Charter Schools: Pro or Con?

15 04 2010

A few years ago, The Denver Foundation conducted a Listening Campaign.  We consulted hundreds of leaders in the local nonprofit community and asked them about issues, needs, and priorities.  To our surprise, one issue rose to the top of the priority list for people from every category of nonprofit organization.  The number one priority among people who work for health organizations, arts organizations, and human services organizations was…education.

Everyone has an opinion about education, particularly K-12 education, because all of us experienced it in our childhood.  I think it is also fair to say that no one feels public education in the United States today is adequate.  When it comes to educating our children, the United States compares poorly to most other developed nations.

We all agree that education is critically important and that public K-12 education needs improving.  Beyond that, there is very little consensus about the appropriate solutions.

Some people argue that the schools just need more money.  They cite low teacher pay and the huge array of non-educational challenges that schools must address: hunger, mental health, and discipline to name just a few.

Others argue that money will not solve the problems at all.  As one of my conservative friends once observed, “If you are headed from Denver to Colorado Springs and trying to get to Fort Collins, it doesn’t help to double your speed!”

Some people believe that the public school system in the United States is beyond repair and that the solution is private school vouchers.  Opponents of vouchers assert that they would destroy our public schools, which are an indispensable element of our democracy.

A less radical step that has been proposed in the last few decades is charter schools.  Charter schools are technically public schools, but they usually have autonomy from union contracts and other public school regulations.

In the past decade, The Denver Foundation funded a number of charter schools.  Our Board and our Education Committee have concluded that charter schools have the potential to inject more competition into the public schools without eviscerating them the way vouchers would.  In a sense, charter schools can be seen as a middle ground between vouchers on one hand and more money without reform on the other hand.

Some charter schools have been extraordinarily successful, in Denver and elsewhere.  Other charter schools have been mediocre or worse.  To their credit, the Denver School Board has gradually come to accept and endorse charter schools.  Those charter schools that have been particularly successful are being allowed to expand and multiply.

Paul Teske, a professor at the University of Colorado, has studied charter schools around the country.  Dr. Teske believes that at some point charter schools have enough critical mass to change an entire school district.  According to Dr. Teske, there is a tipping point at which this occurs.  If 15-20% of students in a particular district are enrolled in high-performing charter schools, it is usually sufficient to reform the entire district.

The Denver Public Schools is slowly but steadily approaching this tipping point.  As a result, I anticipate that The Denver Foundation will continue to support successful charter schools in the years ahead.

David Miller, President and CEO, The Denver Foundation

Note: Shortly after I wrote this piece, I had a “Next Decade Project” meeting with Paul Alexander, Director of the Institute on the Common Good at Regis University.  Paul noted that the current educational model in the Denver Public Schools and elsewhere is based upon competition among schools.  He suggested that we as a society might consider a different model that is more holistic and collaborative.  Paul’s idea is intriguing and definitely worthy of more consideration.




3 responses

15 04 2010
Linda Campbell

Where can we read about Paul Alexander’s more holistic and collaborative model for schools?

16 04 2010
David Miller

I don’t think Paul’s written anything about this. He’s a DPS parent and he’s just started thinking about it. You can reach him at

19 05 2010
Tanya Ishikawa

I believe the way to provide good education is to ensure that you have a dedicated, well-resourced teaching staff who is willing to try diverse methods to reach each individual student. Students come from so many backgrounds with a variety of learning styles and emotional/mental challenges or biases. The key to educating them all is to offer a variety of school and classroom types. Therefore, it seems that charter schools are a necessary tool in the mix. I applaud the variety of charter schools out there with dedicated staffs and parents; however, I have seen really poor or mediocre performance at some of these same schools. So, although charters and other alternatives should be an option, unsuccessful ones should be reconsidered or closed.

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