CharterFolk Contributor Angelina Sierra-Sandoval – A New Network of Parents and Students Scores a Great Win for Charter Schools in Colorado

Good morning, CharterFolk.

This morning, I’m excited to kick off our second year of Contributor Columns here at CharterFolk with a great post from Angelina Sierra-Sandoval, Director of Government Affairs at the Colorado League of Charter Schools.

I provide a brief bio for Angelina below.

In her role at the Colorado League of Charter Schools, Angelina Sierra-Sandoval advocates for favorable policies for public charter schools at the state and local levels in addition to managing the League’s State & Local Policy Team. State policy includes laws, rules and governance decisions made by the State Legislature, State Board of Education, and Colorado Department of Education. Local policy includes policies and governance decisions made by school district boards, counties and municipalities as it relates to public charter schools.
As the daughter of a single mother who found her leadership voice through charter school advocacy, Angelina attests to how important it is for families to have quality choices in schools. She strongly believe that if a student has access to a quality school, it can change the trajectory of his or her life forever, underscoring how important it is that absolutely every child in Colorado secures that opportunity.
Angelina brings a wealth of experience working in education policy and with legislators in Colorado, including having served as the Special Policy Advisor to the House Majority Leader Crisanta Duran from 2015-2017. She also brings lobbying experience from her work as the Intergovernmental Affairs Manager at Denver Public Schools. She holds a B.A. in Political Science & Pre-Law and a Master’s in Public Administration & Local Government from the University of Colorado-Denver. She is a proud 5th generation Coloradoan and enjoys spending time with her husband and their two children, Israel and Isla. 

Let’s get straight to her post!

A New Network of Parents and Students Score A Great Win for Charter Schools in Colorado

When the time came for my younger brother to enter middle school, my mom, who was a single mother raising a family in North Denver, embarked on a search for the right school for him. Private school was out, even though that is what worked for me. I attended private school my entire life, as did my mother, her mother AND her mother! 

My younger brother had different educational needs than I did, so for my mom, her choices came down to traditional public school or charter public school. She had read in the local newspaper that there was a new charter school in the neighborhood, and although the school was small, it had a great program and philosophy. She visited, and after confirming what she heard during the school’s open house through her own research and conversations with school leaders, she decided that the charter school was the way to go.

This overwhelming and intimidating decision became one of the best choices she ever made for our entire family. My brother attended that charter middle school until the end of 8th grade and then went on to attend the charter network’s high school. Throughout these years, this charter network not only invested in my brother as a student, but invested in our family as well. 

My mother was encouraged to join their Board of Directors and was a member for several years. This charter school network gave my mother the opportunity and resources she needed to not only be an advocate for her son in his education, but to become one of the fiercest charter advocates I know. The time and effort charter schools pour into their students and families is extremely impactful. My own family is a testament to that. The best solutions in the charter school space start by partnering with parents – to meet parents where they’re at and to give them the necessary resources to be the best advocates they can be for their children. 

That is one of our main goals at the Colorado League of Charter Schools (the League), implemented specifically through our ACT Advocacy Network, a new advocacy initiative designed to unleash the full grassroots power of parents and other supporters attached to Colorado’s 266 charter schools, serving 131,000 students.

Through this network, we focus on building charter school knowledge and advocacy skills while creating a powerful and influential community to take action on behalf of our schools, and more importantly, our students. With 14% of public school students in Colorado enrolled in a public charter school – the third highest statewide rate in the nation – we know that the charter school movement has the collective voice needed to make a difference.

As decision-makers begin to hear our concerns expressed at whole new levels of urgency, we know our impact on education policy across Colorado will only increase. But we know this just won’t happen on its own. It has to be made to happen. Parents and students must be empowered and supported to advocate and to speak out for their own rights.

Parental engagement and passion helped elevate Colorado’s charter sector into one of the strongest in the country. Earlier this year, US News & World Report released its annual ranking of Colorado’s best public high schools, and it found that public charter schools dominate the list. In fact, eight of the top 10 public high schools in the state are charter schools, results that are very similar to what has been found in prior years.

This comes at the same time that Colorado’s public charter schools are serving higher percentages of both English language learners and students of color. 

With a lot to be proud of, we still find ourselves fighting against anti-charter legislation in the Colorado General Assembly. One example of this is a bill that was introduced last legislative session – House Bill 1295, or “Rebuttable Presumption in Charter School Appeals” as it came to be known.

The bill, which sought to weaken the standard under which disagreements over charter schools are currently settled, would have made it virtually impossible for a charter school to ever overturn a local school board decision against it. It is not an exaggeration to say that this legislation represented one of the more dangerous proposals brought forth against students and families in Colorado in quite some time.

Under existing law, whenever a school district rules against a charter school (in the case of opening a new one or extending an existing one, for example), that school can challenge the decision to the State Board of Education. The State Board then makes a final determination based on what is in the best interest of students, the school district or the community. This standard has not only proven very balanced over time in terms of outcome, it is also in my view the proper standard on which we should be basing all of our education decisions as a state.

HB1295 sought to change the standard by which disagreements over charter schools are currently handled. HB 1295 would have flipped the orientation of charter school appeals so that the appeals process begins from a “rebuttable presumption” that a local school board’s denial decision “was in the best interests of the students, school district, or community,” as long as the denial was based on “at least one of several specified considerations.” The appellant school or network would have to overcome that presumption to win an appeal.

Thankfully, because of the overwhelming response of Colorado’s charter school community working in close collaboration with the League through the ACT Action Network, the legislation was defeated in its first committee by a narrow 5-4 margin.

Through the network, our advocates sent over 50,000 emails to legislators from 5,000 different individuals—parents, educators, school leaders, and community members— expressing concerns about the bill and what it would mean for public charter schools. Lawmakers also heard directly from many of our advocates through in-person or virtual testimony at the committee hearing.

The decision ensured that families and students in our state will continue to have a legitimate and fair charter appeals process on decisions made by local school boards. The thousands of emails and phone calls to state legislators – combined with the hard work of the League’s legislative affairs team – delivered the unmistakable message: this bill simply had to be defeated.

Fortunately, in this case we prevailed, but we know that we will have to get even stronger in our support of public charter school families and students in Colorado. That means accelerating our efforts to engage and uplift our charter advocates in the very near term because we expect to see more anti-charter legislation this upcoming legislative session. As the environment in which we operate our public charter schools continues to change around us, we are all recognizing that building a community of informed and engaged advocates is one of the most important things we are doing as a movement.

With an incredibly important win under our collective belt, the League, the ACT Action Network, and the entire Colorado charter school community look forward to growing our collective voice even further in the years to come. While the road before us will be a difficult one, I know we are up to the challenge. In the same way that my mother grew to become the fiercest advocate for charter schools I have ever known, my belief is that the collective voice of all charter school parents will grow to become the fiercest advocacy force for high quality public education the state of Colorado has ever known.