How charter schools are dodging Colorado laws
Charter schools have been using waivers to get out of teaching comprehensive sexual health classes, state mandated hiring and firing practices, substitute teacher policies and many other rules. Who’s watching? Nobody.
Educators say people without college degrees, including high schoolers, are teaching in Pre-K through fifth grade classes at the Community Leadership Academy, a publicly funded charter school in Commerce City.
At the Golden View Classical Academy, in Golden, students are learning that real marriages are just between men and women, and that condoms are ineffective in preventing sexually transmitted diseases.
Though these educational practices seem to defy Colorado law, charter schools have found a legal workaround, and many Democratic and Republican lawmakers are looking the other way. After all, charters have been the darlings of education reformers from both parties for more than 20 years.
In 1993, Colorado’s first two charter schools enrolled just 187 students. Now 226 charter schools educate more than 108,000 students statewide, making up roughly 12 percent of the total K-12 public school enrollment.
Though hundreds of laws govern public schools, many of those rules are being waived for charters both by school districts and the state Board of Education.
Currently, the Board of Education automatically grants 18 waivers involving laws related to benefits, hiring and firing at charter schools. The state makes this process easy because nearly every charter school requests these exceptions.
The Board also grants non-automatic waivers, which require charter schools to explain why they should be given a pass on rules that apply to all other schools. That’s how Golden View Classical Academy dodged state sex-ed requirements.
Individual school districts set additional policies for how charter schools obtain waivers. Jefferson County, for example, offers 42 automatic waivers and dozens more non-automatic ones. Non-automatic waivers must include a replacement plan explaining the rationale for the exception and how it is tied to the school’s mission, how the school will meet the law’s intent and how the waiver’s impact will be evaluated.
In JeffCo, replacement plans must be submitted when charters turn in contract applications.
But seven JeffCo charter schools’ waiver applications reviewed by The Colorado Independent included incomplete replacement plans, and in 10 cases, blank sheets of paper with nothing but the title of the district policy where the plan should be. All but one of the applications were for five-year contract renewals with the district.
Montessori Peaks in Littleton submitted blank sheets of paper instead of replacement plans for some district waivers.
In Golden, Free Horizon Academy – which applied for dozens of waivers — merely referred to its employee handbook or school policy manual in its replacement plans. Yet the word “waiver” never appears in the manual as it applies to district policies, and there is no justification or plan for evaluating waivers, as the district requires.
Charter schools claim to educate students better than traditional schools. One reason cited: They have more flexibility in dealing with state and district bureaucracy. That flexibility includes who they can hire as teachers.
But when it comes to teachers needing a bonafide license proving they are trained, have experience and meet state standards, those requirements are waived for many charters. Instead, they hire “highly qualified” teachers, as defined in the 2001 federal “No Child Left Behind” Act — meaning they just need bachelor’s degrees, not necessarily in education, and 24 hours of coursework in the subjects they plan to teach.
The new charter oversight group Care Colorado Kids estimates that fewer than half of JeffCo charter school teachers are licensed. At Compass Montessori in Golden, a district low of just 27 percent of teachers are certified.
“Parents should be aware of the astounding number of teachers in charter school classrooms today who do not hold the basic state certification to teach,” said Kerrie Dallman, a high school teacher and president of the Colorado Education Association. “Waiving schools from this statute isn’t good for kids. In fact, there’s not any research that waiving out of any of these laws improves student achievement.”
JeffCo’s automatic district waivers include policies related to layoffs, discipline and a requirement that a “mentor” teacher supervises a newly-licensed teacher. Another automatic waiver covers the district’s substitute teacher policy, which requires part-time and substitute teachers to hold either a valid teaching license or a substitute authorization from the Department of Education. The district policy bars substitutes from working 89 continuous days or a full semester. Jeffco’s 19 charter schools have waived that restriction.
One group of waivers, known as “assigned to charters,” don’t require replacement plans or any documentation on how the charter would follow the district policy’s intent. These “assigned-to-charters” waivers get schools out of laws regarding equal opportunity in hiring, equal education opportunity and who can visit the school. They also waive charter schools from laws pertaining to student interrogations, searches and arrests.
Some waivers show that schools provide full replacement plans only if the district requests them. That means the district may never evaluate how charters follow the law’s intent.
These 29 policies include curriculum development, teaching about drugs, teacher evaluations, textbook selection, health education, and how parents and students file complaints.
If a charter’s mission and curriculum doesn’t sync with state law, the school can apply for a waiver.
Only one charter in Colorado has applied for a state waiver for comprehensive sex education: Golden View Classical Academy of Golden.
Jefferson County’s newest charter opened last fall and has strong ties to billionaire industrialists David and Charles Koch’s conservative political network. The school’s founder, Derec Shuler, spoke about charter schools last September at an Americans for Prosperity education reform summit. The Kochs founded AFP.
Golden View’s classical curriculum was developed by the heavily Koch-funded Hillsdale College of Michigan under its Barney Charter School Initiative, which provides curriculum and principal recommendations to affiliated charter schools. The program offers new charter school teachers an intensive two-week training session. Every summer after, teachers return to Hillsdale for more workshops.
Barney’s mission statement: “Recover our public schools from the tide of a hundred years of progressivism that has corrupted our nation’s original faithfulness to the previous 24 centuries of teaching the young the liberal arts in the West.”
Last year, JeffCo School Board approved Golden View’s charter prior to a heated recall election targeting conservative board members. Two progressive school board members, Lesley Dahlkemper and Jill Fellman, both voted against the application, concerned about Hillsdale’s “Judeo-Christian based education,” according to Complete Colorado.
