Choices in Public Education

Traditional public school and open enrollment

Colorado law requires school districts to have open-enrollment policies that allow students within the district to select any school or program in the district, provided there is space available in the requested school. Nonresident students may also request to attend school within the district on a space-available basis. This is called “intra-district” choice. No tuition can be charged to Colorado parents who enroll their students in another district within the timelines and procedures established by the district of choice. The district of choice is not required to enroll nonresident students after the pupil enrollment count day. [C.R.S. § 22-36-101 et seq.]

Private School and Home-school Student Participation

Students participating in a private school or home-based school are permitted to participate in the district’s extracurricular or interscholastic activities. [C.R.S. § 22-32-116.5.]

College Coursework: Concurrent Enrollment

There is also an opportunity for high school students to enroll in courses offered by institutions of higher education under the Concurrent Enrollment Programs Act. [C.R.S. § 22-35-101 et seq.] It is possible for students to obtain both high school and college credit for course work taken under this program.

In addition, students may enroll in postsecondary courses through a program called the “Accelerating Students Through Concurrent Enrollment Program” (ASCENT) administered by the CDE. The ASCENT program allows a student to concurrently enroll in postsecondary courses in the year directly following the year in which the student was enrolled in 12th grade. The Concurrent Enrollment Programs Act specifies how school districts must count these ASCENT program students for purposes of per pupil funding.

District Charter Schools

Colorado was one of the first states in the nation to establish public charter schools. In 1993, the Colorado General Assembly enacted the Charter Schools Act authorizing local boards of education to enter into a charter contract with parents, teachers or others to operate a school. [C.R.S. § 22-30.5-101 et seq.]

A charter school is a public, nonsectarian, nonreligious, non-homebound school that operates as part of its authorizing school district in accordance with the terms and conditions of the charter contract. Each charter school must be organized as a nonprofit entity and must have its own governing board, even if the charter school is managed by a private, for-profit management provider. The charter school and its board are accountable to the local board for compliance with the charter. Charter schools are subject to the same accountability and accreditation laws governing district schools, though certain statutory requirements are automatically waived for charter schools and others are commonly waived as part of the chartering process. Charter schools are responsible for their own operations, including budget, personnel and contracts.

The charter application process and the contract between the district and the charter school are heavily regulated by state law. In 2013, the State Board adopted standards for charter schools and charter school authorizers. These standards set “best practices” for the charter application and oversight processes.

Smaller school districts that do not have existing charters and staff familiar with charter laws and standards should seek assistance from legal counsel or knowledgeable consultants as soon as possible after the district learns a charter application will be submitted.

It is also important for the board to adopt a local policy and regulation to govern the charter application process, including all contracts and appeals of local board decisions, and to govern all aspects of the board’s oversight of the charter school.

Charter School Applications

Among other things, an application to create a charter school must include:

  • A mission statement
  • Evidence that an adequate number of parents, teachers and pupils support the formation of a charter school
  • A description of the charter school’s research- based educational program, pupil performance standards and curriculum, which must meet or exceed any academic standards adopted by the local school board

The Charter School Institute

In 2004, the Charter School Institute (CSI) was formed to encourage creation of charter schools serving at-risk students and to model best practices in charter school authorizing. The board of directors for CSI is comprised of nine people, seven of whom are appointed by the governor, with the remaining two members appointed by Colorado’s commissioner of education.

CSI cannot approve a charter school within the boundaries of a school district when the local board has exclusive chartering authority to authorize charter schools. A local board may voluntarily cede its exclusive authority and allow CSI to open a school within its boundaries, or it may be forced to share authorizing authority if a challenge to that authority is upheld by the State Board. [C.R.S. § 22-30.5-504.] For some school boards, this exclusive chartering authority is assured (those with fewer than 3,000 students). Other school boards must demonstrate to the State Board that they have treated charter schools in a fair and equitable manner to retain their exclusive chartering status once it has been challenged.

All charter schools authorized by the school board will continue to be district charter schools, even if the district loses exclusive chartering authority, unless they go through a process to convert to institute charter schools.

The application and requirements for an institute charter school are essentially the same as those for district charter schools. Institute charter school students are included in the funded pupil count of the district where the school is located. The funding is then transferred out of the state equalization payments that otherwise would have been paid to the school district. In this way, the funding is based solely on state funds, using the same per pupil funding formula currently in place for school districts.

Online Programs and Schools

School districts may incorporate online coursework into the district’s curriculum to enhance, supplement or enrich the existing curriculum and provide an alternative means of instruction. These supplemental online courses can be an effective tool to expand the educational opportunities for students at all levels of achievement. A state grant program is available to school districts with fewer than 3,000 students interested in using supplemental online courses.

State law allows school districts and charter schools to operate online education programs and schools in which a student can enroll and take all his or her coursework over the Internet. A 2007 state law created a statutory framework for quality oversight of online education programs. [C.R.S. § 22-30.7-101 et seq.] The Division of Online Learning at the CDE provides support for online education programs, and rules adopted by the State Board establish quality standards for the operation of such programs.

Legislation adopted in 2012 defined online programs as those with fewer than 100 students and online schools as those with 100 or more students. Accountability for online programs is attributed to the school that houses the program. Online schools have their own school codes and are subject to all state and federal accountability requirements.

In 2011, the legislature shifted some of the division’s oversight responsibilities to local districts. School districts that authorize online programs and schools are now required to review their alignment with the State Board’s quality standards as part of its accreditation process. CDE’s online division continues to collect information regarding online schools’ financial and accounting practices. Each student in an online program or school is evaluated, tested and monitored at the same intervals as other students of the same grade level in the student’s regular school and takes all state assessments.

Colorado resident students are eligible to participate in online programs or schools offered by other districts. A student participating in the online program or school may participate on an equal basis in any extracurricular or interscholastic activity offered by the district. [C.R.S. § 22-30.7-108.] Colorado school districts, charter schools and BOCES may apply for funding for students who qualify for per pupil funding for online enrollment. Per pupil funding is set by the School Finance Act.

Innovation Schools and School Zones

The state legislature passed the Innovation Schools Act of 2008 (Innovation Act) to encourage creativity and innovation by giving greater autonomy and managerial flexibility to school leaders. [C.R.S. § 22-32.5-101 et seq.] Recognizing that the ultimate responsibility for controlling instruction continues to rest with the local school board, the Innovation Act strongly encourages a local board to delegate to each of its schools a high degree of autonomy in implementing curriculum, making personnel decisions, organizing the school day, determining the most effective use of resources and generally organizing the delivery of high-quality educational services.

A school’s designation as an innovation school will affect its autonomy. A group of schools within a school district that shares common interests, such as geographical location or educational focus, or that sequentially serve classes of students as they progress through elementary and secondary education, may jointly submit to its local school board a plan to create an innovation school zone. The Innovation Act prescribes specific steps that must be followed to seek designation as an innovation school or school zone, including providing evidence that a majority of the administrators and teachers employed at each school consents to designation as an innovation school or school zone.

The board may also initiate or collaborate with one or more schools to create an innovation school or school zone, which may include the entire district. Through policy, the board can establish its desired focus areas for innovation schools and any limitations the board believes are necessary. More and more districts and schools are seeking innovation status as a means to obtain more flexibility and waive burdensome and expensive state mandates.