EDITORIAL: The Creation of a Colorado Charter School, Part Five

Read Part One

We might mention a couple of noteworthy laws created in the early 1990s, here in Colorado. One of those laws — the Taxpayers Bill of Rights, better known as TABOR — was approved by Colorado voters as an amendment to the state constitution, in 1992. TABOR’s language attempts to restrain the growth of state and local government in Colorado by limiting spending increases. In general terms, TABOR ties the rising cost of government to inflation and population growth; increases in tax revenues that exceed the TABOR-defined limits must be refunded to the taxpayers.

A quick illustration. Between 1970 and 2000, the average value of a single family home in Colorado nearly tripled — when adjusted for inflation. (Source: U.S. Census. It more than tripled when inflation is included.) That meant that a government agency funded solely by property tax would be pulling in nearly three times as much revenue (adjusted for inflation) in 2000 as they were in 1970 — unless that agency had reduced its mill levy. (I’ve never heard of a government entity in Colorado voluntarily reducing its mill levy.)

This hypothetical government entity was not required to actually provide better service in exchange for this ‘natural’ increase in tax revenues. The extra money just flowed in, without anyone necessarily doing anything differently.

TABOR attempts to control this type of taxation growth. Colorado voters, meanwhile, can choose to increase their taxes voluntarily, to fund new local or state programs, whenever they get the urge — and in fact, that happens on a fairly regular basis. (Maybe not so often in Archuleta County.)

One of the government systems that’s funded largely by property taxes — and which might have seen its tax funding nearly triple between 1970 and 2000, had it not been for the passage of TABOR — is the state’s education system.

Which brings us to another interesting law passed in the early 1990s: the Colorado Charter School Act. (Which you can download here.)

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The Charter School Act starts by summarizing the intent of the state legislature, when they approved this new law:

(a) It is the obligation of all Coloradans to provide all children with schools that reflect high expectations and create conditions in all schools where these expectations can be met;

(b) Education reform is in the best interests of the state in order to strengthen the performance of elementary and secondary public school pupils, that the best education decisions are made by those who know the students best and who are responsible for implementing the decisions, and, therefore, that educators and parents have a right and a responsibility to participate in the education institutions which serve them;

(c) Different pupils learn differently and public school programs should be designed to fit the needs of individual pupils and that there are educators, citizens, and parents in Colorado who are willing and able to offer innovative programs, educational techniques, and environments but who lack a channel through which they can direct their innovative efforts.

I’ve never come across any surveys showing the opinions generally held by Coloradans about the changes we’ve seen in the state’s education system since 1970, when an average home price (adjusted for inflation) was about $66,000. I’ve seen a few national surveys, however. For example, the Pew Research Center asked Americans how they felt about our education system back in May 2013.

They released the results later that summer, just as 77 million kids were shopping for school supplies and getting ready to head back to school. 66% of the Americans surveyed said either that our education system needs to be completely rebuilt (21%) or that it requires major changes (45%); only 31% thought the system works pretty well and requires only minor changes.

How do you completely rebuild an education system? Isn’t that a bit like trying to fix your car while it’s driving down the road?

The Colorado legislature thought, back in 1993, that charter schools might be part of the answer to improving education for the state’s children. Obviously, it hasn’t been the whole answer, to judge from the Pew Research results quoted above.

But maybe part of an answer?

I’ve been helping my daughter Ursala Hudson and her colleagues at the Pagosa Charter School Initiative write the first draft of a 300-page charter school application. PCSI is a non-profit corporation with one single mission: to create an educational alternative here in Archuleta County, for kids K-8. The final draft will be complete by August 1, when PCSI will be submitting the application to the Archuleta School District for their review and possible approval. If the School Board believes the proposed school is viable and well conceived, they will sign a contract with the new Pagosa Peak Open School, and Ursala and her board will get busy over the next year — hiring staff, remodeling or constructing a school building, and enrolling up to 75 students for Year One.

You learn a lot, writing a 300-page charter school application. For one thing, you learn what a bureaucratic mess we have here in Colorado — a hodge podge collection of education system regulations and requirements that have, in some cases, very little relationship to the actual art of educating children.

If you were wondering how an education system could spend nearly triple the amount of tax revenues they were getting in 1970 — and still claim to be desperately short of money — you might begin by looking at those layers of bureaucracy and regulation.

Not that regulation is inherently a bad thing. The intentions behind government regulations are sometimes good intentions. (Sometimes.) But like everything, it’s a trade-off. You try to protect people from themselves, and you end up making their lives more difficult, in unexpected ways.

“…the best education decisions are made by those who know the students best and who are responsible for implementing the decisions…”

A charter school can do many innovative things, here in Colorado. But it can’t totally escape from bureaucratic regulations. As we have discovered, over the past 18 months… and the past 300 pages…

Read Part Six…

Bill Hudson

Bill Hudson founded the Pagosa Daily Post in 2004 in hopes of making a decent living writing about local politics. The hope remains.