Federal grant funds available to state’s largest charter school authorizer

Boise nonprofit Bluum is ready to support the Idaho Public Charter School Commission — the state’s largest authorizer — with up to $750,000 in grant funds, particularly after recent research indicates that the agency authorizing charter schools matters.

The money can be used to purchase new equipment and programs or hire experts to help strengthen an authorizer’s operations.

A decision about collaborating with Bluum likely won’t happen until a new director is hired, which is expected before the end of the year, based on comments at a meeting this month. Two more special meetings are scheduled, one this month and one in December. The seven-person board also has three new members whose appointments are pending Senate confirmation in the upcoming legislative session.

Since August, Alex Adams, the state’s budget director, has served as commission’s interim director, following the departure of two directors in the span of five months. The commission reported that the search for a new director is narrowing. Ten candidates applied.

Regarding the collaboration, “that would have to be a decision that was made by the commission staff and the board. We’re not going to tell them what to do,” said Terry Ryan, Bluum CEO.

Adams said the commission is excited that Bluum secured the grant funds. “Bluum has been a tremendous resource to me and I have full faith the commission could benefit from the substantial grant fund assistance but the details are best left to the next director.”

Adams said the decision about “how to best leverage those funds” is a decision for the next permanent director.

Bluum, a nonprofit charter support organization, was awarded a new $24.8 million federal grant this year to grow and strengthen Idaho’s charter school network. That grant allows up to 3% of the money — or $750,000 — to help improve quality authorizing.

Charter authorizers evaluate new charter school petitions and oversee the financial, academic and operational effectiveness of schools it approved. Authorizers protect the interest of students and taxpayers by holding schools accountable to performance outcomes. The public charter commission authorizes 63 out of Idaho’s 77 schools. School districts and universities can also be authorizers.

According to recent research titled “The Nation’s Charter Report Card,” students whose charter schools are authorized by a state education agency earn higher scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) than students whose schools were authorized by school districts and comparable local agencies. Overall, the top-performing states are Alaska, Colorado, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York, Oklahoma and New Jersey; Idaho finished near the middle of the pack and is underperforming nationally, according to the report.

The report pointed out that agencies affiliated with state departments of education — like the charter commission — have an advantage, because they are able to utilize efficiencies, decades of experience and institutional knowledge. 

Ryan said Congress authorized and encouraged the use of these grant funds to strengthen authorizers. “We would love to partner with the commission in utilizing the funds to improve their capacities and their efforts. It’s part of the promise we made for this grant,” he said.

That help could come in the form of contracting with experts; purchasing a web-based organization management system like Epicenter; staffing up for an extra year or two to help with backlogs; supporting the staff with resources and training; or updating their data acquisition and reporting processes.

“We wouldn’t do the work. We would bring in the resources. If the commission really wants this help, they’re really good groups across the country that help authorizers,”  Ryan said.  “But this is really a question for them — they know better what they need than I do.”

Based on his research into federal law, Ryan is confident that there is not a conflict of interest, if an organization like Bluum works with an organization like Idaho’s charter commission.

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

Darren Svan

Darren Svan

Reporter Darren Svan has a background in both journalism and education. Prior to working for military schools at overseas installations, he was news editor at several publications in Wyoming and Colorado. You can send news tips to [email protected].

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