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DATELINE: CASTLE ROCK, Colo.
At a supermarket-turned-schoolhouse just
off Interstate 25, moms and dads wage war in a 1990s-style
Like many parents in this booming Rocky Mountain town, rebel mom
Jill Hendrix Denton grew frustrated with public education – at
least the kind at her children’s neighborhood elementary school.
So, she put daughters Candace and Channing and son, Cooper, on
the Academy Charter School’s 675-child waiting list.
When spots came open for all three in only two years, she
“I got tired of the chaos that was in class,” Denton said of the
regular public school. “There was hardly any discipline, and I was
tired of the overcrowding.
“And I was tired… of the school trying to take over what my
children did and me not have a say in it.”
As Oklahomans contemplate Gov. Frank Keating’s ongoing push for
charter schools, Colorado’s experience provides a study in
successes and struggles.
Stressing core academic subjects, student uniforms, discipline
and small class sizes, the Academy Charter School is a two-time
Colorado School of Excellence, the state’s top award for schools.
The school has 324 students in kindergarten through eighth grade.
It’s a tax-funded school that charges no tuition and accepts
students on a first-come, first-served basis.
However, it’s free from the local Douglas County School Board’s
Before, if Denton disliked a school library book’s content or
opposed proposed attendance boundary changes, her complaints met
the bureaucracy of a 27,000-student school district.
At the charter school, she knows all seven parents on the
“I have a stronger voice for my children,” said Denton, a native
Oklahoman who moved to Colorado 10 years ago. “I don’t have to
go administratively through step after step after step to get
Not too long ago, Colorado parents disillusioned with their
children’s public schools had few options outside of private school
But in 1993, lawmakers introduced competition to the state’s
public education system, passing one of the nation’s first charter
Since then, the charter school movement has grown to include at
least 29 states, Puerto Rico and the District of Columbia.
Nationally more than 780 charter schools were in operation last year.
Charter schools give parents freedom – and tax money – to create
their own education models.
To Di Stucky, a charter school means taking control of her
“That’s our God-given right,” said Stucky, whose daughters Amber
and Heather attend the Academy Charter School.
But this is a battle with soldiers on both sides.
Supporters say charter schools encourage parental involvement,
create new leadership opportunities for teachers, enhance student
achievement and hold schools accountable for measurable results.
But critics argue charter schools siphon badly needed funds from
public schools, erode teachers’ collective bargaining and tenure
rights, become elite, pseudo-private academies and increase
segregation by race and income.
“I’ve heard the comment that if school books were guns, charter
schools would be called militias,” said Jack Christensen, a Douglas
County School Board member.
In Oklahoma, Gov. Frank Keating and state schools Superintendent
Sandy Garrett have advocated charter schools and pledged to push
for them again next session despite legislators’ killing of past
That’s assuming Republican Keating and Democrat Garrett survive
Legislation notwithstanding, Oklahoma’s first test of the
charter school concept will occur this fall.
Three “enterprise schools” formed under existing state
deregulation law will open in Oklahoma City. Parents will run two
new middle schools in north Oklahoma City. In south Oklahoma City,
a community group led by Kerr-McGee Corp. will take over Columbus
Elementary School, a high-poverty, mostly Hispanic school.
“It’s regrettable, but it’s a fact: Charter schools are born of
frustration, panic and dissatisfaction with the quality of public
education,” Keating said.
“If we would address the need for core subjects, if we could
address the ability to remove incompetent teachers and incompetent
administrators, the charter school movement would be stillborn.
“But as a patch, as a splint, we have the pressure for charter
In contrast to Keating’s negative portrayal, Garrett said
Oklahoma has “enjoyed much success in the public schools.”
Still, she said she supports charter schools because they would
promote cooperation between parents and teachers.
“That’s exactly what’s happened with the three (enterprise)
schools that we have in Oklahoma City,” she said. “You have a
perfect model of parents being more involved than usual, and you
have teachers taking more of a lead as a team.”
Janet Barresi, leader of Parents for a New Middle School, looked
to Colorado as a model when developing her enterprise middle
The Oklahoma City dentist particularly praised Dean Kern, the
Academy Charter School’s former dean.
“He was truly my inspiration,” said Barresi, whose twins sons,
Ben and Joe, just finished fifth grade at Quail Creek Elementary
A neon sign identifying the “Academy Charter School” hangs
outside the old Naylor’s grocery store just off Interstate 25
between Denver and Colorado Springs.
The makeshift school shares a strip shopping center with Barry’s
Jewelry, Mr. Manners Country Restaurant, Barnyard Pet Shop and
Chiropractic Arts. The front window overlooks breathtaking mountain
peaks and rolling green hills, not to mention the local McDonald’s.
