Federal start-up charter school dollars work for Idaho and its families

Imagine a federal program where 90 cents of every dollar goes to an activity that actually works for families and children. This is what Idaho’s use of federal start-up dollars for public charter schools has achieved over the last decade. According to a recent Idaho Education News story, the Gem State received $21.6 million in federal start-up dollars for charter schools in the mid to late 2000s to open public charter schools. Of that amount $2.3 million went to charter schools that failed (about 10 percent of funds).

The State Department of Education doesn’t apply for these dollars anymore but more on that later.

The federal start-up dollars helped to launch some of Idaho’s top performing charter schools. The list includes the likes of Idaho Arts Charter School, Compass Public Charter School, Vision Charter School, Xavier Charter School and Sage International Charter School. Collectively, these schools serve about 3,700 Idaho public school students.

According to data shared by the Idaho Public Charter School Commission earlier this year, Compass Public Charter School has the second highest K-12 ELA Percentage Proficient/Advanced of all 49 public schools in West Ada (just behind the results of Eagle High), and second in K-12 math just behind Renaissance High. Vision Charter School’s ELA Percent Proficient/Advanced was sixth highest out of 15 comparable K-12 public schools in the Vallivue/Middleton area, and was fourth in K-12 math. Xavier Charter School had the top K-12 ELA Percentage Proficient/Advanced, fifth out of 47 comparable schools. All of these schools were well above state averages. Not surprisingly every single one of these schools has substantial wait lists with more parents and students wanting to enter than they currently have space to serve.

The success rate for charter schools in Idaho is outstanding. Consider that according to Bloomberg news, “8 out of 10 entrepreneurs who start businesses fail within the first 18 months. A whopping 80 percent crash and burn.” Yes, 10 percent or so of Idaho’s public charter schools have failed. But that is to be expected and is in fact part of the reason for “start-up dollars.” Fact is, in the 2015 reauthorization of the federal Elementary and Secondary Education Act the Congress allocated $200 million dollars in new charter school start-up dollars because this program works. The single largest percentage increase in that bill was for charter school start-ups.

Idaho’s charter school success rate is even more impressive when one considers that per pupil funding in this state is the second lowest of any state in the country. And, public education is one of the most highly regulated industries in the country. Further, none of Idaho’s public charter schools receive one cent from local taxpayers for facilities or supplemental levies. This means that funding for facilities has to come out of their basic per pupil funding and from any money they can raise from parents and/or private supporters.

It is because charter schools work that states across the country compete for these start-up dollars and many more states apply than receive funds. Conservative, fast growing states, like Arizona ($46.6 million in 2009), Florida ($104 million in 2011), Nevada ($16.5 million in 2015) and Texas ($41 million in 2010) apply for these dollars because they know charter schools are providing an important safety valve for school districts that are bursting at the seams with students. District in Idaho are experiencing the same issues but the only way for these communities to launch new public schools is:

  1. districts seek local taxpayer support to launch new schools;
  2. charter schools seek assistance from philanthropy and other donors to grow schools, and/or;
  3. charter schools go to the bond market and/or commercial lenders and finance facilities. Meanwhile, an increasing number of Idaho’s students in districts like West Ada sit in overcrowded classrooms.

In responding to the Idaho Education News article, the state department of education’s spokesperson on school choice issues said the state no longer applies for federal charter school start-up dollars because the feds “want states to have a plan in place to close down low-performing charter schools. In Idaho, the State Department of Education doesn’t have that power; instead, it rests with the charter authorizers.” This comment flies directly in the face of the fact that, according to the Idaho Education News, in 2014 “State Revokes I.F. School’s Charter.”

Bottom line here is that Idaho’s families and children have overwhelmingly benefited from the federal charter school start-up program, and the state would be smart to revisit its decision not to seek these funds for their children and taxpayers. Voters being asked to pass district levies for new school construction should also ask their elected officials why Idaho isn’t taking advantage of federal dollars that help new schools launch without their local taxes going up.

Terry Ryan is CEO of the nonprofit organization Bluum.

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