Charters must now recognize disparity exists

Recently I penned an opinion piece regarding the chronic underenrollment of minority student populations in Idaho’s charter schools. That piece caused quite a stir, resulting in Amy Russell, communications coordinator for the Idaho Charter School Network (ICSN), to write a competing essay with a not so subtle suggestion that I cherry-picked the data I chose to include in my analysis (the president of ICSN, Terry Ryan, went a step further by making that explicit accusation in the comment thread).

Ms. Russell suggested that my analysis did not “fully represent the variability that takes place from one Idaho school to the next” and downplayed the extent of the acute problem in the charter system. Except, here’s the problem: While the Idaho Charter School Network appears eager to put its head in the sand and ignore such a fundamental problem impacting Idaho’s most vulnerable children, a newly released report from the Idaho Charter Commission paints a picture of minority student enrollment even more grim than portrayed my own column.

See, that report provided a definitive analysis of Idaho’s charter schools that dispels any doubt regarding the outrageous imbalance of charter school student demographics in comparison to their surrounding communities. The conclusion from the report (which had access to unredacted data) bluntly concedes that, “Minority Ethnicity, Limited English Proficiency, Special Needs and Free and Reduced Lunch [students in Idaho Charter schools] are underrepresented.”

Lest one be accused of cherry-picking data from the report, here is a broad sampling of the report’s conclusions (note: the data below indicates that there is a disparity of two percent or more between a charter school and its surrounding school district):

  • 55 percent of Idaho’s charters underenroll special education students.
  • 77 percent of Idaho’s charters underenroll Free and Reduced Lunch students.
  • 87 percent underenroll Limited English Proficiency students.
  • 90 percent underenroll minority ethnicity students.

That’s right, only a shockingly small 1 in 10 of Idaho’s charters are reflective of their surrounding district’s ethnic demographic makeup. Take a look for yourself at the findings of charter school demographics below.

Charter demograpics

Russell wrote that “Charters have the freedom to choose unique educational methods and approaches that are not found in a traditional district school. This means that charters, inherently, would not attract the same student population as a local neighborhood school.” However, she fails to mention that charter schools, as public schools, have a legal and moral obligation to provide educational methods and approaches that work for all of Idaho’s students, including minority populations. That means they should be recruiting and serving a student population demographically reflective of their surrounding districts.

This foregone conclusion requires that charters, like all public schools, provide unique educational methods and approaches appropriate for minority students (such as the categories listed above that are grossly underrepresented in Idaho’s charters) when their primary curriculum doesn’t work for these students.

Public schools often provide these special services in Response to Intervention (RTI) classrooms, special education resource rooms, extended resource rooms for more severe disabilities, and English Language Learner programs that meet the ability level of the student to the instruction, not the instructional level to the student; the very programs that this data suggests are either missing entirely or need an extremely urgent program improvement plan in Idaho’s charters to allow these kiddos the same success found by their peers.

Keep in mind that these special services can be extremely expensive; when a charter school fails to share an equitable burden in providing these services the community’s property owners pay the price in form of school levies which (in whole or part) are used to pay for these programs due to shouldering the bulk of students needing these services.

And it’s sad that ICSN, an organization that claims to provide professional representation of Idaho’s charters by advancing the achievement of Idaho’s students, digs its heels into the ground with their fingers in their ears instead of embracing the required changes to allow all of Idaho’s students to succeed, minority students included.

As I said in my previous column, fixing this imbalance first requires a general recognition that this disparity exists. Perhaps Idaho’s charters are now ready to have that conversation, even if ICSN is not.

Levi B Cavener is a special education teacher in Caldwell. He also manages the blog IdahosPromise.Org