DeVos deputy touts school choice on Idaho tour

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos’ top deputy toured Idaho Monday — and pushed the Trump administration’s position on school choice.

Mitchell Zais spent Monday morning visiting One Stone, an independent high school in Downtown Boise. On Monday afternoon, he toured Elevate Academy, a new charter school in Caldwell.

Deputy Education Secretary Mitchell Zais visits with Kylie Casper, a second-year student at One Stone, an independent high school in Boise. (Photos by Sami Edge, Idaho Education News.)

The itinerary was no accident. The department is on a national back-to-school tour this fall, focusing on options beyond conventional public schools. For Zais, that adds up to 16 stops in four states over five days.

“One of the things we want to highlight is the notion that one size does not fit all,” Zais said during a roundtable discussion at One Stone. “There’s lots of different kinds of schools, beyond the traditional one.”

Zais spent two hours at One Stone, which has grown rapidly since 2016, when it opened its doors to 30 students. Now the school draws 121 students. Teachers and students used Monday’s tour as a chance to show off the school’s nontraditional layout and tout its student-driven learning approach.

They toured Zais and Education Department staff past the open rooms where students work in small groups and larger discussion sessions.

Students pointed out the school’s music studio — the brainchild of classmates who wanted to turn a school quiet room into a place where students can record, for free.

Students talked about the school’s deep-dive learning model — an approach that allowed some students to spend last week in Yellow Pine, talking to residents, corporate officials and environmentalists about the effects of mining, and a proposal to resume operations.

And during a stop at the school’s workshop, Kylie Casper told Zais about building and sanding dressers for homeless children. She said she learned about woodworking, which was unfamiliar to her, but learned more about herself.

“It was life-changing for me,” Casper said. “I was able to step out of the little bubble that I was in.”

Casper is in her second year at One Stone, on pace to graduate this year. She sits on One Stone’s board — and by design, students make up at least two-thirds of the board. She decided to transfer from Boise High School because she felt that she was getting too caught up in grades and class rankings, and felt that she could no longer celebrate her classmates’ successes.

“The best fit was One Stone,” she said.

Fit was a recurring theme, Zais said after Monday morning’s tour. Over and over, he said students said they simply felt more comfortable at One Stone. And he said it was “inspirational” to see an environment where students can innovate and ignite their passions.

“This is a school that has amazing freedom to meet students where they are,” he said in an interview with Idaho Education News.

Zais spent close to an hour at One Stone meeting behind closed doors with students. Reporters were excluded, department spokeswoman Elaine Quesinberry said, so students would be able to talk freely.

But during the school tour — which was open to reporters — school choice was an open topic of conversation. At one point, students on the tour were asked about their decision to attend One Stone, and their feelings about leaving traditional schools.

“We never want to come across as we are against public schools, traditional schools, because we’re not,” Casper said.

After his tour, Zais told Idaho Education News that he believes traditional schools are a good fit for most students. Zais attended public schools, as did his children. But while some public schools have innovative leadership from administrators and trustees, he said, “others are just doing the same old, same old, but spending more money doing it.”

And that, he says, is where choice, and funding, has to enter the picture.

Zais supports enrollment-based funding, where tax dollars follow students. That’s a hot topic and an unresolved issue in Idaho — and Zais was scheduled to meet Monday with state Rep. Wendy Horman, R-Idaho Falls, who co-chaired a legislative committee that spent three years studying a shift to enrollment-based funding. But after that review, the 2019 Legislature balked at rewriting the funding formula.

Zais said an enrollment-based model isn’t that unusual. It happens now, both in early education and higher education.

“It’s only in K-12 where we have this tension in funding,” he said.

Elevate Academy

Zais met Monday with students and parents at one of the state’s newest charter schools.

Elevate Academy opened this fall to 315 sixth- through 10th-grade students. Eventually, organizers hope to house 500 students, expanding through 12th grade.

The school’s focus is career-technical education — such as building or culinary trades — and its target student population is at-risk students. Nearly 90 percent of Elevate’s students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, and nearly a fifth of the school’s students are on individualized education programs.

After touring some of the school’s workshops and classrooms, Zais said schools such as Elevate perform an important role — and challenge negative stereotypes about at-risk students.

“Low-income kids can learn,” he said. “Appropriately led, appropriately motivated, they can darn near learn anything you ask them to.”

Disclosure: One Stone, Elevate Academy and Idaho Education News are funded through grants from the J.A. and Kathryn Albertson Family Foundation.


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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