The dean’s office sits where customers used to eat deli
sandwiches. Students peck at computer terminals where the butcher
once chopped fat off steaks.
Across the street, kindergartners in matching navy shorts and
plaid skirts kick soccer balls on an asphalt playground behind the
new Holiday Inn Express.
A florist and tanning shop were next door, but school expansion
meant breaking through the walls.
Increasingly Colorado parents are taking charge of their
They’re using state tax dollars to start schools wherever they
can find space.
Colorado Springs’ Cheyenne Mountain Charter School shares a
warehouse with the U.S. Postal Service.
In Parker, an old church houses the Colorado Visionary Academy.
Two thousand hours of hard labor by parents brought the building up
“Charters are a unique opportunity to pull together a choice
with a vision,” said Joanie Letellier, the Colorado Visionary
Academy’s principal. “The people who have that vision all come
Colorado’s charter school law urged parents, teachers and
community members to “take responsible risks and create new,
innovative, more flexible ways of educating all children within the
public school system.”
A 1997 Colorado Education Department study examined 24 charter
schools open at least two years. The study found all met or
exceeded expectations based on written performance goals.
However, charter school fourth-graders performed only slightly
better than regular school students on a statewide test last year.
Given charter schools’ relative newness, evidence of their
effectiveness remains limited, the study said.
But nobody disputes the Colorado charter schools’ popularity.
At some charter schools, parents put week-old babies –
kindergartners of 2003 – on waiting lists.
“The average Colorado charter school has a waiting list of 200
or 300,” said Jim Griffin, director of the Colorado League of
“I think the word’s gotten around quite rapidly that some of
these schools have done a phenomenal job.”
This fall, 60 Colorado charter schools will serve an estimated
That’s up from 50 charter schools last year and 32 the year
Charter school organizers must fill out extensive applications
stating their mission, curriculum, transportation plan, budget,
finance plan, rules and regulations.
Organizers apply to the local school board but can appeal to the
state if denied.
Relationships between charter schools and sponsoring districts
range from perfectly congenial to “subsurface warfare and outright
hostility,” Griffin said.
He cites an inherent friction between charter schools’ autonomy
and school districts’ desire to control.
“School districts are very, very centralized entities. You
manage by standardizing, regimenting and buying one set of
textbooks for your entire district.
“Charter schools don’t fit that mold.”
Sun and Clouds
A giant mural of a bright yellow sun covers a wall in Janine
Newhouse’s Academy Charter School classroom.
“I don’t have any windows,” the third-grade teacher said,
explaining why a friend painted the sun.
Her classroom has walls – but no ceiling.
Covering the thin dividers that separate classrooms would cost
So, Newhouse has a microphone.
Ear-level speakers help her 18 students hear above the music
class piano down the hall.
Newhouse said she couldn’t be happier with the school’s Core
Knowledge Curriculum, class sizes and high parental involvement.
On a recent Friday, 30 parents “helped out with the chariots and
food for the kids” as third-graders revisited the Roman Empire.
“Everyone dressed in togas. It was great to have that support.”
However, she’s not sure how long she’ll stay with the charter
Regular public schools pay better, and some school districts
won’t recognize her years of experience, which could hurt her
First-grade teacher Carolyn Rovner, though, isn’t going anywhere.
She taught in regular public schools for 16 years and is willing
to sacrifice salary for freedom.
“I like being part of something brand new – the pioneer spirit,
the excitement, the momentum,” Rovner said.
“You have to buy in for reasons other than money.”
Students seem to like the school but not the uniforms.
“My mom said I needed a better environment to go to school,”
said Mike Sharette, 14, an eighth-grader. “My last school, there
were a lot of problem kids and druggies going there. It’s real
Eighth-grader Levi Kauffman praised the school’s individualized
“They’re uncomfortable and ugly,” he said of his required white
polo shirt and khaki pants.
At least he’s got his sneakers. “They used to tell you what kind
of shoes to wear, but nobody listened.”
Christie Marble said her sixth-grade son, Jesse, takes algebra,
writes at college level and gains real-life skills such as how to
balance a checkbook.
However, Douglas County school officials make life tough for the
charter school, she said. The state funnels charter school funding
through local districts.
“I think the charter school movement is kind of a thorn in the
side of public school systems,” she said. “It’s almost like they
give you enough to let you float on the lifeboat but hope that you
don’t make it.”
Most Colorado charter schools struggle with facility, funding
and governance issues.
A $ 12,000-a-month lease payment bites a chunk out of the Academy
Charter School’s $ 1.4 million annual budget.
Most public schools don’t pay rent and can pass bond issues to
make improvements. Colorado charter schools rely on PTA
fund-raisers and parents’ sweat.
