State Board discusses vouchers and teacher retention

Vouchers and teacher retention — some of education’s most pressing issues — took center stage at the State Board of Education meeting on Thursday. 

Members of the State Board also discussed new data on charter school performance that identified Idaho as a standout among students in poverty and students in special education. 

And they approved the most recent strategic plan, which will guide Idaho education goals and priorities through 2029. 

Concerns about ESAs, updates on proposed education legislation

The debate on school choice and education savings accounts is here to stay,  said board president Kurt Liebich, during a discussion of proposed legislation. “It’s a national debate and it’s going to be here in Idaho well beyond this legislative session.” 

Liebich offered some thoughts on school choice, while stopping short of voicing formal endorsement of or opposition to the bill. 

“First and foremost as a board we have a constitutional obligation to provide a uniform and thorough system of public education, and so any expansion of school choice can’t take away from that,” he said. 

Liebich also suggested a “means test” to ensure that, under an ESA program, public funds weren’t just funneled to “the wealthiest Idahoans who already would have sent their kids to private school.”

Another concern is that an ESA program would dilute rural school efforts by reducing the “already precious resources” that are there. 

And Liebich said any school getting public funds should be held accountable. 

Board Member Cindy Siddoway characterized the push for ESAs as a national movement with “out of state groups influencing decisions in Idaho.” 

“Let’s make an Idaho plan, not a national plan,” she said. 

The State Board also heard updates on a number of other proposed legislation:

  • House Bill 92, which would require high schools to offer a financial literacy class, fulfilling a new graduation requirement. 
  • House Bill 114, which would expand abuse protections to all school employees. “The feedback I’ve heard from educators and superintendents is that they’re happy to see that expansion,” Tracie Bent, the board’s chief planning and policy officer, said. 
  • House Bill 139, the “School and Library Protection Act” which would prohibit schools and minors from distributing obscene materials to minors, and calls for civil penalties if a library violates the ban. “Some concern has been raised over that, particularly around the civil action that is included in that bill,” Bent said.
  • House Bill 140, a restraint and seclusion bill, which would define the tactics schools can use and direct the State Department of Education to provide additional training and guidance to districts and charters regarding the use of physical restraint and seclusion. “School districts have indicated they would find that very helpful,” Bent said. 

New teachers, rural teachers, and special education teachers have lowest retention rates

Perhaps predictably, teacher retention numbers fell during the 2020-2021 and 2021-2022 school years — which Liebich attributed to “the pandemic effect.” Prior to that, there had been an increase in retention from 2014 to 2019. 

An increase in housing and rental prices could also be contributing to the dip, said Kathleen Shoup, the board’s educator effectiveness program manager. 

Some of the lowest retention rates were among those in their first three years of teaching. 

“Nationally, about 44% of teachers leave the occupation within the first five years,” Shoup said. “Our attrition rates of instructional staff are slightly lower than that nationally.”

Since the late 1990s, school districts have been required to provide mentoring for teachers in their first two years, Bent said. “But it was never funded.” 

Because of that, not all districts’ mentor programs are as comprehensive as they should be. 

Special education teachers are also more likely to leave the profession, about two and half times higher than any other teacher, said Shoup. 

Rural areas also tend to struggle with retention more than their urban counterparts. 

Board Member Cally Roach asked about the trend to move to a four-day week in order to incentivize and retain teachers. 

Board Vice President Linda Clark said there’s been “exponential growth” in districts choosing to go to four-day weeks. 

“Some superintendents felt that they were forced to do that because neighboring districts were doing four-day weeks and they couldn’t hire teachers on a five-day basis,” Clark said. 

Clark expressed concern about four-day weeks because they have “unintended negative consequences, particularly for low-performing and minority populations.”

At one point, Liebich asked if districts regularly conduct exit interviews to learn why teachers are leaving, and was told some may do so, but it’s not a requirement. And if they do, none of that information is collected. 

Ultimately, Liebich said he didn’t have enough information about why teachers are leaving to determine how to solve retention issues. He encouraged State Superintendent Debbie Critchfield to seek more information on that. 

Stanford charter school study results illuminate standout areas in Idaho

Some groups of Idaho students are performing so well at charter schools, as compared nationally, that a group of Stanford University data analysts suggested Idaho has some lessons to teach the rest of the country. 

Margaret Raymond and James Lynn Woodworth, from Stanford’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO), presented new information on Idaho’s charters that was collected from 2014 to 2018. It has also been studying charter schools in 29 other states, and said CREDO is known nationally as the “charter school analysis people.”

Idaho’s special education students are doing notably well in charter schools. 

“Idaho’s special education results are among the best that we’ve seen nationally,” Raymond said. “We normally see a much larger offset of learning in the special education community.”

Similarly, Idaho’s students in poverty are doing as well at charter schools as they are in traditional schools, which is rare. 

“There is an overall best practices emerging from the picture that we see over time in Idaho that we think actually could be important for other charter school communities around the country to look at, particularly in poverty and (special education),” Raymond said. 

But it wasn’t all good news. 

CREDO’s data also showed that Idaho’s virtual charters are underperforming when compared to brick-and-mortar charters. 

Matt Freeman, the board’s executive director, asked if that discrepancy could be attributed to demographics.

“We’ve been told that they serve a different clientele, a different population, and that explains some of the underperformance,” Freeman said. 

There is a higher percentage of students who qualify for free and reduced price lunch in virtual charters, Woodworth said. Otherwise, the numbers are pretty consistent  — there are similar numbers of white, Hispanic, and special education students in both in-person and online charters. 

Raymond put her thoughts on the virtual charter schools’ claims bluntly: “We’re a little different is code for ‘please don’t apply accountability standards to me.’”

The CREDO study was funded by Bluum, an Idaho-based nonprofit that supports charter schools.

Strategic plan is unanimously approved 

The State Board unanimously approved the Fiscal Year 2024-2029 strategic plan, with some slight tweaks. 

Roach advocated for adding another measure to gauge postsecondary affordability. 

In addition to tracking the percentage of students who complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, Roach suggested keeping the measure of average net price to attend a public institution, and expanding that to two-year institutions as well. 

To read through the strategic plan, go to page 238 of this pdf. 

Bluum receives grant funding from the J.A. and Kathryn Albertson Family Foundation, which also funds Idaho Education News.


Carly Flandro

Carly Flandro

Carly Flandro reports from her hometown of Pocatello. Prior to joining EdNews, she taught English at Century High and was a reporter for the Bozeman Daily Chronicle. She has won state and regional journalism awards, and her work has appeared in newspapers throughout the West. Flandro has a bachelor’s degree in print journalism and Spanish from the University of Montana, and a master’s degree in English from Idaho State University. You can email her at [email protected] or call or text her at (208) 317-4287.

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