Charter commission sets precedent with tenuous performance measures

The Idaho Public Charter Commission was unable to reach consensus about which schools performed well enough to earn the highly coveted, 12-year renewal certificate but they settled on Liberty, Victory and Vision charters.

Thursday’s split 3-2 decision set precedent for 63 charter schools across the state using a rating system likely to change.

Compass Public Charter School and Alturas International Academy Charter School have nearly unblemished records but were left off the list. In all, there are 16 charters up for renewal this year.  They each gained approval in February but the length of their charter contract sat in limbo because of recent legislation revamping Idaho code.

“It was meant to simplify but right now it’s causing some difficult discussions,” said Sherrilynn Bair, the commission’s vice chairman.

Signed into law by Gov. Brad Little in February, the Accelerating Public Charter Schools Act carries a provision rewarding high-performing schools with a 12-year charter, rather than six. The old law required them to be renewed every five years.

“The gold star is the 12-year renewal,” said commissioner Pete Koehler.

The IPCSC is the state’s largest authorizer. It has authority to approve new charters and either renew the contract for successful schools or close failing schools. It is made up of seven commissioners appointed by the governor. They serve four-year terms.

Performance is measured in three areas: academics, finances and governance.

“It’s a disservice if charters don’t know exactly what parameters they should meet,” said commissioner Wally Hedrick.

The new legislation states that “an authorizer shall renew any charter in which the public charter school met all of the terms of its performance certificate … for a term of twelve years.”

The terms “met” and “shall” in the legislation sparked spirited debate.

“I believe the 12-year approval needs to be very rarely used. ‘Met’ is not commendable. But ‘exceed’ is going above and beyond. I read the legislation as not every school that meets standard gets a 12-year renewal,” Koehler said.

Commissioner Wanda Quinn disagreed.

“Let’s try not to make this exceptional and out of reach. You’re there because you’ve done what we asked — exceeded or met the standards,” Quinn said.

The language of the code says “met” someone reminded the group. 

Koehler made a passionate appeal for consistency. “If you make little exceptions, then you run into a buzzsaw.”

Commission chairman Alan Reed suggested that schools below the “meet” or “exceed” standard won’t be eligible for this round of approvals.

But attorney Chris Jorgensen, a charter law expert who serves as counsel for several schools, reminded them that Compass carried two lower ratings that occurred in 2020 during a facility refinance. That year the school was issued below standard ratings for its debt-to-asset ratio and enrollment variances. Otherwise, it’s considered high-performing.

“Schools that refinance facilities and have a yellow box, are they penalized for that?” Jorgensen asked.

Hedrick made a motion to offer a 12-year renewal to Liberty, Victory and Vision but it failed.

Discussion turned to equability. Is the ratings process taking into consideration at-risk populations? Alternative school charters like Elevate Academy — one of the 16 schools applying for renewal — seek out at-risk and economically disadvantaged students.

It was explained that Elevate’s performance is measured against schools with similar populations. The commission developed equivalent comparison groups to derive its performance ratings.

“It may not be perfect, but we’ve worked hard to make it equitable,” Quinn.

Jacob Smith, commission director, discussed an additional complication. In the next two months, his office is reevaluating the performance framework criteria used to rate schools.

“I don’t see the framework having the 30 rows of finances and governance. Those will change in the new framework,” he said.

Therefore, the performance framework used to set precedent Thursday could change when Smith completes his work. 

Bair offered a motion identical to Hedrick’s — to offer a 12-year renewal to three schools — which she quickly amended. 

The commission voted 3-2 to grant a 12-year renewal to any school that meets or exceeds in all categories of their performance certificate. Bair, Koehler and Hedrick voted in favor, while Quinn and Paul Amador voted against it.

Liberty, Victory and Vision charters were the only three schools that met or exceeded all the terms of their performance framework.

Darren Svan

Darren Svan

Reporter Darren Svan has a background in both journalism and education. Prior to working for military schools at overseas installations, he was news editor at several publications in Wyoming and Colorado. You can send news tips to [email protected].

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