A few weeks ago we summarized historic legislation passed in Illinois that fixed regressive funding formulas statewide and equalized funding for charter schools within the state’s fiscal formulas.
Colorado also passed significant charter legislation this session that extended funding for charters to ensure a fair share of local funding. The policy itself has implications for other states in that it moves the goalposts for common practice. The story of how the bill became a law is significant for the lessons it offers about bipartisan wins in purple states.
In Colorado, like so many other states, state funding for charter schools passes through local school districts. However, districts also can raise additional local revenues and, because they weren’t required by the state to share funding with students enrolled in public charter schools, most districts haven’t done so. This year, in the last few hours of lawmaking, the Colorado legislature changed that funding requirement with a law mandating that school districts equitably share voter-approved property tax revenue with all schools in the district—including charter schools.
A Broad, Balanced Coalition Delivered in a Purple State
“We recognized from the outset that if we wanted to accomplish something as big and bold as we imagined, we needed a broad coalition to make it happen,” Dan Schaller, director of governmental affairs for the Colorado League of Charter Schools explained. “We also knew that in a purple state such as Colorado with a split legislature this coalition needed to be bipartisan. That’s why we pulled in organizations such as Democrats for Education Reform Colorado and Colorado Succeeds from the very beginning, to ensure they were invested and involved in the policy so that they’d then be willing to translate that investment into support across the aisle at the capitol.”
In all, five organizations made this a major priority. These organizations have a long history together. “There is a really solid amount of trust that we’ve been building over a decade,” Scott Laband, president of Colorado Succeeds, said. “We can get mad at each other, disagree on policy, but at the end of day we get it done for kids. It could have fallen apart a thousand times, but trust is one of the big reasons it didn’t.”
Persistence Paid Off
Like so many legislative efforts, this was a two-year process, building on momentum from the 2016 session for a win in 2017. The coalition had bold ambitions for an omnibus charter package, and much was accomplished last year. But the biggest goal, fiscal equity, eluded them.
The message of persistence, says Terry Croy Lewis, the executive director of the Colorado Charter School Institute, was clear: “Legislators knew the issue wasn’t going away, that every year the reform community would come back demanding that local revenues be shared equally with all students attending public schools,” she said. “We made clear that we will be back next year if this doesn’t pass.”
A Change in the Narrative Was a Game Changer
As the 2017 session kicked off, a bill passed in the Senate with bipartisan support, then stalled in the House of Representatives. The message from committee leadership was clear: different language was needed to influence House Democrats.
This crucial shift in strategy was a critical element of success. Jen Walmer, state director of Democrats for Education Reform, explained, “Our focus was always on ensuring that all kids enrolled in public schools—including charter schools—had equal access to local revenues. Yet the actual bill language referred to ‘choice’ and ‘schools,’ not ‘students’ and ‘equity.’ We knew we had to change that narrative.”
Reframing how the legislation was written to capture that focus on “students” and “equity,” rather than “choice” or school type, enabled the coalition to attract more Democratic colleagues in the House. When the focus was on students, all readily agreed that it would be unfair to discriminate against certain kids simply because of the type of public school they attend.
Healthy Tensions Sustained Bipartisan Support
A reframing of the legislation by Democrats meant risking conservative support. That’s where Colorado’s newest player, Ready Colorado, took the lead. “When Republicans made it clear to their caucus that this bill was a priority, and we could demonstrate that the bill helped charter schools, we could hold their support,” said Luke Ragland, president of Ready Colorado.
Jen Walmer, state director of DFER Colorado, added, “The Republicans’ focus on the charter school model, coupled with the Democrats’ focus on equity for students ultimately moved the legislation.”
That healthy tension across party lines sealed the deal at the end of session, and made sure all students receive equal funding, regardless of the type of school they attend.
Interested in connecting with any of the Colorado coalition partners above to learn more? Reach out.