“It would be nice if charter schools were treated like other
public schools and we had all that we need, but I think we do very,
very well with what we have,” Marble said.
Colorado districts don’t have to give charter schools a full
share of state per-pupil operating revenue.
All that’s required is an 80 percent share, although some
districts, including Douglas County, give charter schools the full
Charter schools spent an average of $ 4,214 per student last
year, compared to $ 6,476 by regular public schools, said Bill
Windler, the Colorado Education Department’s charter school
“If charter schools do no more than regular public schools and
they do exactly the same on $ 2,200 per child less, what does that
say?” Windler asked. “Is that a good deal or bad deal for the
But charter school critics dispute Windler’s math.
Douglas County school officials contend charter schools cost
them slightly more than regular schools – a claim disputed by
charter school leaders.
“We build our schools for 700 students on a year-round schedule,
compared to charter schools that have only 300 students and operate
only nine months of the year,” Douglas County School Board member
What’s more, he said he’s seen little innovation by the charter
“All the charter schools we have are basically ‘sit down, shut
up, listen to what I’m going to teach you’ kind of education. For
me personally that’s kind of disappointing.”
As Denver moves southward, Douglas County has become the
nation’s fastest-growing county, according to the U.S. Census
Bureau. The school district is adding a few thousand students a year.
“Without the charter schools, classrooms would be overcrowded,”
said Kern, the former Academy Charter School dean.
The county’s six charter schools save the district 2 1/2
buildings, he said.
Responded Laura Harmon, the district’s charter school liaison:
“The reality of it is, we could absorb the number of students
currently in charter schools into our 28 elementary schools without
Kern, the Academy Charter School’s third dean in five years, led
a revolt last month when the Douglas County School Board threatened
charter school funding cuts.
Two hundred charter school supporters packed a marathon board
“You bet I’m frustrated,” Kern said at the time. “I mean, I’ve
been rapped on the knuckles one too many times by this district.
I’ve been up there sort of arguing, confronting, saying, ‘Why are
you doing this? Why are you withholding these funds? Why aren’t we
getting these services?'”
In a compromise, the board reduced the charter schools’ funding
loss. But Kern’s role helped spark his ouster.
Earlier this month, the charter school’s parent board voted 4-3
to fire the popular Kern – concerned about his combative
relationship with Douglas County schools Superintendent Rick
The decision shocked parents and angered many.
But the action was by no means unusual.
“It’s the way of the road, so to speak,” Kern said.
“Superintendents last maybe three years, and charter school
directors are often called mini- superintendents, so our reign is
going to be about the same.”
Five of the six Douglas County charter schools will have new
directors this fall.
“These are miniature school boards,” said Griffin, the charter
school league director. “These are grassroots, basic-level …
“The closer you get to the people, the more you get the real
strengths of having parental involvement and buy-in and
participation… But it also means those dark sides of human
nature can come out just as quickly.”
But despite the strife, parents remain committed to their
“They know their alternative is their regular public schools,”
parent Marble said.
Oklahoma Prognosis – Supporters and opponents debate proposed
charter school legislation.
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As parents, north Oklahoma City residents Frank Keating and
Debbie Blackburn exercised school choice.
Keating’s son, Chip, just graduated from parochial Bishop
McGuinness High School.
Blackburn’s son, Beau, will be a sophomore this fall at Classen
School of Advanced Studies, a highly selective public magnet school.
As politicians, though, Gov. Keating and state Rep. Blackburn
disagree about whether Oklahoma should join the national charter
In at least 29 states, Puerto Rico and the District of Columbia,
charter school laws give private individuals and groups tax money
to start autonomous public schools.
The Republican governor advocates moving full speed ahead to
counteract what he calls the “dumbing down” of Oklahoma students.
“Pilot projects are not needed,” Keating told The Oklahoman. “I
think every school should be able to be a charter school.
“We confine literally thousands of students to a life of
minimum-wage jobs because of our unwillingness or inability to do
anything about the education bureaucracy.”
But Blackburn, the Oklahoma City Democrat accused of gutting
charter school legislation last year, preaches caution, saying the
state shouldn’t jump off a cliff like a “wild-eyed radical.”
“Anybody that goes at it like they’re killing snakes and is not
careful in their approach is going to hurt the public schools and,
ultimately, all of us,” the former Altus and Woodward high school
“In Arizona, they’ve had people who have started (charter)
schools, taken money they got from the public and used it to buy
houses for their parents.”
Keating and state schools Superintendent Sandy Garrett, a
Democrat, have pledged to push for charter school legislation again
next session if they are re-elected. All House seats and half the
Senate’s also will be on the November ballot.
The Legislature killed charter school bills last year, fearing
the schools would rob public schools of funding.
