Advocates’ group wants the state to disband its charter commission

A charter school advocacy group wants the state to disband the commission that oversees most of Idaho’s charter schools.

Accusing the Idaho Public Charter School Commission of “outright lies and blatant hypocrisy,” the Coalition of Idaho Charter School Families is calling for the commission’s seven appointed members and commission staff to resign immediately.

The coalition wants state leaders to set up a new third-party group to oversee charter schools.

The push for a shakeup is the latest development in a public battle between the commission and several schools under its purview. Appointed by the governor and legislative leaders, the commission members authorize nearly three-fourths of Idaho’s 56 charter schools. That gives the commission the authority to review charter school applications, approve or reject new schools and decide whether to renew an existing school’s charter.

But on Wednesday, the charter families’ coalition said the state commission cannot be trusted.

In a statement, coalition President Tom LeClaire cited audio from a June meeting, when commissioners said they cannot simply close charter schools, and dismissed the specter of closure as an “unsubstantiated fear.” LeClaire contrasted this comment with audio from an April 11 closed-door meeting, when commissioners decried student performance at several charters, and commission Chairman Alan Reed expressed regret that the Jerome-based Heritage Academy charter school remains open.

“The real issue here is the commission’s closed-door manipulation and explicit plans to skirt the law to close schools, all while maintaining a completely different message publicly,” the coalition said in its statement.

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Commission Director Tamara Baysinger did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

But during that June meeting, the commission “clarified” its position on two troubled charter schools, saying it had no plans to close them, State Board of Education spokesman Mike Keckler said. Bingham Academy and Blackfoot Charter Community Learning Center had met all or most conditions for charter renewal, Keckler said, and as a result, the commission has no authority to revoke the schools’ charters.

“The commission and its staff remain committed to evaluation of school outcomes through a process that includes opportunities for schools and families to weigh in,” Keckler said.

The State Board oversees the charter commission.

In a related development, Heritage Academy has asked the Jerome School District to take over the school’s operating charter. The Twin Falls Times-News reported on the request Tuesday.

The state commission oversees most of Idaho’s charter schools, including Heritage Academy. However, charters can operate under the purview of their local school district, if the district agrees to take on this oversight role.

The push for a housecleaning comes in the wake of an ongoing backlash from the commission’s closed meeting in April. Details from the meeting emerged in June, when the commission inadvertently released audio from the two-hour executive session.

Several charter school advocates have said the commission violated the state’s open meetings law by discussing the possible closure of schools in a closed meeting.

Gov. Brad Little has told Idaho Education News that the meeting was probably illegal.

The tenor of the meeting was “demeaning,” State Board President Debbie Critchfield said last week. “Moving forward, the commission members and staff will receive training about Idaho’s open meeting law and how to have appropriate discussions about school performance, student data and education quality.”

Attorney General Lawrence Wasden has received four complaints questioning the meeting’s legality, but he has not yet issued an opinion.

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