The Colorado State Board of Education has upheld Durango School District 9-R’s ruling to deny Ascent Classical Academy’s charter school application in a 4-3 vote.
The majority opinion disagreed with Ascent’s argument that the Durango school board’s decision was contrary to the best interest of students, the district or the community.
Durango School District 9-R denied the charter application on June 14 saying Ascent lacked a local governing board, lacked a commitment to serve all students and lacked a curriculum dedicated to the unique needs of the district’s population.
State board members voted along party lines: Board members who are registered Democrats voted to deny Ascent’s appeal, and registered Republicans voted in favor of Ascent’s appeal.
State board members shared their perspectives Thursday during closing statements for the appeal.
Board member Rebecca McClellan, who voted to deny Ascent’s appeal, said 9-R made compelling points about Ascent’s lack of dedication to equity and inclusion.
The district’s denial resolution said Ascent’s classical curriculum appeared to be “Eurocentric” and focused on “caucasian” history and philosophy with minimal incorporation of materials from other ethnicities.
“I’m not sure that the bare minimum to comply is necessarily all that it takes to encompass the best interest of the community with respect to meeting the goals of equity and inclusion,” McClellan said.
Board Chairwoman Angelika Schroeder, who also voted to deny Ascent’s appeal, said she is concerned charter networks are looking for new locations rather than to serve parents’ particular interests.
The 9-R’s denial resolution reflected a similar concern.
“It is far from clear that Ascent is primarily motivated to serve the district’s community and provide a locally tailored educational option,” 9-R’s denial reads. “Large portions of the application appear to be recycled from applications submitted to other school districts.”
Schroeder said core knowledge curriculum schools are successful, but forcing parents to address local needs to a leadership board based in Denver is not helpful.
“Board members in rural Colorado want local control,” Schroeder said. “So to say a Denver board will be managing a Durango school is antithetical to the core beliefs.”
Board member Lisa Escarcega shared a similar perspective and voted to deny Ascent’s appeal. She said Ascent did not provide enough evidence the school was committed to the development of English-language learners and students with special needs.
Board member Karla Esser kept her closing statement brief saying she agreed with Escarcega and McClellan and later voted to deny Ascent.
Board member Joyce Rankin voted in favor of Ascent. She said 9-R was not paying attention to school choices that best fit the interest of parents and students within the district.
Board Vice Chairman Steve Durham voted in support of Ascent’s appeal and defended Ascent’s application. He was frustrated that board members were basing their decision on factors outside of academic performance. He said 9-R is trying to force students into one style of education.
“We need to be willing to admit that there are some environments that are good for some kids, and some environments that are better for other kids,” Durham said. “We shouldn’t be trying to pound these round pegs into square holes, and that’s what public education is today in Colorado, and that’s why it fails.”
He said only 40% of students in Colorado public schools can read at grade level, and noted that 9R’s 46.9% reading level is not impressive. He asked fellow board members why charter schools perform better than regular public schools.
He said the difference between the options is that parents made the decision on what the best educational opportunity is for their child.
“You can’t get parent involvement if there’s no choice and they’re stuck with the one offering,” Durham said.
His advice to Durango parents was to leave the school district because the school board does not care about educational choice.
Durham said it is an unfair criticism to say charter schools discriminate against students with disabilities. Charter schools don’t have enough students to justify special programs and resources that cater to those students, he said.
“If that’s the standard, don’t ever bring another charter application forward because you can’t get it approved,” Durham said. “Because unless you have 2,000 or 3,000 students, you can’t reach those economies of scale.”
He also refuted the idea that Ascent’s leadership board being based in Denver is a disqualifier, noting Durango parents contacted Ascent because they wanted a classical education option in Durango.
Durham said there is no evidence Ascent sought out Durango; rather, parents requested the school apply.
Board member Debora Scheffel agreed about the need for school choice and voted in favor of Ascent. She said denying Ascent leads public education into a monopolistic system in which students’ needs are not being met.
“I would just say that a classic education addresses Pagan, Greek and Roman culture as well as the Christianization of Rome. And if that’s offensive, that makes no sense,” Scheffel said.
She said a classical education is historical and there’s nothing inherently religious about learning about science, math and literature.
“That’s what a lot of this deliberation has been about,” she said. “It’s trying to tag classical education (as religious), and it’s inaccurate.”
In a news release Monday, 9-R Superintendent Karen Cheser said the school district promotes school choice by offering open enrollment to all 14 of its schools.
“We are glad the state board supported our decision after our extensive and thorough research on the Ascent proposal,” Cheser said.
Ascent Classical Academy did not respond to a request for comment.