Charter school overhaul clears major hurdle, advances to House

(UPDATED, 11:05 a.m. Friday, correcting a reference to the State Board of Education’s authority over the Public Charter School Commission)

Alex Adams, Gov. Brad Little’s budget chief, appeared to satisfy early skepticism for a bill that would overhaul Idaho’s charter school regulations. 

The House Education Committee almost unanimously advanced the legislation after a lengthy public hearing Thursday. Dubbed the “Accelerating Public Charter Schools Act,” the bill is a sweeping revision of the rules governing charter school applications, operations and reauthorizations.

Charter school administrators and policymakers mostly praised the effort, which supporters have touted as a consolidation of lessons learned in the 26 years since Idaho enacted charters.

Alex Adams

But the bill also is a response to recent strife in and around the Public Charter School Commission, the group responsible for authorizing and overseeing most of Idaho’s charters. Leadership instability over the last year has shed light on philosophical differences about the Commission’s role: Should it be a support agency that helps underperforming charters improve, or an oversight body that more aggressively holds schools accountable?

Those who worked on the bill, including the governor’s office and commissioners, sought to strike a balance, Adams told the Education Committee. 

“What we tried to accomplish…was (to) balance accountability with earned autonomy,” he said. “A lot of what I tried to do in this bill is separate the high performers from the not-so-high performers.” 

For high-performing charters, that means extended renewal periods, less “red tape” required to replicate a charter school and shorter performance reviews, which Adams likened to TSA PreCheck. 

And for under-performing charters, the bill would allow authorizers to intervene more quickly in response to distress signals, like declining enrollment, Adams said. Struggling charters also would have access to the Idaho Department of Education’s building capacity program. 

Staffed by a team of experts, the program helps schools diagnose performance problems, Adams said, and the governor’s budget this year includes additional funding for charter schools to access those resources.

“We’ve blended the sweet with the sour,” he said. 

Rep. Lance Clow, R-Twin Falls

Rep. Lance Clow said he initially “had a bunch of questions,” but they were “properly answered” Thursday. The bill would “simplify and coordinate” the Charter School Commission and school authorization process, said Clow, R-Twin Falls. 

Here are some highlights from the bill: 

  • It would allow new charter schools to operate for six years, up from five years, while established charters could get a 12-year renewal
  • Allow charter holders with multiple schools to enroll as a single local education agency
  • Allow charter schools to operate daycare and after school programs as long as they don’t use state funds
  • Create a special category of “pilot charters,” which are granted three-year terms to “test an innovative or novel model”
  • Allow charter schools to receive funding from private organizations

Rep. Judy Boyle, R-Midvale, and Sen. Lori Den Hartog, R-Meridian, are the legislative co-sponsors of HB 422. But Thursday’s hearing showed the governor’s office was the driving force behind it, and a bevy of charter school stakeholders provided input over the bill’s five-month development.

One charter administrator criticized a provision of the bill that could limit how much a school could grow its enrollment. Otherwise, charter administrators lauded the proposal, noting it would streamline administrative work and allow schools to focus on teaching. 

“It puts everything in one place, makes it simpler to get into the law and look at what applies to us — when we need to do what and how we’re held accountable,” said Andy Johnson, executive director for Sage International, a network of Treasure Valley charters. 

Not everyone was on-board, however. The League of Women Voters strongly opposed the bill over concerns that it would diminish the Department of Education’s role in regulating charters, among other things.

The proposed pilot program for new charters allows “testing experimental educational approaches on children,” said Jean Henscheid, co-president of the group. 

State Superintendent Debbie Critchfield briefly said that the Department of Education is “fully supportive” of the bill.

An earlier draft made the Public Charter School Commission a self-governing agency, but the Commission would remain under the State Board of Education’s purview in the current version of the bill. 

Rep. Steve Berch, D-Boise

Rep. Steve Berch, D-Boise, was the only Education Committee member to oppose a motion to advance HB 422. Concerned that removing limitations could allow charter school numbers to explode, Berch said the Department of Education would be on the hook to “support what’s essentially a private enterprise.”

Whether the legislation would resolve the conflict over the Commission’s fundamental role remains to be seen. Terry Ryan, CEO of Bluum, a major charter school investor, is optimistic. The bill offers support to under-performing charter schools, but “that doesn’t mean that’s going to keep you alive forever,” Ryan told Idaho Education News after the hearing. 

“At some point, the school has to deliver results and show that it works for kids,” he said. “I think they got the balance right.”

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

Ryan Suppe

Ryan Suppe

Senior reporter Ryan Suppe covers education policy, focusing on K-12 schools. He previously reported on state politics, local government and business for newspapers in the Treasure Valley and Eastern Idaho. A Nevada native, Ryan enjoys golf, skiing and movies. Follow him on Twitter: @ryansuppe. Contact him at [email protected]

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