In January 2024, the Colorado Department of Education announced that “PK-12 student enrollment reached the state’s lowest mark in a decade.” The declines are across the state, as “forty-three of the 64 counties had an absolute decline in the under-18 population over the last decade,” according to state demographer Elizabeth Garner. “It doesn’t matter where you were — Eastern Plains, San Luis Valley, West Slope, Denver metro.” She predicts the declines will continue through the 2028-29 school year.

Funding for schools is calculated primarily on the student enrollment in each local school district. Hence, resources for schools will most likely decrease across the state, even if the state legislature is able to increase the base funding by addressing the budget stabilization factor in the current legislative session. Colorado’s 262 charter schools also experienced a decline in enrollment by 1.8% to 135,000 students.

Yet, some charter school leaders may not be as concerned for their future funding if historical trends continue. For years, many charter schools received additional funding from billionaires through their foundations and hedge fund organizations. The charter schools will need to continue and possibly increase their extensive marketing campaigns to maintain their enrollment. But thanks to corporate donors, they may have a leg up in the financing game,

Since 1993, when charter schools were first approved in Colorado, a lot has changed in terms of how charter schools are funded, and how “chains of charter schools” have expanded in the state. Charter expansion has been fueled less by parent choice, and more by state and local district actions, as well as significant funding from outside sources committed to spreading charter schools.

Colorado is home to the most favorable set of laws for funding and opening charters in the country. Over the last two decades, Colorado state laws and local district policies were used to close neighborhood schools deemed as “failures” according to state-required standardized test results, and charter schools were opened in their place. At the state level, the Colorado state board of education ruled that the Adams 14 school district had to open a charter school in its district, even though the local school board had voted against it. Since 2005, Denver Public Schools closed forty-eight traditional neighborhood schools, and opened more than seventy charter schools. In Jefferson County, eighteen schools were closed while several charter schools have been opened. 

The greatest boon to charter school expansion and viability, however, has been from billionaires who do not support the current public education system. Pro-charter billionaires like Reed Hastings, John Arnold, Bill Gates, Bill Daniels, Edythe and Eli Broad, Michael Bloomberg, and the Walton family have worked strategically to privatize public education in Colorado and elsewhere. The billionaires set up philanthropic systems by contributing to non-profit foundations to promote their goals. They support absolute parental choice in their child’s schooling, charter schools, vouchers/tax credits or education savings account systems, and limiting the existing role that school boards, educators, and teacher unions exercise in the decision-making for public education. They use their wealth to buy school board elections and to influence the decision-making of both legislators and school board members.

This is a concerted effort to award monetary grants to “overhaul the education system through a corporate model of privatization and market competition.” Their primary goal is to privatize the education system, while creating for themselves an “enormous tax evasion scheme.”

According to the Institute for Policy Studies’ (IPS) report, Gilded Giving 2022: How Wealth Inequality Distorts Philanthropy and Imperils Democracy, “the generosity of the 1 percent is not enough to replace precious public services — it’s become just another way for them to grow their wealth and power.” The report points out that “the foundation’s donors set up a system to allow them to appoint themselves and anyone they know as trustees, a status that allows them to dip into the foundation’s “charitable” funds to take out loans or be compensated to the tune of potentially hundreds of thousands of dollars, compensation that counts as charitable disbursements — all while enjoying the tax benefits of charitable giving.” A 2022 report on private equity, “How Wall Street profits from a public good”, documents that the increase in private equity in education has skyrocketed exponentially. Investors were alerted for decades to get involved with public education as a means of making money. This billionaire scam has been taking place for decades in the public education sphere.

In addition to funding charter schools and charter-supported organizations directly, the billionaire money is used to support school board candidates who will design policies to promote the disruption of district control. The billionaires and their foundations design key strategies with their grant recipients to elect board members who will restructure public schools based on a business model, market-driven philosophy. Thanks to the vocal support of Colorado’s Governor Jared Polis, the monetary influence of Democrats for Education Reform in local and state elections, and the investments from billionaires and their allies, the Colorado charter industry continues to thrive. 

The Walton Family Foundation has invested more than $407 million to grow high-quality charter schools. Since 1996 when its charter-school funding began, the Waltons have given grants to fully one out of every four charter-school startups in the U.S. The Waltons believe that the public schools are failing students, especially students of color, and rather than spending money on the public schools, their solution lies in funding alternative governing models like charters. Their funding to Colorado charter schools and related organizations that support those schools is well over $20 million.

Reed Hastings and John Arnold’s City Fund, established in 2017, set aside over $200 million to promote charter schools, charter-lite (innovation) schools, and pro-charter groups in 40 cities across the country. Reed Hastings, former CEO of Netflix, believes that public education today is not working, that local school boards should be replaced with a system of market-driven choice, and that parents should be the primary decision-makers for their child’s learning experiences. 

According to Influence Watch, City Fund is “an education organization that funds initiatives to promote the growth of charter schools and other school choice organizations. It also funds activist organizations that support increasing charter school access and school choice programs.” RootED in Denver received over $40 million from City Fund, which they then distributed to charter schools and local community groups to promote charter schools in Colorado.

The Colorado-based Daniels Fund promotes “education reform — charter schools, school choice programs, and conservative think tanks that have been working to undermine public education by shifting public tax dollars to privately owned schools and companies.” The Daniels Fund has given over $6 million to charter schools in Denver, Colorado Springs, Aurora, Parker, Fort Collins, and Windsor. In addition, the Daniels Fund is planning to add 40,000 additional seats for charter school students in Colorado by 2030, though they haven’t allocated exact amounts for this funding goal.

