Report touts charters’ academic scores, acknowledges demographic gaps

A new state report praises charter schools for their academic performance — but acknowledges that fewer minority and low-income students attend charters.

On Wednesday, Idaho’s Public Charter School Commission released its first-ever annual report on charter schools. The State Board of Education panel is the authorizing body for the vast majority of Idaho’s charter schools; the rest answer to local school boards.

The annual report focuses only on the 35 charter schools under the commission’s purview.

Perhaps most telling are the report’s findings on student demographics.

Minority students, limited English proficiency, special education and low-income students all “tend to be underrepresented” at the 35 charter schools, according to the report.

The commission compared charter schools with their adjacent school districts. Ninety percent of the charters served a lower percentage of non-white students. The results weren’t much different for limited English proficiency students (underserved at 87 percent of charters), students eligible for free or reduced-price lunch (underserved at 77 percent of charters) and special education students (underserved at 55 percent of charters).

These demographic gaps were common, in brick-and-mortar charters and Idaho’s seven virtual charter schools.

The report takes a closer look at demographics of individual charters — including, for example, one of Idaho’s most highly touted charters.

At the Coeur d’Alene Charter Academy — named once again Idaho’s most challenging high school, in a Washington Post study released this month — fewer than 2 percent of students qualify for free-or-reduced priced lunch. More than 40 percent of Coeur d’Alene district students qualify for subsidized school lunch. The academy has no LEP or special education students.

There are a few exceptions. For example, Meridian’s Rolling Hills Public Charter School surpasses the West Ada School District’s averages for LEP and special education students and students eligible for free and reduced-price lunch.

Bridging the demographic gap is a priority for the commission, said chairman Alan Reed. “Before approving new charters, we ask petitioners, ‘What are your strategies for reaching special and underserved populations?’” Reed said in a news release Wednesday.

The report gives charters better marks on academics.

Charter high schools’ median SAT scores exceed the state median. Using the state’s five-star school ratings — last updated in 2013 — more than half of the charter schools studied were among the top-performing schools in their communities.

More established charter schools — schools that have been in operation for several years or more — tend to perform better academically.

“Individual schools hone their educational programs over time,” the report said. “Also, schools with poor academic outcomes are more likely to close.”

More reading: From our Voices section, two competing views on charter school demographics, from Caldwell special education teacher Levi Cavener and Amy Russell of the Idaho Charter School Network.

Kevin Richert

Kevin Richert

Senior reporter and blogger Kevin Richert specializes in education politics and education policy. He has more than 30 years of experience in Idaho journalism. He is a frequent guest on "Idaho Reports" on Idaho Public Television and "Idaho Matters" on Boise State Public Radio. Follow Kevin on Twitter: @KevinRichert. He can be reached at [email protected]

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