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Colorado Charter Schools Introduction


What Is a Charter School?

A charter school in Colorado is a public school operated by a group of parents, teachers and/or community members as a semi-autonomous school of choice, operating under a contract or "charter" contract between the members of the charter school community and either the local board of education or the state Charter School Institute (CSI), depending on which entity oversees the charter school.

In a charter school, each student, parent and teacher chooses to be there. The "charter," as defined in the Charter Schools Act (Sections 22-30.5-101et. seq. C.R.S.), spells out the school goals, standards, education design, governance and operations. The degree of autonomy to be exercised by the charter school on such issues as personnel, curriculum and facilities is negotiated between the charter applicants and its authorizer (either the local district or CSI) and reflected in the charter. School-centered governance, autonomy, and a clear design for how and what students will learn are the essential characteristics of a charter school.

Under Colorado law, a charter school is not a separate legal entity independent of the school district or CSI, but rather is a public school defined uniquely by a charter and partially autonomous while remaining within the school district or CSI. The approved charter application and accompanying agreements are the charter which serve as a contract between the charter school and the authorizer board of education.

The Purposes for Having Charter Schools in Colorado

In authorizing charter schools, the General Assembly created an avenue for 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."

"Different pupils learn differently," notes the act. The act seeks the creation of schools with "high, rigorous standards for pupil performance, " with special emphasis on expanded opportunities for low-achieving students. The General Assembly sought "to create an atmosphere in Colorado's public schools where research and development in developing different learning opportunities is actively pursued."

Charter schools are a means of expanding choices in Colorado public schools. The charter process provides an avenue for educators, citizens, businesses, communities and parents to direct their innovative efforts. Charter schools offer teachers a chance to be part of designing and working in semi-autonomous, creative schools under defined philosophical approaches.

The Charter Schools Act - Where are we?

A number of the stated purposes of the Colorado Charter Schools Act have already come to fruition. Specifically, charter schools in Colorado have increased the number of public school choices available for parents, students, and teachers. Fifty charter schools were operating in Colorado on September 1, 1997. By the 2018-2019 school year there were just over 250 charter schools. 

With intentional planning, a charter school can create a local education design that individualizes and customizes education to meet the needs of an increasingly diverse society. As academic standards become more rigorous and as the expectation that more students meet those standards increases, some may find need for time, resources, and instructional strategies to be utilized in new ways to enable more children to meet the higher standards. Charter schools often find capacity for implementing new educational strategies effectively because of the flexibilities available to them and because of locally-designed guiding documents that they can look to inform their work.

Charter schools become another tool, an opportunity for authorizers in Colorado to use in meeting the academic content standards which have now been set in mathematics, reading, writing, science, geography, and history. Charter schools are being viewed as one educational option from which students and parents may choose. Charter schools are beginning to deliver an educational program that will assist school districts and CSI in meeting the academic content standards which have been set for a very diverse student population. 

Implementation of the Colorado Charter Schools Act will be an evolving process. Many questions will arise that are not specifically addressed by the law. Charter applicants, district and authorizer staff, boards of education, legislators, the State Board of Education, Colorado Department of Education staff, and others will need to work in partnership to find creative solutions to the questions and issues which will surface from time to time in fine tuning Colorado's Charter Schools Act.

Writing a Charter Application?

Contact the Schools of Choice Unit at the Colorado Department of Education:

Applying for a Charter

Any group of parents, teachers and/or community members may develop a charter application. A minimum size is not defined in the charter school law. The school must be nonsectarian and non-home-based. Applications may not be submitted to convert an existing private school or non-public home-based educational program into a charter school.

A charter application is typically submitted to the local school board or the Charter School Institute by October 1 to be eligible for consideration for the following school year. The charter applicant and the authorizer may jointly waive any timelines set forth in the Colorado Charter Schools Act. Each authorizer may establish local procedures for submitting and considering applications, but may not charge an application fee. An approved charter application must serve as the basis for a contract between the charter school and the authorizer board. 

CSI only accepts applicants that are proposing to open in a district that does not currently retain exclusively charter authority or in a distrct that has retained exclusive charter authority, but has released the charter application to CSI or has waived their exclusive charter authority. To see a complete list of districts that currently have exclusive chartering authority, see our webpage here

The application process should consist of a series of meetings, dialogues and negotiations between the applicants and appropriate authorizer staff and board members. The open sharing of information and ideas between all parties is essential to the process and the development of a successful charter school. Early, informal discussions between the applicant and the authorizer are highly encouraged before the official application is submitted to the local board or CSI. This may help in the development of a quality and successful application. In the best case scenario, most issues can be informally resolved before the official application is submitted and the 60 day statutory review process and timeline begin. All new charter schools must be approved for at least three years, but not more than five years.

For charter applications that are submitted to a district authorizers, before the school board formally approves or denies the application, it must first be reviewed by the district accountability advisory committee pursuant to the district's guidelines. The school board must also hold a series of community meetings, and then, within 60 days after receiving the formal application, make a decision about granting a charter. It is the charter applicants responsibility to obtain a copy of the district's application procedures from the administrative office of the school district. If applying to CSI, a DAC review is not part of the application process. 

Whether the charter is denied or approved, an appeal process to the State Board of Education is provided pursuant to Section 22-30.5-108 C.R.S. The State Board may also, upon its own motion, decide to review any charter decision of a local board of education. Under the act, the State Board has the authority to direct the local board to grant, deny, or revoke the charter. The timelines for the consideration and appeal processes are built into the act.

For additional information please contact the Schools of Choice Unit at