The Charter School Growth Fund, located in Broomfield, CO, “identifies the country’s best public charter schools, funds their expansion, and helps to increase their impact.” The CSGF is funded by “the Michael and Susan Dell Foundation, Bloomberg Philanthropies, Reed Hastings, John Arnold, Walton Family Foundation, and the Gates Foundation.” Their national fund reported assets of over $676 million in 2022. Kevin Hall is the CEO of CSGF, and he is also the Treasurer of Equitable Facilities Fund, a nonprofit social impact fund, that has given $1 billion in low-cost loans to high-performing public charter schools across the country. The Charter School Growth Fund has donated over $10 million to charter schools across Colorado.

The Gates Foundation has been funding charter schools for over two decades in Colorado and elsewhere. In addition, they gave $22 million to the New Schools Venture Fund, to “increase the number of high-quality charter schools around the country by creating systems of charter schools through nonprofit charter management organizations.”  According to EdSurge, since 1999, NSVF “directed over $150 million to more than 300 charter schools around the country, and since 2015, they raise money for investment in education technology startups. Gates joined with the Anschutz Family Foundation, the Daniels Fund, the Walton Family Foundation, and the Donnell-Kay Foundation to create the Colorado Charter Facility Solutions, which issues low-interest loans to charters for facility space. Gates also gave millions to the Colorado League of Charter Schools and to many Colorado charter schools.

This is a concerted effort to award monetary grants to “overhaul the education system through a corporate model of privatization and market competition.” Their primary goal is to privatize the education system, while creating for themselves an “enormous tax evasion scheme.”

The foundations supporting charter schools ensure that the schools they fund are closely connected with their goals by working through the charter school boards, which are not elected by the communities they serve. In many instances, someone from their funding group is on the local charter school board. In some cases, the board includes investors who stand to profit from the success of the charter schools. This involvement on local charter boards creates a conflict of interest for the families and students in the charter schools. Many of the charter chains do not have adequate parent representation on their boards.

As examples, Marlon Marshall, the CEO of City Fund, is on the board of the Rocky Mountain Prep charter chain in Denver, and he is also a board member of Education Reform Advocacy Now, an organization affiliated with Democrats for Education Reform. Education Reform Advocacy Now has given millions to Colorado organizations to support local school board candidates who agree with their philosophy of privatization in the public schools. Pat Donovan is on the board of two charter chains, Rocky Mountain Prep, and Kipp Colorado, and he is the Chair of RootEd, which City Fund, Walton, and Gates helped fund. Ethan Gray was a former board member of the Denver Strive Prep charter school chain, the treasurer of the board with RootEd, and a partner with City Fund. 

The following charter school chains and single site charter schools are examples of schools that received additional resources at some time during their existence from billionaire-funded organizations:

  • 1. KIPP Colorado- $8 million, which includes a $6 million gift from MacKenzie Scott, ex-wife of billionaire Jeff Bezos.
  • 2. DSST- Denver/Aurora-$27 million
  • 3. Rocky Mountain Prep (formerly also Strive Prep)-$8.5 million, which includes a $4.5 million gift from MacKenzie Scott
  • 4.  Third Future Schools -$4 million
  • 5.  Colorado Early Colleges, $500K
  • 6.  Ascent Classical Academy, $290K, Empower Community High School, $960K, University Prep, $357K, Prospect Academy, $150K, Roots Elementary, $125K (now closed), Compass Academy, $55K, 5280 Freedom Schol, $29K, American Indian Academy, $565K, (now closed), Academy 360, $165K, New Legacy Charter, $266K, Liberty Common School, $15K, 5280 High School, $150K, Atlas Prep, $110K, Axl Academy Charters, $7500, University Prep, $15K, Aurora Community School, $25K. 

(Sources for this funding include but are not limited to ProPublica 990’s for the identified foundations, organizations, and hedge fund groups.)

There is scant data on how the charter schools use these additional resources in terms of their programming, salaries, or facilities. However, financial data from the Denver public school’s website indicates that per pupil funding for the seven DSST high schools was on average 50% higher than the ten traditional neighborhood public high schools in the city. While budgetary information is available on some charter school websites, sources of grant revenue are not always explicitly identified. Transparency for resources that charters receive is critical to helping citizens know how their taxpayer dollars are being used in charter schools. 

Not all Colorado charter schools receive extra funding for their operations, since the billionaire-backed foundations seem to prioritize “high quality charters” to promote their replication. The spread of “chains of charter schools” has been significant, as over 35% of the state’s charter school student population are in charter chains which often have connections to national organizations. While all charters compete for students with traditional schools, the well-funded charter schools have more resources to market their schools.  

Billionaires and their investor allies are using the Colorado public education system to promote their own ideological and financial goals, under the guise of helping students “achieve more” than they might in the traditional public schools. The impact on communities and traditional schools has been devastating. Taxpayers are no longer in full control over the public schools they are funding. Many charter schools are managed by outside companies with board members that do not have the same commitments to the local community. Public dollars are not being used for the “public good” of all students who reside in the local school district. Local school boards do not always ensure there is fiscal transparency and oversight of all the charter schools operations. There are major inequities in resources for comprehensive programs and services which creates an unfair playing field for traditional public schools.

How will this situation unfold in the next few years? Will the billionaires continue their funding to charters as the Daniels Fund and others have promised, even while overall student enrollment declines? Will the groups behind the money help Amazon’s Jeff Bezos’ fulfill his long term goal of privatizing education, by creating alternative schooling options for parents to choose from through charters, micro schools, hybrid school models, pods, on-line learning, and/or buying educational tech products in lieu of supporting public education?

Or will citizens realize this privatizing scheme is both inequitable and contrary to the primary goal of public education as a “public good”? Will they urge their legislators to support new regulations that will curtail this corporate intrusion and conflicts of interest in Colorado charter schools?