Not all charter schools bus kids or provide free and reduced-price meals

At least 11 of Idaho’s brick-and-mortar public charter schools don’t bus their students to school, an EdNews analysis found, and at least 22 don’t participate in the federal free and reduced-price meals program for their most impoverished students.

The lack of services impacts the schools’ ability to diversify their student populations.

Idaho’s 77 charter schools make up just over 9% of the state’s 312,000 public-school students. EdNews reviewed federal and state data on busing and free and reduced-price meals at 56 brick-and-mortar charters that operate under the state’s charter school commission. The rest of the state’s charters operate under school districts or are virtual and don’t need busing or meals. EdNews could not find a district-run charter or school that does not provide the services.

Local charter leaders gave several reasons for the lack of services at their schools, from difficulty securing vendor contracts during the pandemic to limited facilities, staff and money.

“(Busing) is just not feasible for us,” said Connor Academy principal Jamie Aubrey, whose 540-student Pocatello-based charter serves students from Blackfoot to Marsh Valley.

Aubrey and several other leaders said a lack of kitchen space at their schools hinders their ability to give their students free and reduced-price meals, a federally funded perk for families who meet income requirements.

Idaho charters aren’t required to provide busing or free and reduced-price meals, and several schools that don’t participate in the federal meals program say they keep food on hand for kids who need it.

Still, the lack of services plays into the broader debate surrounding Idaho’s charters — namely, how willing and capable they are to serve students equitably. Idaho’s charters already have a track record of underserving minority students and those in poverty.

It’s hard to say how many students would qualify for free and reduced-price meals at charters that don’t provide the service, since these schools don’t show up in state and federal tallies reviewed by EdNews.

Yet state data show that schools that don’t provide at least one of the services have less student diversity than schools that do.

Who lacks services?

At least these 11 brick-and-mortar charter schools lack busing:

  • Anser Charter School (Garden City)
  • Coeur d’Alene Charter Academy
  • Connor Academy (Pocatello)
  • Fernwaters Public Charter (Salmon)
  • Gem Prep Meridian North
  • Gem Prep Pocatello
  • Island Park Charter
  • Pathways in Education (Nampa)
  • Pocatello Community Charter
  • The Village (Boise)

Nine of these charters and at least 13 others lack a free and reduced-price meals program. Schools that lack both services are in red:

  • Alturas International Academy (Idaho Falls)
  • Alturas Preparatory Academy (Idaho Falls)
  • Bingham Academy (Blackfoot)
  • Cardinal Academy (Boise)
  • Coeur d’Alene Charter Academy
  • Connor Academy (Pocatello)
  • Fernwaters Public Charter (Salmon)
  • Forrest M. Bird Charter (Sandpoint)
  • Gem Prep Pocatello
  • Hayden Canyon Charter (Hayden)
  • Idaho Science and Technology Charter School
  • Island Park Charter
  • Monticello Montessori (Ammon)
  • North Star Charter (Eagle)
  • Pathways in Education (Nampa)
  • Peace Valley Charter (Boise)
  • Pinecrest Academy (Twin Falls)
  • Pocatello Community Charter
  • Project Impact STEM Academy (Kuna)
  • Sage International (Boise)
  • The Village (Boise)
  • Upper Carmen Public Charter (Carmen)

Local leaders gave several reasons for a lack of services.

Busing constraints boil down to money, several administrators told EdNews.

An arcane matrix determines how much of a district’s or charter’s transportation costs the feds will reimburse. Amounts range from zero to 85% on things like driver salaries and insurance.

Yet even with reimbursements, said Pocatello Community Charter School Principal Michael Mendive, funding busing at his school is “impossible,” at least under the state’s current model.

It’s an economy of scale problem, he said. “For us, (reimbursements) would be significantly less because we would need to cover the same area as the local district with our comparatively tiny population.”

Idaho schools receive state funding based largely on their students’ average daily attendance. Smaller districts and charters with fewer students get fewer dollars.

