Can Idaho’s charter schools diversify?

Idaho’s charter schools have faced two colliding realities for years.

On average, their students outperform their traditional school peers on nearly every measurable academic indicator. Yet in general, they underserve the state’s minority and poor populations — something critics point to in response to the schools’ higher overall performance.

The reality has fueled a range of efforts to bring school choice to a wider array of Idaho students.

But challenges persist, from issues with data aimed at tracking students who enroll, to pushback over efforts to help the schools diversify.

Issues with diversity — and data

The overall lack of diversity in charters took center stage in 2016, when the Idaho Public Charter School Commission shared with the State Board of Education a clearcut finding: On average, charters underserve the state’s minority and poor students.

Data from an annual statewide report revealed lower average numbers of these and other student subgroups at the state’s then 36 commission-authorized charters compared to their surrounding school districts.

A lot has changed since 2016, including the addition of over a dozen new charters with thousands of additional students. Yet a lack of similarly accessible data makes it hard to say how much overall progress — if any — charters have made to diversify their student populations.

“Enrollment was difficult to pin down last year due to pandemic related student mobility,” charter commission director Jenn Thompson told EdNews last month, adding that the commission’s 2019 and 2020 annual reports don’t include the same student comparisons detailed in the 2016 report.

Still, EdNews found at least 27 of 55 annual reports for individual commission-authorized charters, as listed on the commission’s website, that do provide these 2020 comparisons. The data is limited, but what’s available illustrates across-the-board disparities:

  • On average, 19.75% of students at these 27 charters were classified as “non-white.” In surrounding districts, the number was 27.8%.
  • The comparison of students with limited English proficiency was much closer, at 6% for charters and 7% for their surrounding districts.
  • Just under 9% of students at the schools had special needs. The number in surrounding districts: 11%.
  • Just over 34% of  students at these charters qualified for free- and reduced-price meals, which is one measure of poverty in schools. Surrounding districts reported an average of 41%.

‘The data is a mess’

Terry Ryan, CEO of charter-support group Bluum, expressed frustration with Idaho’s charter data — and not just the commission’s numbers.

“The data is a mess,” Ryan said, speaking of the collective efforts of the State Department of Education and the State Board of Education, which the charter commission operates under.

The problem, as Ryan sees it, is getting numbers from the State Board and numbers from the SDE’s online school report card to jive. Case in point: State Board numbers list Sage International Charter School as having no students who meet requirements for federal Title 1 funding, which is determined by their designation as “low income.” Yet the SDE’s report card states that 30 percent of the school’s students come from “low income families.”

Ryan referenced similar issues with two other charters and a school district.

“It shouldn’t be this hard to get accurate, common and useful data on the basics of who schools are serving,” said Ryan, whose organization oversees distribution of millions of federal grant dollars aimed at expanding Idaho charters while increasing seats for educationally disadvantaged students.

Issues with data make accountability reporting tied to the federal grants a “pain point” — and make it difficult to understand where progress is and isn’t being made, said Ryan.

The pandemic could be one factor hampering some collection efforts, according to the SDE.

“Due to the disruptions caused by COVID-19, many metrics in the Idaho Report Card are missing for 2020,” a disclaimer on the department’s school report card website reads.

Other hurdles

Efforts to diversify Idaho’s charters have faced other hurdles over the years.

Last year, a bill giving charters the option to weight their lotteries to establish more diverse student bodies became law. Now, participating charters can add additional enrollment weights for:

  • Students living at or below 185% of the federal poverty level.
  • Students with limited English proficiency.
  • Students with disabilities.
  • Students who are homeless or in foster care.

But heated pushback illustrates the type of animosity that can ruminate around diversity and inclusion efforts in Idaho. The Idaho Freedom Foundation, a conservative watchdog, lambasted the measure as “social justice nonsense.” And despite support from some of the state’s top charter advocates, 27 of the 65 state House representatives opposed the measure, which ultimately gained unanimous support in the Senate.

Ryan lauded the change, but acknowledged that schools still have the option to participate.

And the option to participate doesn’t always fuel results.  At least 12 charters haven’t provided federal free- and reduced-price meals in recent years . Others have opted out of busing services, making it harder for kids who can’t get to school on their own to enroll.

Ryan pointed to other efforts that may take a while to help move the needle, including federal and private grants that have helped charters like Caldwell-based Elevate Academy target disadvantaged and at-risk youth. Two similarly focused schools are currently slated to open in the Idaho Falls and Post Falls areas.

Time — and the right data — will tell how much these and other efforts drive change.

Thompson expressed optimism when the numbers are made available later this year.

“One of the data points I am particularly interested in looking at is the percentage of students identified as at-risk,” she said. “I suspect that number is higher in quite a few charter schools than in their comparison groups.”

Disclosure: Bluum and Idaho Education News are both funded by the J.A. and Kathryn Albertson Family Foundation. The foundation does not influence Idaho EdNews editorial content. 

“More choices, more challenges” is an in-depth look at the robust effort to expand Idaho charter schools. The series considers what the well-funded push means for Idaho families and leaders and how the state is adapting to the growth. EdNews data analyst Randy Schrader provided data and information for this series. The series, at a glance:

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  • Can Idaho’s charters diversify?

About Devin Bodkin

Reporter Devin Bodkin covers education issues in East Idaho. He is a former high school English teacher who specializes in stories about charter schools and educating students who live in poverty. Follow Devin on Twitter @dsbodkin. He can be reached by email at [email protected].

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