Shuler assured the board Golden View would not use a religious curriculum, despite it coming from Hillsdale, a school described in its mission as “a trustee of modern man’s intellectual and spiritual inheritance from the Judeo-Christian faith and Greco-Roman culture, a heritage finding its clearest expression in the American experiment of self-government under law.”
In its replacement plan, Golden View agreed to comply with the intent of Colorado’s sexual education law by providing “appropriate instruction on human anatomy, reproduction and sexuality.”
But the school’s family handbook, adopted before the charter application was approved in 2015, states:
- “Sexual intercourse will only be discussed in the context of a monogamous relationship between two people of opposite sexes,” with a focus on abstinence as the only “100 percent safe approach to sex” in premarital relationships, “physically, emotionally, morally and spiritually.”
- At the high school level, themes on sexuality will “emerge” from reading Anna Karenina, Brave New World or The Scarlet Letter.
- “The moral and physical consequences of promiscuous sex will be made plain.”
- Condoms will be discussed “only with respect to their limited effectiveness in prevention of sexually transmitted diseases.”
The state’s sex-ed law, updated in 2013, mandates schools teach about abstinence, contraception, condoms and other barrier methods. The law also requires sex-ed “to be meaningful to the experiences and needs of communities of color, immigrants; lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender communities.” But the family handbook says sex should be reserved only for monogamous, heterosexual relationships.
In an email, Golden View principal Robert Garrow told The Colorado Independent the charter’s founding board “applied for waivers from any requirement that they understood to infringe on the curricular autonomy of a charter school. Golden View Classical Academy’s replacement plan on the waiver request from the Comprehensive Human Sexuality statute requires us to meet state academic standards as outlined by CDE. Our curriculum does meet those standards.”
Democratic House Majority Leader Crisanta Duran, of Denver, who wrote that sex education law, reviewed Golden View’s handbook. The curriculum fails to meet the intent of the law, she said, describing the language as “deeply frustrating.”
“Part of the reason we brought forward this legislation was so that charter schools would recognize a comprehensive sex-education model.”
The Independent brought Golden View’s sex-ed curriculum to the attention of Tim Matlick, JeffCo schools’ achievement director who helps charters draft applications and waivers. Matlick is a leader in the charter school movement. He worked as principal for nine years at a Jeffco charter, Woodrow Wilson Academy and before that, nine years teaching at the Markoma Bible Academy in Oklahoma, which has since closed. In his spare time, Matlick runs BriteAlternatives, a business that “helps charter schools supplement their funding needs through the development of state-funded and tuition based programs,” according to his LinkedIn page. Though he said he was unaware of Golden View’s sex-ed curriculum, he defended it.
“Their replacement policy says they get to deliver the content in the way that meets their classical curriculum.” He added that the state granted them the waiver and “they will teach it according to the intent of the law.”
Diana Wilson, the district’s chief communications officer, also defended Golden View’s sex-ed curriculum. When asked if it meets the law’s spirit, she said, “The spirit of law is debatable. That could have a lot of interpretations.”
Duran and other lawmakers want to curb what they see as abuse of the waivers. Democratic Rep. Dominick Moreno of Denver is proposing to eliminate automatic state waivers and instead require them to include detailed replacement plans.
Moreno points to two proposals moving through the General Assembly seeking to increase funding for charter schools. “If we’re asking for equal funding for charter schools, they should have equal accountability,” Moreno told The Independent.
As to whether the waiver process ensures accountability, “There’s no easy way to force quality control in terms of replacement plans,” Moreno said, adding that his measure was just the beginning of a larger conversation about waivers.
Both the Board of Education and Colorado’s Department of Education oppose Moreno’s bill.
Jennifer Rosensweet, who reviews waiver requests for the state Department of Education, told the House Education Committee that requiring more replacement plans would just add to her workload.
Lobbyist Jennifer Mello, representing the Colorado Board of Education, said the process in place strikes the right balance on waivers and allows the board to weigh in when a decision to approve a waiver “needs more political input.”
Dan Schaller of the League of Charter Schools told the committee that charters are accountable to their elected school boards that sign off on their contracts and are “more accountable than regular public schools.”
Some teachers who have worked in charter schools disagree.
Wenda Wilson, a JeffCo elementary school teacher, started her career at Adams County’s Commerce City Community Leadership Academy mid-year. She was the fourth instructor in her class that year. One prior teacher was an academic assistant with no college degree, she said. Academic assistants, who aren’t required to hold high school diplomas, teach when nobody else is available, often after other instructors were fired without notice or cause, which some waivers allow.
In some cases, high school students taught literacy classes, said Wilson.
“The school saved money by employing academic assistants in teaching positions.”
Wilson and six other teachers raised the issue to the head of the League of Charter Schools, who referred the complaint back to the school’s principal, who ignored it.
Community Leadership Academy did not respond to multiple emails and phone calls earlier this week about these allegations.
“There’s a growing abuse by charter schools to waive out of policies,” said Dallman of the Colorado Education Association, and if the problem goes unaddressed, it will balloon.
Neither the public nor lawmakers understand the extent of the problem.
“School districts violate the public trust by not doing their due diligence,” Dallman added.
The abuse of the waiver process, she said, shows districts are “shirking their responsibility.”
Correction 5/5/2016: Due to incorrect documents sent by the Jefferson County School District, this story originally stated Addenbrooke Classical Academy had turned in waivers with Golden View’s name in them. The information sent by Addenbrooke as part of the school’s charter application did not include Golden View’s name.
Due to an editor’s error in an update about this issue, the update incorrectly stated that the document sent by the Jefferson County School District had been turned in by an Addenbrooke Classical Academy staff member as an accident.
Photo credit: Jam Project, Creative Commons, Flickr.
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