Conservative watchdog, charter advocates spar over enrollment-lottery bill

A bill aimed at infusing equity into the way Idaho charter schools enroll students has sparked debate between a conservative watchdog and prominent charter advocacy groups.

House Bill 512 is “social justice nonsense,” the Idaho Freedom Foundation recently tweeted amid a string of attacks on the measure.

The bill would give public charter schools, which largely underserve Idaho’s minority and poor populations, the option to weight their lotteries to establish more diverse student bodies.

A divided House last week passed the bill, which now awaits a Senate vote.

If approved, participating charters could add additional enrollment weights for:

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

Charter advocates backing the measure said it goes beyond helping needier students gain a better shot at school choice.

“Idaho has a serious achievement gap, and we think charters have a role in addressing it,” said Bluum CEO Terry Ryan, referring to the long-running correlation between high poverty rates and low student performance.

Idaho’s charters are among the state’s highest — and lowest — performing schools. Yet while charters serve a smaller proportion of students in poverty than the state’s traditional schools, Ryan pointed to data showing that underprivileged kids who have been able to enroll in a charter outperform their underprivileged peers in both math and reading.

Freedom Foundation spokesman Dustin Hurst focused his criticism on the bill’s social aspects, arguing it would “rig student lotteries” and rob school choice from middle-class families — like his.

Hurst recounted how a priority-seating arrangement helped his daughter secure a seat at Future Public School, a Garden City charter. “I’m less thankful for an idea being pushed that would work against children like mine, and would stop middle-class students from enjoying a fair shot at school choice.”

Hurst also questioned the intent of those backing the bill, arguing that an influx of kids in need of specialized services would funnel more state and federal dollars to charters.

Idaho’s public schools receive some federal subsidies for certain student subgroups, including those who qualify for free and reduced-price meals and require special education services.

The state carves up funds for K-12 through a model based on average student attendance. During the 2019 session, lawmakers produced a draft bill to funnel extra funds to high-poverty schools. The bill included “weights” for allocating more dollars to certain student subgroups but died last session. The push has yet to regain steam in 2020.

Ryan noted perceived ironies in Hurst’s stance: “(He) has a child in a charter school that (Bluum) helped to open and fund, and that intentionally partners with the Boys and Girls Club to actually serve kids who need a place to stay after school.”

Another irony for Ryan: Idaho charter schools have long been criticized for “skimming” students who are “easier to educate.”

“Now we are being attacked for trying to serve needier students,” he added. “Crazy stuff, man.”

Both Bluum and the Idaho Charter School Network support the bill. Ryan chairs the network’s board.

Disclosure: Idaho Education News and Bluum are both funded by the J.A. and Kathryn Albertson Family Foundation. 

Devin Bodkin

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. Devin co-hosts "Beyond the Books" online news segments in conjunction with EastIdahoNews.com. He is a 2019 Solutions Journalism Network fellow. Follow Devin on Twitter @dsbodkin. He can be reached by email at [email protected].

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