Colorado’s charter schools are more diverse, performing better and paying teachers less, report shows

Colorado’s charter schools for the first time are enrolling racial and ethnic minority students at a higher rate than the state’s district-run schools, a new report by the state education department shows.

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A teacher at DSST Cole High in Denver greets her students on the first day of class. ( Photo by Nicholas Garcia )

A teacher at DSST Cole High in Denver greets her students on the first day of class. ( Photo by Nicholas Garcia )

By Nicholas GarciaChalkbeat

Colorado’s charter schools for the first time are enrolling racial and ethnic minority students at a higher rate than the state’s district-run schools, a new report by the state education department shows.

The report released Friday also found that charter school students — including those who are considered at-risk — continued to outperform their peers in district-run schools on state tests.

But the report also highlights that charter schools are graduating students on time at a much slower pace. And teachers and principals who work for charter schools on average are paid drastically less than peers at district-run schools.

The report, produced every three years by the Colorado Department of Education, offers a comprehensive look into the state of charter schools in Colorado.

Charters, first established here in 1993, generally operate inside local school districts but are run by third-party organizations that are granted wide-ranging autonomy to set their own calendars, use their own curriculum, and hire and fire teachers outside of union contracts.

These freedoms have long made charter schools one of the most politically divisive issues in education. Both critics and supporters of charters will find something to like in the 99-page report.

Among the highlights:

The charter school sector continues to grow. They’re almost everywhere. And they’re increasingly homegrown.

In 1997, Colorado had 50 charter schools. Today, there are 226. In total, 108,793 students were enrolled in charters during the 2015-16 school year. That’s a 30 percent increase from 2012-13, the last time the report was produced. If you put all the state’s charter schools in one district, that district would be the largest in the state, surpassing 90,000-student Denver Public Schools.

And while charter schools are mostly concentrated in urban areas along the Front Range, charters now exist in 35 rural districts including Hotchkiss, Marble and Strasburg.

New charters also are more likely to be run by a local organization. Six percent of charters are run by national organizations now, compared to 8 percent three years ago.

Charter schools are educating a more diverse population. But on average they still serve a smaller percentage of special education students.

Charter schools across the state are now serving a larger percentage of racial and ethnic minorities than district-run schools. During the 2015-16 school year, 47 percent of charter school students were classified as a racial or ethnic minority, compared to 45 percent of students at district-run schools.

That could be explained in part by the expansion of high-performing charter schools in Denver that serve these populations, as well as new charter schools in regions with large Latino populations such as Greeley and Aurora.

The state’s charter schools also are serving more students who qualify for federally subsidized lunches. In 2015, about 36 percent of students at charters received free or reduced-priced lunch. That number has doubled since 2008.

But charters are still serving a lower percentage of students with disabilities. In 2015, only about 8 percent of charter school students had disabilities, compared to 13 percent at district-run schools. Despite efforts in districts such as Denver, the size of the gap has stayed the same.

Charter school students — including special education students and those from low-income homes — did better on PARCC than their peers at district-run schools.

In 2015, schools across Colorado saw fewer students meet state expectations on the new and more difficult PARCC test compared to previous state exams. But charter schools generally had more students meet the new threshold than district schools.

On the PARCC English test, 44 percent of charter school students met or exceeded grade level, compared to 39 percent of students at district-run schools. Charter school students at every grade but fifth also performed better than peers at district schools by 3 to 7 percentage points.

Students in all grades who qualify for subsidized lunches at charter schools outperformed their peers at district-run schools on the state’s English test. But results were more mixed in math. Students at district-run schools in fourth and fifth grade outperformed their charter school peers.

A higher percentage of charter school students with disabilities at all grade levels met state benchmarks on both the English and math tests compared to those at district schools.

Teachers and principals on average make at least $15,000 less than their colleagues at district-run schools.

The average teacher salary at a Colorado charter school last year was $39,052. By comparison, the average at a district run school was $54,455. At the same time, the average salary for charter school principals and assistant principals was $72,453 — $17,232 less than their peers at district schools.

The salary gaps are the largest since the education department began tracking that information.

One reason cited in the report is that most charter school teachers have less experience than teachers at district-run schools.

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Chalkbeat is a nonprofit news site covering educational change in public schools.