Charter commission should stand on its own

When Idaho lawmakers created the Public Charter School Commission in 2004 it made good sense to house it within the State Board of Education. The Commission needed the resources (financial, human and political) of the state board and the state department to provide effective oversight of commission-authorized schools. Further, in 2004 statewide charter school commissions were a relatively new phenomena in American education, and it was surely reasonable to have the state board provide direct oversight of a new entity that was tasked with overseeing charter schools across a state as vast and diverse as Idaho.

Fast forward 10 years, the Public Charter School Commission is now in a strong position to stand on its own merits. It currently authorizes 34 schools across Idaho, and these schools collectively serve about 12,000 K-12 students. If the students in commission-authorized schools were all in one school district it would be the state’s fifth largest district in terms of students served (just behind Pocatello and ahead of Bonneville Joint). It would also be the state’s fastest growing district in terms of adding new schools and students.

Because of changes to state law (HB221) signed by Gov. Butch Otter in April 2013, the commission is now able to charge its authorized schools an authorizer fee based on a per-pupil amount for the costs of providing charter school oversight. Based on this law and the number of students in commissioned-authorized schools, it is fair to estimate that the operating budget for the Commission in FY 2015 would be around $325,000. These are resources that could support a strong authorizing operation independent of additional dollars the state might want to allocate or the commission might seek to raise through public and private grants.

Further, pursuant to HB221, state law made changes to the process of appointing members to the Idaho Public Charter School Commission that further strengthen the governance of the commission. Specifically, state law gives the governor, House Speaker, and Senate president appointing authority and stipulates that nominees must “have demonstrated understanding of and commitment to charter schools as a strategy for strengthening public education” and represent a variety of management and education skills.

The mission of the Charter School Commission is well-defined and narrow — to authorize and oversee quality charter schools — and the process for achieving this is spelled out in law. Specifically, state law mandates “performance certificates” that require charter schools and their authorizers to have agreements that contain measurable academic and financial targets. These performance certificates are public information and make transparent how success is defined for both schools and the commission. Charter Commission members, lawmakers, the state board of education and the general public can determine for themselves the success of the commission by asking if the schools it authorizes are delivering what they promised in their performance certificates over time?

Finally, HB221 makes it possible for Idaho colleges and universities to serve as charter school authorizers. None have yet taken up the opportunity, but if one or more do decide to serve as charter school authorizers in future years they will certainly want to operate independently of the State Board of Education. Showing how this can work in practice with the commission will set important precedence for how future authorizers are brought into the responsibility and ultimately held accountable for their success.

It is nearly impossible to have reliably good charter schools without competent, conscientious, properly motivated charter school authorizers. Fortunately, state law in Idaho spells out clearly the roles, responsibilities, expectations and measures of success for not only the Public Charter School Commission, but also for any future authorizers. At age 10, it is time to give the state’s Public Charter School Commission its operational freedom so it can get on with its mission of helping provide great choices for Idaho’s students and families.