For some charters, enrollment decreases pose an immediate budget challenge

Idaho charter school enrollment increased this year, but not across the board.

A number of charter schools are struggling with enrollment decreases that will immediately affect their share of state funding.

Jenn Thompson

“Enrollment has definitely been a challenge,” Idaho Public Charter School Commission Executive Director Jenn Thompson said Wednesday.

For traditional and charter schools alike, student attendance numbers serve as a linchpin for state funding. But while Idaho code protects traditional schools from a big drop in funding — limiting the annual decrease to 3 percent, regardless of what happens to student numbers — state law provides no such buffer for charter schools. In other words, a sharp decrease in charter school student attendance can cause an immediate, and sharp, decrease in funding.

For the most part, charter schools at least came close to their enrollment projections during the pandemic, Thompson told the State Board of Education Wednesday. In some  cases, she said, these schools picked up the slack by working their way through student waiting lists.

But for a quarter of the charter schools under the commission’s jurisdiction, the 2020-21 enrollment numbers brought an unpleasant surprise. For these schools, enrollment came up at least 10 percent short of projections.

“(These schools) have struggled with significantly decreased revenue streams,” the commission said in its annual report, presented to the State Board for its meeting this week. “These schools have implemented creative solutions to compensate for the shortfall.”

Idaho Education News reported in January on the charter school enrollment numbers — and their wide fluctuations:

  • Overall, charter school enrollment increased by 5,118 students. This increase comes as enrollment in traditional public schools decreased by more than 8,300 students.
  • Virtual charter schools accounted for much of the increase in the charter sector. Virtual charter enrollment increased by 4,644 students, leaving legislators struggling to figure out how to pay the Idaho Virtual Academy and Inspire Connections charters for absorbing a rapid enrollment spike.
  • At least 21 charter schools logged an enrollment decrease.

While the virtual charter schools have seen a surge in enrollment during the pandemic — as parents have looked for alternatives to traditional public schools — the virtual schools’ academic record has been mixed.

And based on limited data during the pandemic, that trend has continued.

The 13 brick-and-mortar schools authorized by the commission reported a 92 percent graduation rate in 2020. The commission’s six virtual charters, including Idaho Virtual Academy and Inspire Connections, reported a 50 percent graduation rate.

Idaho’s overall 2020 graduation rate came in at 82 percent.

The commission, a division under the State Board, authorizes 56 charter schools across the state, accounting for 20,500 students. Local school districts authorize the state’s other 15 charter schools.

The State Board is meeting virtually this week. Wednesday’s 4 ½-hour session included presentations from Boise State University President Marlene Tromp; Brian Darcy, the head of the Idaho School for the Deaf and the Blind in Gooding; and a lengthy work session on the state’s student assessments.

The meeting will conclude Thursday.

Check back at Idaho Education News Thursday for continued State Board coverage.



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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