What went wrong with Idaho’s charter school movement

“We need to end the government monopoly in education by transferring power from bureaucracies and unions to families.” This sentiment expressed by Jeb Bush, 43rd Governor of Florida as well as son and brother to former presidents, reflects the reason the charter school movement began in Idaho. In the late 1990s, Idahoans recognized that all students learn differently and that parents know their children better than anyone else. It wasn’t that citizens and lawmakers hated traditional public schools. It wasn’t to start a competition to see who could create the “best” school. The foundation for Idaho charter schools was a desire to offer choices that helped all students grow and succeed.

As we see in so many of our 21st century history books, it’s easy to forget the past and re-write history to reflect what we want to read rather than what really happened. After a while, we can even create our own version of history that guides political decisions. This is the case with the “High Performing” charter school rhetoric and the Bluum-funded CREDO study focused calculating how much one school outperforms another. Do we really think we can create a simple calculation using ISAT scores to determine how many days-worth of learning students in entire schools achieve in a year?

The Idaho charter school movement is failing. The schools are not failing. The leadership is failing. The goal was to create choice for parents and schools. The leadership has created a new bureaucracy focused on power and competition. The new bureaucracy takes Idaho taxpayer dollars and funds staff positions that function like stock analysts. Commissioners discuss the performance of their portfolio of schools and their staff members work hard to create their own questionable data designed to convince the commissioners to “sell, sell, sell” (revoke, revoke, revoke) the “bad” portion of their portfolio.

We fought hard, in the 90s, to address the concerns that charter schools would “cherry pick” the top performing students and leave traditional districts to serve struggling students. We fought hard to gain freedom in educational approaches and curriculum by giving up access to local property tax dollars. We fought hard to convince educators, legislators and citizens that the goal would never be to take all of the “good students” out of our local school districts. The goal was always to bring choice, innovation and flexibility to Idaho.

How easy it is to forget the past. State charter school leadership (the Idaho Public Charter School Commission) has grown into a bureaucracy that wields its power with such force that any school or individual who questions it faces a future full of increased bureaucratic demands and personal attacks.

Just listen to the recent executive session of the April commission meeting. The session was accidentally recorded and released by commission staff members. You can hear the commissioners and their staff members violate Idaho law and discuss how to manipulate the public and our elected officials.

Even more troubling, you can hear commissioners and their staff members gossiping, laughing and demeaning respected people and organizations. The commissioners and commission staff members attack the town of Jerome, the Idaho School Boards Association, virtual public charter schools, Waldorf schools, entire school boards, specific board members, administrators (including a former NASA education director and state education official), employees of schools and of the Idaho School Boards Association, programs that help children (such as the federally-funded child nutrition program). It’s appalling and disgusting!

As the former president of the Idaho State Board of Education; education advisor to Gov. Butch Otter and director of the Idaho State Board of Education, I worked with lawmakers and educators from across our state. Many of those individuals have dedicated their lives to improving education for every student in Idaho. I have used the executive session portion of the Idaho Open Meeting Law to discuss the personnel that were hired and employed by our organization (not people from other organizations we want to gossip about). I have also been part of executive sessions discussing confidential legal matters with the board’s legal counsel. The commission’s discussion included none of the material exempt from public disclosure. It is a shocking example of the misuse and abuse of Idaho law.

In fact, the Idaho Board of Education has very specific rules regarding student data. Data that includes five or more students is reportable in public forums. The only student data that would not be reported in public is individually identifiable student information. As a parent and grandparent, I would be very concerned about state-appointed commissioners and their staff members looking at my children’s data. In fact, in all my years of public service, I have been able to gain very detailed information about the growth of students and organizations without ever having to go into executive session to examine the test scores of specific children. The comments from the recording include commission staff members stating that they do not have an in-depth understanding of data and receive very limited support from the state in analyzing data. The recording demonstrates that they are not even following their own State Board of Education data policies. The information they share is available on the Idaho Department of Education’s Report Card website and is also available on each school’s website as part of its continuous improvement plan. It seems logical that information available to the public could be discussed in a public setting that provides transparency as well as opportunities for the schools and organizations being discussed to attend the meeting and provide documentation.

That brings me to my final, and possibly most important point. I’m sure most of our parents taught us the idiom “If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all.” We might add to that that if you don’t understand the data, and don’t have the training necessary to fairly evaluate diverse schools across the state, you might not be the right person to make comments.

The commission members, Executive Director Tamara Baysinger and Kirsten Pochop, senior accountability program manager, clearly lack the training, expertise and knowledge necessary to understand and carry out the original intent of the Idaho charter school movement (choice for parents and students). More importantly, they lack the professional and ethical foundation to serve the students, families and citizens of our great state. All schools have strengths and weaknesses. As a former State Board member, I was fortunate to serve with other state officials who valued the hard work of our Idaho school administrators and teachers. That should be the expectation for all entrusted with leadership positions.

To end with another quote from former Florida Gov. Bush, “Treating people fairly and with civility is not a bad thing… It would be good for our country if political leaders actually took that to heart.”

Written by Karen McGee, former president, Idaho State Board of Education.

 

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