The Oklahoma City School District plans to test the charter
school concept this fall.
Using existing state deregulation law, the 40,000-student school
district has approved three “enterprise schools” described as a
limited form of charter schools.
Parents will run two middle schools in north Oklahoma City. In
south Oklahoma City, a community group led by Kerr-McGee Corp. will
take over Columbus Elementary School, a high-poverty, mostly
“I definitely think people will be having their eyes on these
three models,” said Garrett, who encouraged the Oklahoma City
However, she said Oklahoma’s lack of a charter school law is
costing the state potential federal money. The federal government
has allocated $ 80 million to $ 100 million in charter school
start-up funds, she said.
But Oklahoma City’s enterprise schools probably won’t qualify.
Janet Barresi, leader of Parents for a New Middle School, said
Independence Enterprise Middle School would qualify for roughly
$ 50,000 in start-up funds if the state had a charter school law.
“Janet and I worked real hard to fight with the lawyers at the
federal government,” Garrett said. “Of course, they consider our
deregulation efforts very good. But it’s not enough.”
The funding issue aside, Blackburn said Oklahoma City’s efforts
prove state law is sufficient.
“We had deregulation laws that allowed people to do this,” she
said. “Oklahoma City had enough vision to see, ‘Yeah, we can do
However, Oklahoma City schools Assistant Superintendent Guy
Sconzo said Oklahoma still needs a charter school law.
All three enterprise schools wanted to offer special incentives
rewarding teachers for good performance, Sconzo said. They couldn’t
because state law requires teachers to be covered by the
districtwide union contract.
“Most charter school laws that I am familiar with provide for
charter schools to not fall under collective bargaining law, giving
schools discretion and freedom to provide education outside of the
negotiated agreement,” he said.
“That is not, in my mind, an anti-collective bargaining
attitude. What it is, if you want charter schools to be very
innovative and literally do business differently, then you have to
pull back on all the constraints.”
In theory, charter schools relieve organizers of regulations in
exchange for accountability, which means a charter school must show
results or close. The concept seems to be that parents, teachers
and community members can succeed where many perceive bureaucrats,
union leaders and politicians have failed.
But the issue blurs as charter schools become more of a national
Groups such as the National Education Association have started
their own charter schools and joined those lobbying for federal
The Oklahoma Education Association, the state branch of the NEA,
has backed charter schools and supported legislation for
“partnership schools” between teachers, parents and the community.
However, the 40,000-member state teachers’ union believes all
teachers should remain covered by district contracts, President
Carolyn Crowder said.
The union also opposes hiring uncertified teachers.
Keating calls the Oklahoma Education Association’s leadership
“young and more flexible and more open-minded than ever before.” He
said he hopes “they’ll be a part of the offense instead of the
Still, Keating said it makes no sense to require charter schools
to uphold union contracts “if the problem is we need to get away
from incompetency of some public educators.”
Requiring a certain number of certified teachers would be fine,
he said, but charter schools also should be free to hire
professionals “with a lifetime of achievement.” Such a scenario
would let someone like Keating teach social studies.
But agreeing with the Oklahoma Education Association, Sconzo
said all teachers should be certified so as to raise the standards,
not lower them.
So he wouldn’t hire Keating to teach social studies?
“That is correct,” Sconzo replied, chuckling. But he quickly
added he might give Keating a job as an adjunct instructor.
Crowder said charter schools can promote academics and expand
opportunities for students, parents and teachers – if done right.
“But it’s also possible for charter schools to be detrimental to
a district’s public school environment,” she said.
“For example, in some states, because their laws or regulations
are so loose, private schools already in existence started getting
public money. It has been used in some instances as a way to siphon
off public tax dollars away from the students that are in that
But Keating said he doesn’t see the private school question as
“With charter schools, you’re using public funds to create a
public school that will educate the public. That, to me, is what
public dollars should be used for.”
But Blackburn said, “The one thing I don’t want to see is public
sector money just being spent on the parents who scream the
loudest, leaving these other kids to fend for themselves.”
Kathy Clark Brooks, mother of a Moore high school student, said
her daughter spent a recent school year in a classroom filled with
violence and trouble.
Brooks didn’t feel like she got much respect when she tried to
resolve the situation.
“I would dearly love to have a charter school,” the mother said.
“I think I would have been able to have much more input.
“Right now, it’s frustrating to be a parent and have a child in
school… At this stage, it doesn’t take much for a child to get
beaten up or accosted or threatened, and there’s nothing you can
do,” Brooks said.
Ken Smith of Guthrie said he wouldn’t mind charter schools as
long as they followed state rules and accepted all students – even
problem children – just like public schools.
“Or,” Smith said, “let’s try a miraculous idea called taking
requirements off the public schools and see what happens.”