Thousands wait for charter school seats

Thousands of children are waiting for a chance to enroll in one of Idaho’s charter schools. For some parents, getting in feels a little like winning the lottery.

“We got lucky,” said Richard Petrus, whose granddaughter Audrey was one of 34 kindergarteners randomly selected to attend Idaho Falls charter Alturas International Academy. Alturas last year moved into downtown Idaho Falls’ historic O.E. Bell building in order to absorb more students. Petrus lives a block away.

Heather Davies wasn’t so lucky. Her three children are still on the Alturas waitlist — along with 459 others. Davies has come to grips with their neighborhood school, but still hears “great things about Alturas.”

Charter schools are growing in Idaho, but they aren’t meeting the state’s demand. Waitlists now have the names of nearly 11,000 students, according to a survey conducted by Idaho Education News.

Most Idahoans say they generally approve of charters, which have produced varied student results over the years. Others have concerns about their expansion because public charters take students, and therefore money, from traditional public schools. Idaho charters also have a reputation of underserving minorities and those who live in poverty or have special needs.

Facts and figures on Idaho charters

Public charter schools are celebrating their 20th anniversary in Idaho.  Under state law, there is no cap on the number of charters and 57 have popped up in that time. The schools serve approximately 22,000 kids, or 7.6 percent of Idaho’s 302,332 K-12 students.

Though Idaho charters are publicly funded and open to any student, enrollment is limited and awarded via lotteries. Once a school’s seats are full, those who don’t get in either go on a waitlist or go somewhere else, often returning to traditional neighborhood schools.

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Idaho Ed News requested waitlists from all Idaho charters for this story. All but eight responded, for a total of 10,861 students waiting in all.

Here’s a look at the five longest lists, according to the school administrators:

  • Victory Charter in Nampa: 1,723 students waiting.
  • Vision Charter in Caldwell: 1,060 students waiting.
  • Legacy Charter in Nampa: 981 students waiting.
  • Thomas Jefferson Charter in Caldwell: 891 students waiting.
  • North Star Public Charter in Eagle: 849 students waiting.

Four new charter schools opened for this school year. At least four more are anticipated in 2019, in Caldwell, Fruitland, Hayden and Middleton.

The realities of growth

Terry Ryan

Waitlists provided by the schools are a bit inflated because some parents add names to multiple lists, said Terry Ryan, CEO at Bluum, a nonprofit devoted to advancing charter schools in Idaho.

Still, Ryan said, the growing lists reflect the need for more charters.

“We have more work to do,” Ryan said.

Bluum’s “20 in 10” goal aims to create 20,000 new charter school seats in Idaho in the next decade. This would nearly double the amount of children attending charters in Idaho.

Fulfilling the goal would help meet the growing demand, but some leaders worry the growth would cause pain to traditional school districts.

Idaho’s school funding formula is based largely on average daily attendance. State dollars that could go to districts are attached to students flocking to charters.

Earlier this week, Boise School District superintendent Don Coberly said Bluum‘s “20 in 10” goal could divert money away from his district. Boise’s average daily student attendance has dropped from 24,802 to 24,490 over the last four years, despite rapid population growth within the district’s borders.

Two new charter schools opened in Boise this month, enrolling about 500 students. There are now six charter schools within district boundaries, serving more than 2,500 students. Online, private and parochial schools are also available to Boise families.

To combat the charter school movement, Boise is launching a marketing campaign to attract and retain students.

“We’re willing to respond because we’ve got the goods,” Coberly told Idaho Ed News.

The achievement of Idaho charter schools

Ryan said one of the reasons parents are flocking to charter schools is because, on average, they outperform traditional districts.

Fifty-three percent of Idaho’s charter students achieved proficient scores on the math portion of the 2018 ISATs, compared to the statewide average of 45 percent. Sixty-three percent of charter students achieved proficient on the English language arts portion of the test, compared to the statewide average of 55 percent.

Ryan called the numbers “impressive,” but some traditional school leaders say charters’ reputation of underserving minority and poor students fuels the schools’ higher achievement.

Despite the higher averages, charters constitute some of the state’s highest- and lowest-performing schools. Virtual charter schools have especially struggled in Idaho, with most performing well below state averages on key performance indicators in recent years.

Despite the ongoing debate over charter schools’ effectiveness and necessity, most Idahoans view them positively. A 2017 Idaho Education News survey, “The People’s Perspective,” found that most Idahoans support charters and believe they are better than regular public schools by a two-to-one margin.

Further reading: Click here to read about Idaho charter schools that underserve minority and poor students.

Compare school data: To explore or compare data on any school in Idaho, go to IdahoEdTrends.org. This free website has the most recent publicly available data on more than 750 schools. Find test results, reading scores, expenditures and demographics.

Idaho Ed News data analyst Randy Schrader gathered data for this report. 

Idaho Education News and Bluum are funded by the J.A. and Kathryn Albertson Family Foundation.

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