Still, most of Idaho’s brick-and-mortar charters are able to provide busing, and others have found a middle ground. Both Idaho Falls-based American Heritage Academy and Caldwell-based Mosaics Public Charter School bus students within their defined geographic areas. Students outside of that area have to make their own arrangements, or get their kids to a bus stop.

Other charters say they’ve tried to secure services, but point to pandemic-related problems.

Doral Academy, which opened in August of 2020, has sought busing from “all of the local bus companies in the Treasure Valley,” said executive director Dave Litster, but no companies would submit a bid due to the lack of drivers.

The school will try again next school year, Litster added, but he’s worried limited drivers will continue to hamper efforts.

Leaders from Garden City-based Anser Public Charter, Gem Prep Pocatello and Gem Prep Meridian North also pointed to driver shortages as impacting their abilities to secure contracts to transport children.

Free and reduced-price meal constraints boil down to a lack of facilities, and a lack of local tax dollars, school leaders said.

Schools need kitchens to provide hot meals. They need hot meals to participate in the federal lunch program. Yet several schools lack space to prepare food.

Connor Academy’s has a new facility West of Pocatello, but it has no kitchen. Pinecrest operates out of an old church, also without a kitchen.

Mendive said it would also be “impossible” for his Pocatello charter to build a kitchen that meets federal lunch requirements for the service.

Both Mendive and Aubrey pointed to costs of building and maintaining a lunch program.

“You’re talking about two of the largest budget items schools have,” Aubrey said of food and busing.

For Mendive, the issue lies with local funding — or the lack thereof for charters. Idaho’s school district can ask local taxpayers to fund levies aimed at padding local budgets to support things like food programs and bond issues aimed at bankrolling construction projects.

Charters can’t. And while they do receive some state funding for facilities that districts don’t get, they rely heavily on grants and donations for new facilities.

Why it all matters

For critics, a lack of busing and free and reduced-price meals fuel existing diversity issues at charters because disadvantaged kids need the services most.

And if they need them and can’t get them, they’ll remain in their neighborhood school.

This gets to the heart of the broader debate surrounding charters in Idaho: are they accessible for all kids?

Data suggests the lack of services are driving existing accessibility issues. Numbers available for 17 of the charters lacking at least one of the services show they serve much larger percentages of white students and fewer students from the state’s prominent minority group, Hispanics.

Here’s how these 17 schools stack up against the state in terms of diversity, on average:

School type White students Hispanic students
All Idaho Schools: 74.5% 18.9%
Charters lacking at least one of the services:  84.4%  9.2%

Gaps like these drive the effort of charter support group Bluum, the nonprofit’s CEO Terry Ryan told EdNews.

Since 2015, Bluum has facilitated funding efforts to boost facilities, technology and busing services at over 30 public charter schools across the state.

Federal and private dollars support the push. The J.A. and Kathryn Albertson Family Foundation has invested almost $31 million in direct grants to schools through Bluum since 2015. The nonprofit has allocated over $17.5 million in federal Charter School Program grants during that time, along with another $6 million in other philanthropic efforts.

“It comes down to money,” Ryan said.

Yet charters that don’t win grants and can’t bankroll construction projects through local taxes face an uphill battle when it comes to getting the services off the ground.

Leaders at several of these charters say other efforts have helped. Connor Academy parents donate bread, peanut butter and jelly for kids who have no lunch, Aubrey said. The school also sells milk cards “at cost” to students, and is ready to provide free food if a kid needs it.

“No one goes hungry here,” said Aubrey.

Cardinal Academy, which targets pregnant teens or those with children (including male students), partners with The Salvation Army to provide free breakfast, lunch and two snacks each day for its student, regardless of their financial situation.

Schools have also tried to compensate for no busing. Coeur d’Alene Charter Academy’s parent-teacher group helps organize carpools every summer. Aubrey pointed to her school’s partnership with Pocatello Regional Transit, which has built in stops for students.

Despite the efforts, however, the price for a ride still falls to the kids and their families.

“I think they pay 50 cents a day or $50 a semester,” Aubrey said.

Disclosure: Idaho Education News and Bluum are supported by grants from the J.A. and Kathryn Albertson Family Foundation. 


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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