Colorado’s new director of school choice: If we hold all schools accountable, divisiveness over charters will go away

Bill Kottenstette is settling into a role at the department that includes overseeing a $36 million grant program to help launch charter schools.
8 min. read
Bill Kottenstette, Colorado’s director of school choice. (Courtesy of Kottenstette)

Bill Kottenstette, Colorado's director of school choice. (Courtesy of Kottenstette)

By Nicholas GarciaChalkbeat

For decades, both Republicans and Democrats in Colorado have embraced charter schools.

And it can stay that way if the state continues to hold all schools accountable and push for better quality, said the new director of school choice at the Colorado Department of Education.

Bill Kottenstette, the former executive director of Jefferson County charter school Compass Montessori, is settling into a role at the department that includes overseeing a $36 million grant program to help launch charter schools.

Kottenstette, a father of five who also worked with charter schools in Denver, started in June. In an interview with Chalkbeat, he spoke about the controversy over the term “school choice,” whether charters need to work harder to be integrated and what’s next for the charter sector.

(Spoiler alert: He thinks district-run schools face the same challenges as charters!)

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

I don’t think a lot of people in the education community know this office exists. What do you guys do?

We have two primary roles. The big role is to administer the federal charter school startup grant. The other role is to serve as the point of online and blended learning for the state. We also work with innovation schools.

How do you hope to shape the department into your own?

I’m fortunate enough to have been a teacher, a school administrator and also a district administrator. I’m excited that those formative experiences will help shape my thinking for this office.

Primarily, I look forward to finding where I think this office could help in supporting school administrators. An example of that: We’re working on our annual school finance seminar where we provide technical assistance and information sharing between business managers, school administrators and charter boards. I know as a former administrator that it would have been helpful to have an expert on facilities who could speak to strong financial metrics for school bonds.

Coming from the district side, I know the anxiety of working with the state on innovation applications or charter applications is: “We want to put our best foot forward. So, can you help provide guidance and instructions so we can submit applications that are complete and strong? And if we need to go to the state board, can you provide us the right coaching so we feel calm?”

You worked with charter schools in both Denver and Jefferson County. What are the similarities and differences between charters in an urban environment and a suburban environment?

I’d say the similarities aren’t even all that unique to charter schools. Public schools in general have similar challenges: They want do right by their community. They want do right by all the kids that they serve. They’re really looking at, “How do individualize education today?”

Charter school supporters aren’t monolithic. But there appear to be two general camps. One camp believes charter schools should be held to high standards by the government that funds them. The other believes the market — families — should decide what a quality school is. Where do you fall?

I don’t know if I can give you a solid answer for where I personally fall. But I can tell you the priority of the work for the office, which is the charter school grant. And we do have definitions of quality in the application. We have a rubric and we score schools based on the extent that we’re seeing indicators of quality. This is based on the belief that if you’re authorized with these foundations in place that you’re more likely to be successful and stay opened.

School choice has become more of a hot topic than ever before. Why do you think that term is so politically charged?

At the national level, there are broader issues that are playing out in different states. In Colorado, school choice can still be a hot-button topic. But it’s much more embraced here than in other areas. As I’ve seen conversations around charter and innovation schools, typically they’ve been supported in a positive, bipartisan way. We’ve avoided a lot of controversy at the national level. My optimism is that we in Colorado can stay in that space. The way we do that is really honoring our commitment to following best practices and say we’re about kids, we’re about making sure all kids have a great opportunity in their schools. And when we’re going to hold people and institutions accountable for quality and effective outcomes, that level of divisiveness goes away because people can see progress.

There are some lawmakers who are very excited about technology playing a larger role in education. They envision a world where students can be handed a laptop and told, “Here’s 100 different courses — go learn.” Do you think schools and the sector are ready for that sort of revolution?

Last week there was a report on blended learning that came out — a road map. A lot of that conversation was looking at the idea of blended versus an online school. We know and recognize the impact that technology is having on education. The great benefit is that technology increases access to information. A student in rural Colorado can access Chinese classes, even if the expert isn’t in their community. But I think in general, where people are falling, is that it needs to be in balance. If I’m a school, I’m asking, “How do we introduce technology in our environment while anchoring our practice in the education philosophy we have?”

There is a challenge in convincing some people to really embrace technology in school given some of the criticism of online schools. They have such a bad rap. Is there any sort of quality control the sector needs to do to help folks embrace technology in classrooms?

I’m excited about partnering with my colleagues at CDE. We collectively come together and say our work is to support schools that are struggling. And when we see indicators where we would not like them to be, we have support structures that kick in so we can help them be successful.

Something that is really fascinating about Colorado’s charter schools is that the overall student population is more diverse than the state average. But charters schools are slightly more segregated than district-run schools. What role do charter schools play in integrating schools?

Charter schools always have to ensure equal access to all kids. So we need to make sure those policies are really being followed.

Enrollment policies are a big issue. We need to make sure a school is available to all and can be accessed equally. Where there is a gap, we need to ask if there is a strategy we can take to overcome that. I think that those approaches are going to be incubated over time. Denver, I believe, is doing some really exciting work around transportation.

One of the big levers we have is the charter school startup grant. We were able to get authorization to encourage weighted lotteries. So, if a school is seeing a lower level of applications for students who qualify for free or reduced lunch, you can provide added weight those so they have a greater chance to access enrollment.

If you were to look into your crystal ball, what would you say is the next big policy conversation for charter schools?

I think that in Colorado, we’re so far along relative to other states. The conversation for charters is no different than that for all schools. It’s a public school conversation. What can we do to invest and improve the quality, make the public schools in Colorado great? District schools, charter schools, innovation schools will all be engaged in similar conversations.

What is the one thing you’d like charter school critics to know about charter schools?

There’s a lot of excitement and energy in the charter world. People come into that space because they’re passionate about the work, they’re passionate about serving their community. There’s a lot of positive energy in the space.

Charters are part of the system. They’re comprised of the same DNA that serves the same public system. Educators who strive to be the best professionals they can be, to serve their kids well. They’re motivated day in and day out to serve kids well.

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

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