Idaho charter leaders and parents blast federal proposal

Parents and key leaders of Idaho’s growing charter school sector are pushing back on federally proposed rule changes they say would hinder startup grants for charter schools.

Terry Ryan, CEO of charter support group Bluum, and Idaho Charter School Network Executive Director Blake Youde each recently sent letters to U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona railing on the proposed changes, and calling for their demise. Last month, Idaho parents clad in blue shirts emblazoned with “#BACK OFF our charter schools” joined a nationwide gathering in Washington, D.C., to decry the proposed changes.

“Mother knows best. Let us choose,” one Idaho parent’s sign read.

The Idaho criticism mingles with pushback from charter advocates across the country who say the proposed changes would make it harder for would-be charters to tap into millions of dollars from the U.S. Department of Education’s Charter School Program (CSP) grants — money that has bolstered charter expansion efforts in Idaho for years.

The money — just over $17.5 million dispersed in the Gem State since Bluum started administering the grants in 2019 — has helped launch or expand 22 Idaho charters statewide, by Bluum’s tally. The program has shelled out billions nationally since its inception nearly 30 years ago.

Advocates say the proposed changes would improve accountability for charters, but critics call them restrictive, especially for a growing state like Idaho.

The state “NEEDS” the money to absorb students, Ryan told Cardona, adding: “The proposed regulations disregard the needs of Idaho students and families and should be discarded.”

The proposed changes

The changes would add a slate of new requirements for CSP grant applicants across the country — and impose a range of hoops aimed at mitigating issues from de-facto segregation to impacts new charters have on traditional schools.

The proposed changes include:

  • Proving community demand and support for a new charter.
  • Examining how a charter would impact nearby district-run schools.
  • Demonstrating that a charter won’t fuel segregation.
  • Demonstrating collaboration with the school district in which a charter is set to operate.
  • Adhering to tighter restrictions on relationships between charters and for-profit companies that help with operations.

Go here for a full look at the proposed changes.

The debate and blowback

Supporters see the proposals as safeguards for traditional schools and students, but bipartisan backlash erupted after their release in March, the New York Times reported earlier this month.

The would-be requirements touch on several issues pertinent in Idaho, where attendance-based funding has long fueled debates about charters’ impacts on traditional schools.

When an Idaho student chooses a charter, they take a share of state funding with them. But impacts vary from district to district in Idaho. As of last year, around 10% of the state’s 312,000-plus public school students attended a charter. At least one school district had over 21% percent of students in its boundaries opting for area charters, while others had none.

On average, the state’s charters also have a track record of underserving minority and poor students. And the ties some have to for-profit companies that provide coursework and back-office services have been a hot point in Idaho for years. This Boise charter’s arrangement with a for-profit vendor found it on the brink of closure in 2019. Various online charters in Idaho partner with out-of-state vendors for curriculum services that amount to millions of dollars worth of payouts annually.

But not all charters partner with for-profit companies for large-scale services. And more recently, others have taken proactive steps to diversify their student populations. These two Idaho charter schools are capitalizing on a state law passed in 2020 — and backed by Bluum — to use weighted student lotteries to infuse more student diversity into their classrooms.

Local control to meet challenges tied to charters, not oversight from Uncle Sam, is the better course, Ryan and Youde stressed in their letters to Cardona.

“Instead of respecting voices and policies at the state and local level, these requirements focus on maintaining district enrollment and funding,” both letters, which offer the same point-by-point criticisms of the proposed rules, state.

Another sticking point for Youde and Ryan: Idaho’s dependence on charters to absorb influx of families and students coming to Idaho. Ryan pointed to a recent report projecting the need for 100 new schools statewide by 2030. Currently, school districts must pass local bond issues to fund large-scale projects to build and expand infrastructure. But that process often falls flat, as local voters routinely reject such measures. Three out of three measures failed in last month’s primary election.

Funds obtained for charter facilities, on the other hand, come largely through private donations and federal grants, not costly bond issues that can drive up local property taxes. Idaho charters have also received millions in private financing for facilities.

“The proposed CSP regulations would make our future CSP-related expansion work much more difficult, denying thousands of Idaho students access to an excellent education experience,” Ryan’s letter reads.

Other critiques from Youde and Ryan include:

  • A federal standard for gauging local support for a charter: A “community impact analysis” included the proposed changes would “give anonymous grant reviewers in Washington the power to veto parent, community, and state efforts to open a new school with an approved charter,” the men write.
  • A requirement for states to give priority to charters that partner with school districts: This proposed rule could “unfairly preference district-authorized charters schools and empower districts to block the opening of charter schools.”
  • Community impact rules: This portion of the rules could backfire to “make it difficult for schools that serve a high concentration of students of color to receive support.” The rules’ “strident commitment to opening diverse schools would also jeopardize schools that exist to “protect indigenous cultures and native languages.”

Click here for Ryan’s letter, and here for Youde’s.

The comment period for the proposed rules ended last month. EdNews will continue to track their progress.

Disclosure: Bluum and Idaho Education News are both funded by grants from the J.A. and Kathryn Albertson Family Foundation. Ryan also sits on the Idaho Charter School Network’s board. 

Devin Bodkin

Devin Bodkin

EdNews assistant editor and reporter Devin Bodkin is a former high school English teacher who specializes in stories about charter schools and educating students who live in poverty. He lives and works in East Idaho. Follow Devin on Twitter @dsbodkin. He can be reached by email at [email protected].

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