The Colorado State Senate is expected to vote today on two charter school bills, to streamline paperwork requirements and bridge the charter funding gap. This might seem like a merely local concern, but the legislative battle unfolding deserves the national spotlight. It’s one of the first major charter debates since the Every Student Succeeds Act threw education policy and politics back to the states; the way that Republicans and Democrats vote should speak volumes about each party’s soul on education in the ESSA era.
The first bill would make reporting requirements for high-performing charter schools less onerous and simplify financial accounting. The logic is that while all schools should be held accountable, quality schools should be allowed to focus a little less on paperwork and more on teaching.
The second bill would help bridge the funding inequities between Colorado’s public schools and it’s high-performing charter sector. According to the 2015 CREDO study, about 80 percent of Denver charters perform as well if not better than their public school peers on reading; on math, attending a charter provides the equivalent of 55 more school-days a year. All this at 80 cents on the public school dollar.
While investing more in what works better seems like a straightforward proposition, the politics these days are anything but.
President Barack Obama has scrambled the traditional politics of education reform. State-level Democrats traditionally resisted education reform; President Obama used federal levers to promote charters and teacher evaluation nationwide. Even as he challenged his party’s orthodoxy, the top-down way he implemented those policies alienated Republicans who had traditionally been sympathetic to the reform agenda. Partly a reaction to the President’s moves, ESSA curtailed federal authority and has handed power back to the states on different terms. It’s anyone’s guess how things will settle.
One would expect full support for these bills on the right. Conservatives are almost always in favor of cutting bureaucratic red tape, and believe deeply in the power of competition and choice. But the last eight years of federal involvement sapped appetite for education reform writ-large among Republicans, even at the state-level.
What’s more, many suburbanites have realized the past 15 years of education reform hasn’t truly been about their children. Education advocates have been preoccupied with have closing the achievement gap for low-income students, and have broadly neglected middle-class students and families.
An example of this is still fresh in Colorado voters’ minds. In 2013, Colorado voted on Amendment 66, touted by Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper as the “most comprehensive education-reform initiative in the history of the United States,” and backed by a $10 million campaign. But this initiative also contained a nearly $1 billion progressive tax increase that would have benefited urban districts at the expense of suburban and rural districts. It lost by a nearly two-to-one margin. Given this, it would be understandable, albeit regrettable, if political wariness outweighed principle for Republican legislators.
Democrats are facing an identity crisis on education. Prior to the Obama presidency, anti-charter teachers’ unions largely held sway. But President Obama presented charter schools as a national issue of social justice for the most disadvantaged, and gave cover for a real debate to occur among Democratic state legislators.
In 2010, nearly half of Democrats in the Florida legislature voted for major expansion of a voucher program. Charters have found support in the left-most corners of the Democratic party; in North Carolina, Rep. Marcus Brandon, who was finance director for Dennis Kucinich’s 2008 presidential bid, led the charge for charter schools. New York’s Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo is all-in on charter schools, much to the chagrin of United Federation of Teachers President Michael Mulgrew, who declared, “We are at war with the reformers. … Their ideas will absolutely destroy – forget about public education – they will destroy education in our country.”
It’s not at all clear whether the Cuomo-wing or Mulgrew-wing of the Democratic Party will prove ascendant in the post-Obama, ESSA era. There’s no question where the Colorado teachers’ union comes down on these charter bills. The only question is how much weight they will carry in the Colorado Democratic Party.
Observers are uncertain whether these bills will be voted up or down in the Republican-controlled Senate. If they pass, it would be a sign that state-level Republicans are likely to stick to their traditional principles despite the recent politics.
The two bills may or may not even see a vote in the Democrat-controlled House. But if there is one, the result promises to tell us whether state-level Democratic legislators will vote for the interests of their constituents or their donors.
Whatever happens, the outcome will not only make a difference for Colorado students; it will be a window into each party’s soul on education.