A majority of Colorado voters have a favorable view of charter schools and support opening new ones even in districts with declining enrollment. But support for charters was notably lower among Democratic voters, reflecting a shift also seen at the national level.
The findings come from a Magellan Strategies poll of 882 Colorado registered voters conducted between April 26 and May 1. Survey questions were developed in collaboration with Chalkbeat. The survey has a margin of error of 3.3%.
The survey results were weighted to be representative of Colorado voter registration demographics. For that reason, respondents are more likely to be white and well-off than Colorado public school parents. Only about 30% of respondents were parents of school-aged children, similar to the percentage of voters in most elections.
The poll found 52% of respondents and 65% of parents had favorable views of charter schools. But just 36% of Democrats had a favorable view, compared to 79% of Republicans. Among unaffiliated voters who make up the largest share of Colorado voters, a little less than half had a favorable view, while 21% were unsure or had no opinion.
Asked to describe the differences between district-run and charter schools, many respondents correctly said they have more autonomy and flexibility, have non-unionized teachers, and get public money. These open-ended responses showed a partisan divide. More Democrats described charter schools as religious, as being able to select students who will do better on tests, and as contributing to school segregation. More Republicans said charter schools have higher standards and don’t teach a left-wing agenda.
Magellan CEO and Founder David Flaherty said the level of partisan divide was notable.
“Political biases are coming through loud and clear,” he said. “We heard from Democrats, they don’t admit everyone, they’re religious. Conservatives think district schools are a mess.”
Asked if charter schools weaken district-run schools by diverting money and students, 62% of Democrats said yes, compared to just 17% of Republicans and 39% of unaffiliated voters. More than half of parents disagreed with that idea.
An even larger share of parents — 68% — said they would oppose a policy that lets districts turn down new charter schools in places where enrollment is declining. But more than half of Democratic respondents said they would support such a policy.
Colorado has a strong charter sector that enrolls more than 15% of public school students, higher now than before the pandemic. Its laws governing school choice and charter schools consistently get high marks from national charter organizations, and the publicly funded but independently run schools continue to enjoy bipartisan support in the legislature.
But many large Colorado school districts are now controlled by school boards backed by teachers unions and skeptical of charter schools. Declining enrollment driven by larger demographic trends has exacerbated tensions around opening new schools.
Part 1 of the survey, released late last month, found more Coloradans think schools are on the wrong track, with Democrats concerned about underfunding and attacks from conservatives and Republicans concerned about how teachers handle topics related to sexuality, gender, and race.
At the same time, most voters continue to have favorable views of teachers and even teachers unions.
In addition to questions about charter schools, part 2 of the survey included questions about school accountability and state oversight, four-day school weeks, and potential ballot measures.
Mixed views on school accountability
Colorado rates schools mostly based on test scores and allows the state to intervene in districts and schools that have consistently low scores. The state is conducting an audit of this system to see if it’s worked as intended or done more harm. Roughly 70% of respondents said the state should use a more holistic measure to judge school quality, rather than rely on test scores. Support for using broader measures was especially high among Democrats and younger voters, but more than half of Republicans agreed as well.
The survey found narrow support — 44% to 40% with the rest unsure — for allowing the state to close schools or convert them to charters when they fail to improve. Support was lowest among Democrats, women, and younger voters and highest among Republicans, men, and older voters. The State Board of Education has been hesitant to use this power, instead leaning on school districts to develop their own improvement plans.
Support for school funding ballot measure high
Supporters of more school funding — an issue that has failed among statewide voters again and again — are trying to put a measure on the November ballot that would reserve a portion of existing tax revenue for schools. The measure would generate an estimated $984 million a year to be used to raise teacher pay and recruit and retain educators.
The measure polls well with voters, with 65% of all respondents and more than half of Republicans saying they would vote yes. That support likely will be less in November after opponents make their case, but Flaherty said it has a decent chance of passing after many other efforts fell short.
The mechanism matters, Flaherty said. The measure doesn’t increase taxes, though opponents will argue it is a backdoor tax increase because future tax refunds might be smaller. Voters are also more likely to support a measure that sends money to a specific need, the poll found, and voters identified teacher pay and staff shortages as top priorities.
The survey also tested voter attitudes toward a cap on the growth of property values, an idea that was floated and then withdrawn as part of a larger tax policy compromise this legislative session. Respondents were closely divided with a large percentage unsure or not having an opinion.
Flaherty said the issue could have gone either way, and those who backed the compromise out of concern that a measure that would slash local revenue might pass had some basis for that worry.
Four-day school weeks sound all right
More than 100 Colorado school districts operate on four-day weeks to save money or compensate for low pay with a more favorable lifestyle. Most of those are small rural districts, but they include Pueblo 60 and Brighton-based 27J on the more populated Front Range.
Supporters of more school funding often point to four-day weeks as evidence of underfunding, but the poll suggests that argument may not resonate much with voters. More than half said four-day school weeks reflect community preference, and just 39% said they signal a lower-quality education.
Favorable views of four-day weeks existed across demographics and among parents. That matches reports from communities with shorter school weeks, where the extra day off makes it easier to schedule doctor’s appointments and students don’t miss school to participate in sports.
Read the entire survey results here.
Bureau Chief Erica Meltzer covers education policy and politics and oversees Chalkbeat Colorado’s education coverage. Contact Erica at email@example.com.