House Ed OKs charter school bills

The House Education Committee on Tuesday advanced a pair of charter school bills: one rewriting governing rules, a second providing $1.4 million for charter facilities.

Committee members voted along party lines to send House Bill 206 to the floor with a recommendation for approval. That bill would provide money for charter facilities, based on the amount of property taxes spent on traditional school facilities.

School districts typically go to voters with levy or bond requests for facilities, while charter schools cannot.

The $1.4 million reflects 20 percent of the per-pupil facilities spending for traditional schools. This percentage could eventually increase to 50 percent, over a period of at least three years.

Jason Hancock, deputy chief of staff for the Idaho State Department of Education, said the bill aims to provide some funding equity, since charter schools must dip into discretionary funds or other money for facilities.

“They are in a position to have to carve out money (from other sources),” Hancock said.

Don Keller, executive director of Sage International Charter School in Boise, said facilities funding is a huge concern. Sage officials are looking to build a 70,000-square-foot school, and Keller said facilities funding could help the school save money by obtaining a lower interest rate.

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Keller estimated Sage International would receive about $39,000 next year through the bill, but that could save the school millions of dollars in interest payments.

Democratic committee Reps. Hy Kloc and Janie Ward-Engelking of Boise and Donna Pence of Gooding voted against the bill.

They said they were concerned because school districts go to voters with levies or bonds to secure facilities funding. If House Bill 206 is signed into law, money would come to charter schools automatically.

“I’m concerned by the fact that the facilities money does not go through the voting process with constituents, yet every public school must do that,” Ward-Engelking said.

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Rep. Janie Ward-Engelking, D-Boise

Idaho Education Association Executive Director Robin Nettinga and former legislative candidate Steve Berch opposed the bill. Nettinga said she is concerned that the bill would allow a charter school to automatically receive facilities funding — even if local voters reject a district bond or levy.

Neither Gov. Butch Otter nor Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Luna included the bill’s $1.4 million cost in their 2013-14 budget proposals.

Charter school advocates have been pushing lawmakers for changes and facilities funding this year – two themes that featured prominently in February’s listening sessions.

Also Tuesday, the committee voted unanimously to introduce a bill allowing Idaho colleges, universities and some nonprofits to authorize new charter schools. Currently, that task falls to  school districts and the Idaho Public Charter School Commission.

Jessica Harrison, director of policy and government affairs for the Idaho School Boards Association, said the bill could foster more charter schools.

The two bills were described as “companion” pieces that resulted from a series of meetings between representatives of the ISBA, Idaho Association of School Administrators, the charter school commission and the Coalition of Idaho Charter School Families.

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