12 things about Idaho charter schools

What is a charter school and how are they different?

Charter schools are public schools that are freed from many of the rules and regulations governing traditional district schools. This freedom allows charters to map their own path to innovation and it is hoped, educational quality. In return for this operational freedom, charter schools enter into performance agreements with an authorizer, and if a school fails to live up to its agreement, the authorizer can revoke the charter or chose not to renew it.

What is the history of charter schools and how do they influence education reform efforts?

The charter idea goes back to the late 1980s and at the start, charters were seen as escape hatches for children who were stuck in schools that were failing or that were simply not meeting the needs of particular students. Proponents also promised that they would serve as centers of innovation, research, and development that would in time benefit children across public education. They would generate competition that would spur districts toward sustained academic reform. They would cost less than district schools. This quintuple promise – salubrious competition, stronger academic outcomes, inventive approaches, parsimony, and immediate relief for the educationally oppressed – may not have worked out exactly as promised 25 years ago. But the results have been good enough that there are now more than 6,000 public charter schools serving more than 2.3 million students in 41 states and the District of Columbia. And parental demand far outpaces supply, with more than 600,000 children on waiting lists nationwide. The first charter schools opened in Idaho in 1998.

How many charter schools are in Idaho and how many children do they serve?

There are currently 41 brick and mortar charter schools, seven statewide virtual schools and one distant education academy in Idaho that collective serve about 18,000 students.

Who governs Idaho charter schools?

Charter schools are started and governed by groups of parents, educators, and school innovators, but to operate a charter school, a governing board needs to get approval from a charter school authorizer. In Idaho, school districts and the state’s public charter school commission are the only organizations currently authorizing public charter schools. Changes to state law signed by Gov. Otter in April of this year allow Idaho colleges and universities to also start authorizing charter schools.

What is the state law regarding charter school development?

Starting a public charter school in Idaho is a complicated and time intensive process spelled out in Title 33, Chapter 52 of state law. A successful charter petition usually takes two years to get approved. In brief, any group or persons may petition to start a charter school, but such a petition must be signed by not fewer than 30 qualified electors of the school district attendance area designated in the petition. A petition to establish a new charter school must be submitted to a local public school district or the state public charter school commission (currently no colleges or universities are authorizing schools or accepting charter petitions). Through a lengthy process that include public hearings, the charter petition is vetted by the proposed authorizing entity and ultimately approved, denied or returned to the proposed governing board with any deficiencies spelled out that need to be remedied by a certain date and resubmitted. The charter petition must detail the proposed academic program that addresses among other items how the school will identify what it means to be an “educated person” in the 21st century. The petition must provide details ensuring all students will take the same standardized tests as other public school students, that employed teachers will be certified, that the school will meet all health and safety standards, and that the schools will have a plan for dealing with students deemed incorrigible or continuously disruptive. The charter petition must define the primary attendance area from which students will be drawn, and the admission procedures the school will follow, including a lottery for new students if the school has a waiting list. The charter petition must address and provide evidence the school can meet a number of financial, legal, facility and compliance requirements. If after all this, the charter petition is approved, then the initial charter would be issued by the authorizing entity for a term of three years.

What is the state law regarding enrollment to charter schools?

Charter schools are public schools and have to enroll all students that apply to the school. If a school is over-enrolled then it must provide a lottery process for admitting new students. Those students not chosen in the lottery process are placed on a waiting list, and when a slot becomes available, the school will contact the first name on the waiting list.

How many students are on waiting lists to attend Idaho charters?

According to the Idaho Department of Education, there are about 8,700 students on waiting lists who would like to attend one of the state’s charter commission authorized schools and another 2,700 students on waiting lists for district authorized schools.

What kind of state funding do charters receive?

Charter school students receive the same state and federal dollars as traditional school district students (these funds follow students to their school choice), but they do not receive local tax dollars. Further, unlike traditional public schools, charter schools are not permitted to participate in local bond issues to fund their facilities. As a result, charter schools spend between $550 and $600 per student from their operating revenue each year on facilities costs.[1] However, recent changes to state law created a Public Charter School Facilities Equalization Fund that will create an independent funding stream for fixed facilities costs, and this should help reduce some of the disparity between district and charter school facilities.

What happens to charter schools that fail either academically or financially?

Under charter school theory, schools that fail academically or financially are supposed to lose their right to continue educating children and face closure by their authorizer. But in practice, it is hard to close a charter school for many of the same reasons it is difficult to close a failing or under-enrolled district school. Reasons include, but are not limited to: parents, students and other supporters who like the school and are loyal to it even if it doesn’t work academically or financially, legal challenges and costs in proving the school actually deserves closure, and issues of where to place hundreds of students whose school suddenly closes.

How do charter school students perform academically compared to students in traditional Idaho public schools?

Charter school students in Idaho perform well in comparison to other Idaho public school students, and Idaho’s charter schools as a group are well rated academically. On recent state report cards, 69 percent of charter schools received a four- or five-star rating. In comparison, 59 percent of traditional Idaho public schools received a four- or five-star rating. But not all charters are high-flyers academically. Four of the state’s charters received just a one-star rating last year. Idaho charter school students as a group perform better on National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) reading and math assessments than their traditional district school peers. In 2011, fourth and eighth grade charter students outpaced their district peers in both reading and math.

How do charters compare when it comes to things like class sizes and teacher pay?

Charter schools across the country typically have smaller class sizes. In Idaho, because charter schools operate on particularly lean budgets and have to pay for their facility costs directly out of their basic aid, some charter schools make their budgets work by having larger class sizes.

Charters offer competitive teacher salaries. Some even base their compensation on the salary schedule of the school district where they are located, while other charters offer higher or lower salaries based on their budgets and missions. Charter schools are far more likely to offer performance-based pay incentives than traditional schools and in some schools merit pay can add 5 or 10 percent to a teacher’s salary. Charter school teachers tend to be younger and make more earlier in their careers at charters, but more senior teachers usually make more money in district schools where traditional pay scales reward seniority, credentials and master degrees regardless of performance.

What are the advantages and disadvantages of attending a charter school?

Charter schools are schools of choice so students and parents have to want to attend their school and make a proactive decision to do so. If the school does not meet their needs, they can leave and find another school that does. Because children are so varied in their needs and abilities, no single educational model works for all students in all circumstances. Charters allow parents to find schools that work best for their particular situation by setting themselves up around a particular area of focus. These might include:

  • A particular teaching method, such as Montessori method or Core Knowledge;
  • A specific subject such as art, music or science;
  • Theme-based curriculum such as Advanced Placement, International Baccalaureate, or language immersion;
  • Serving a targeted population such as at-risk students or gifted students; or
  • Offer extended day programs or creative use of on-line learning opportunities that blend classroom and home learning.

Conversely, charter schools that are poorly run or struggle financially most often also fail to deliver high quality instruction. It is obviously disadvantageous for students to attend schools that can’t provide the services and supports necessary for a successful education. Parents should be picky choosers when deciding what school to send their children to and this is as true for charter schools as it should be for traditional district schools.

[1] An Analysis of the Charter School Facility Landscape in Idaho, September 2012, prepared by the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, the Colorado League of Charter Schools and the Idaho Charter School Network, http://www.facilitiesinitiative.org/media/1140/Idaho-ReportFNLweb.pdf

Terry Ryan

Terry Ryan

Terry Ryan is CEO of the Boise-based education nonprofit Bluum and Board Chair of the Idaho Charter School Network.

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