Charter school growth will lead to diversity

Levi Cavener has done a good thing by raising questions about what Idaho’s public charter schools can do to better serve the academic needs of minority students. Glad to have him pushing us even though he is late to the conversation.

My colleagues and I have recognized the need for charters to do more for minority students since starting our work in Idaho. In August 2014, for example, we published, in partnership with the J.A. and Kathryn Albertson Family Foundation, the report “Shifting Sands: Idaho’s Changing Student Demographics and What it Means for Education.” In the foreword to that report, Matthew Kitchen (the study’s researcher) and I provided seven recommendations for improving Idaho’s charter school program.

These recommendations included the call for:

Serving a More Diverse Student Body. Charter schools in Idaho are serving a more diverse student population now than it did 5-10 years ago. But the charter sector needs to do more. The charter school population is still less diverse in terms of race, income and special needs than the statewide population of public school students as a whole. These are the fastest growing demographic of Idaho’s K-12 students, and for charters to grow and add value they need to serve more of these students. Supports that might help make this happen include: creating a school information clearinghouse to provide all parents – not just those with the time and resources to explore choice options on their own – with easy to understand and bilingual information about schools and their programs. Charter school models with experience working with high-need students should be recruited to Idaho, and their growth and expansion supported. State funding for charters needs to be increased, or at least harmonized so that schools that grow and add students don’t see their per pupil funding decline.”

We shared this report, and its foreword, widely, including with Idaho Education News in a piece entitled Report Examines Idaho’s Future. In that piece for this publication, I reiterated the point that the “charter school student population is still less diverse in terms of race, income and special needs students than the statewide population of public school students as a whole.” And that, “these are the fastest growing K-12 student demographics, and charters should be part of the mix in meeting their needs.”

But words come cheap. Action is more important. To that end, with support from the Albertson Family Foundation, my colleagues and I have been working with current and prospective charter school operators to help the schools serving diverse students do more, and to open more charter seats for the state’s neediest students. As part of the Albertson Family Foundation’s “20 in 10” Initiative, we are working closely with the foundation team to target resources to those schools that can serve diverse students well. This work is just beginning and is based on what we learned by studying the state’s changing demographics last year.

Further, we have been providing financial management services to the Spanish immersion Heritage Community Charter School in Caldwell. We are committed to working cooperatively with this school – and others like it — to help it operate more efficiently so it can better serve the needs of its diverse student population while expanding enrollment over time.

In fact, the best way to help charter schools serve more diverse populations is to help them grow. Key to this is to assist charter schools in finding facility solutions in the communities where student need is greatest. Idaho charter schools operate on some of the leanest per pupil funding of any charter sector in the United States, and from this tight funding they have to pay not only their operating costs (mainly teacher salaries), but also their facility costs. Changes to state law in recent years should make it easier for charter schools to get access to private lending for new school growth, but charters have struggled to serve more students (diverse and otherwise) because they lack the facilities to get it done.

It is the intention of my two organizations, BLUUM and the Idaho Charter School Network, to work with partners like the Idaho Public Charter School Commission to help ensure that new charter school growth happens where student demand is greatest. Demographically the fastest growing student populations in Idaho are non-white, non-rural and less wealthy students. For charter schools to grow they will need to serve this changing population. It is the right thing to do. Not just because charter critics say it is, but because Idaho’s changing family demographics demand it.

Terry Ryan is the chief executive officer of BLUUM and president of the Idaho Charter School Network.

Disclaimer: Idaho Education News and BLUUM are funded by the  J.A. and Kathryn Albertson Family Foundation.

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