultimate goal is the same as any traditional public school: to ensure that students learn the grade-level standards that they need to be academically successful. In order to ensure that charter schools are effectively serving their students, they are subject to the same assessments required of every other public school. If a charter school is failing and students are not reaching proficiency, it has three-five years to increase achievement before being shut down; traditional public schools have five years to improve.

There is a common misperception that charter schools receive more state and local funding than traditional neighborhood schools.  This is false – often times, charter schools receive less funding, especially at the local level. (Note: Denver Public Schools and handful of other districts are notable exceptions). Currently, school districts are not required to distribute local revenues equally among their traditional public schools and charter schools; they can choose how to share mill levy dollars. This has resulted in charter schools receiving only 70% of the funds that traditional public schools receive, which puts charter school students at a disadvantage. Perhaps one of the most contentious bills during the 2017 legislative session has been SB17-061. This bill would require school districts to equally distribute the revenue they receive from local property tax mill levies among all their public schools—meaning that traditional and charter schools would receive an equal per-pupil share of that revenue. Stand for Children Colorado supports SB17-061 because we believe that all public schools, regardless whether they are traditional or charter, should receive equitable funding.

How are School Vouchers different?

Voucher programs have nothing to do with charter schools.  They are two completely different things and should never be lumped together as a single policy.  School voucher programs allow state funds, which are provided by taxpayers, to be redirected away from public schools and used to fund students who attend private schools. We believe that this harms our system of public schools and the students in public schools by reducing already limited resources and creating the potential for some students to be discriminated against by private entities.

Moreover, Colorado has already determined that voucher programs are not in the best interest of our state.  Colorado’s first attempt to pass a voucher bill was overturned by the Colorado Supreme Court; the second attempt failed to get the support it needed from Republicans on a critical vote on the House floor, over concerns around impacting local control. Although Colorado has made some state determinations about vouchers, we know that there is growing discussion about vouchers at the national level. The Trump administration has signaled initial support of school vouchers, and Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos has been an adamant defender of vouchers. Stand for Children staunchly opposes vouchers and will oppose federal proposals that take away public funds for public schools. We hope that reading this blog has helped highlight the dramatic difference between school vouchers and charter schools, even though recently they have been lumped into the same sentences. Colorado lawmakers – both Democrats and Republicans – have rejected attempts to create a voucher program in Colorado; and charter schools are public schools, supported by taxpayer dollars, and required to comply with all the state’s accountability laws. For more information about charter schools in Colorado, click here. 

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