History Lessons

Published on: January 6th, 2010

In the fall of 1993, the first charter schools in Colorado opened. The previous legislative session had been rife with debate over these newfangled schools, but the movement had support from then-governor Roy Romer and numerous interest groups.

The landmark legislation was eventually passed, and it made Colorado the third state in the country to approve charters.

There was potential, some said, for this to reinvent education. But it was a bumpy start for the burgeoning charter movement. One of the first Colorado charters began in a vacant Sears building under the eye of the media and legislators. Barely a month into the school year, an ugly internal battle brewed and eventually erupted.

“Remember when Chuck Yeager broke the sound barrier? The first time he tried it, he fell out of the sky,” Romer said in 1993. “They had to reconfigure the plane several times before it worked. That’s what happens when you try new things.”

Jim Griffin of the Colorado League of Charter Schools agrees with the concept.
“In ’93 and ’94, there was no sense of the structure and the systems and what these things were,” Griffin said. “…It took a while to get charters to be something.”

Still, there’s been continued negativity around the schools: power struggles, mishandled funds, accusations of religious motivations or nepotism, failed schools and moratoriums from school districts. And they’re still a political issue at the state and local levels.

Of the criticism Griffin says, “It’s a matter of leadership. If you have flawed management and a flawed business plan, the fact that it’s a charter school is not the problem.”

In 2004, state legislators approved the Colorado Charter School Institute. CSI was developed to be an independent agency under the Department of Education, and it was given the authority to approve charter applications for schools. School districts, including Boulder Valley School District, filed lawsuits saying CSI unconstitutionally took away their authority. Denver District Court ruled against the districts. In early October of this year, the Colorado Supreme Court announced it would not consider the school board’s lawsuit.

“I would like to reiterate the issue in this case was not about the merit of charter schools,” Ken Roberge, president of the Boulder school board, said in a statement, “nor about the charter laws themselves. It was simply about the ability of the voters in a local school district to exercise direct control over the schools in their district through locally elected officials rather than to have decisions made through appointees at the state level.”

Officials from BVSD charters contacted for this story say their relationships with the district are positive and supportive.

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