Opinion: Accountability for charter schools is just good government

In her March 17 op-ed, Stephanie Hancock claims House Bill 1363 is a “brazen” and “malicious” attempt to harm charter schools. As a former legislator and public school teacher, I would argue that the bill is a reasonable attempt to impose the same accountability and transparency requirements on charter schools that are required of traditional public schools.

In the 30 years since Colorado authorized charter schools, legislative changes to the original law have weakened local district oversight, fiscal transparency and public accountability. The competitive and choice business model adopted by the charter industry has undermined the constitutional rights and responsibilities of locally elected school boards, increased segregation, and hindered the art of collaboration.

HB-1363 would review 30-year-old charter school laws and policies to strengthen accountability and transparency.

For example, the bill would prohibit financial conflicts of interest between the unelected members of charter school boards and the for-profit education management providers they sometimes hire.

Companies and wealthy investors have benefited from our public tax dollars through the chartering opportunity. It’s no surprise that 11 lobbyists representing Americans for Prosperity were hired to defeat this bill. The mission of this Koch Brothers network is to privatize public education. Taxpayers deserve to know who sits on the founding boards, how public education dollars are spent, and who may benefit from them.

Current law allows charter schools to automatically waive certain provisions of state law, particularly those relating to the employment of teachers. This policy has weakened the teaching profession. HB-1363 would eliminate automatic waivers and require statutes to explain to parents in easy-to-understand language the rationale for hiring at-will or using unlicensed teachers.

Some charter schools pay their teachers $10,000 to $15,000 less than traditional public schools. Empowering teachers means adopting policies that protect their right to fair hiring and firing policies and a paycheck worthy of a licensed profession. Another equitable component of the bill would require charter school administrators to evaluate their teachers using the same system that traditional public schools must use.

HB-1363 also addresses the issue of management of county facilities. Under current Colorado law, charter schools are not required to pay rent for available school district facilities. In addition, an independent charter school is not required to pay more than $12 per year in rent for a public school building to be converted into a charter school. These laws need to be changed. School district buildings were built and paid for by taxpayers. The duly elected board has the fiduciary duty and constitutional right to protect the assets of the district.

Many school districts are seeing a decline in school enrollment. School boards must make difficult but necessary financial decisions to close low-enrollment schools. The Jeffco School District closed 16 elementary schools last year. It impacted every neighborhood except charter communities. Existing law protects charter schools with low enrollment from closure during periods of declining enrollment. This bill would allow local school boards to fairly consider all low-enrollment schools during times of declining enrollment.

Hancock rudely stated that charter schools are a better choice because a charter school “gives parents and teachers the opportunity to escape substandard conventional schools.” Statements like these promote racial segregation and insult the hard-working professionals in our traditional schools. To be clear, data from the Colorado Department of Education shows that charter schools, on average, do no better academically than neighborhood schools.

No solid company would wait 30 years to review and revise its policies. The government shouldn’t do that either. We should expect all publicly funded schools to be held accountable to the same rules. The benefits of transparency and accountability for taxpayers, parents, students, teachers, school boards and local districts empower them to make important decisions.

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