Voices from the Idaho EdNews Community

The Acceleration Public Charter Schools Act makes for good policy and smart politics


The idea of school choice has radically evolved in recent years. What was once a proposition about offering limited alternatives to the traditional public school system—especially in settings where test scores were deficient—has transformed into a new paradigm which embraces the idea that all parents should enjoy extensive autonomy and flexibility in determining how public dollars should support their child’s education. Recent changes in Idaho’s charter law bring it substantially closer to that new vision.

Since the implementation of standards-based “accountability” through No Child Left Behind, charter schools are generally not thought of as an exercise in educational freedom, but a policy lever for boosting test scores among populations where scores are flagging. Thinking among conservatives broadly changed during COVID era school closures, when teacher union efforts to delay school reopenings and radical content observed during Zoom school clarified the case for all parents to enjoy extensive freedom in determining where their kids would be educated. According to this new vision, charter schools are not a means to boost test scores among specific populations but a mechanism for expanding the frontiers of parental autonomy.

Changes in Idaho mirror national trends. In 2004, Idaho overhauled its antiquated charter school law and established the Idaho Public Charter Commission with a goal to expand charter schooling. But as often happens with government-run entities left unchecked, it began a drift toward technocracy at the expense of parental agency. Overtaken by a bureaucratic staff, the Commission transformed itself from a charter sponsor into a de facto regulatory agency.

In 2023, a tumultuous year for the Commission that included multiple staff blunders, acrimonious hearings, and Board and staff resignations culminated in political intervention. The following legislative session, working closely with Governor’s office, the Legislature passed HB 422, the Acceleration Public Charter Schools Act.

Changes to the state’s charter authorizing process introduced in HB422 bring the state closer to the new vision of school choice in two ways. First, new charters are approved for six years instead of five. Existing charter schools now receive a 12-year renewal. That marks a dramatic increase from the previous five-year renewal period for all charter schools (whether new or existing) and gives authorizers less control over the fate of charter schools.  Instead, relatively more control is entrusted to parents voting with their feet to determine whether schools survive.

Second, a special category of “pilot charters” are granted three-year terms to “test an innovative or novel model.” Managing charter portfolios according to test score performance has created difficulties for schools that use unique pedagogical models or serve students whose most immediate needs are emotional and behavioral support. It’s no surprise that recent disagreements over renewal decisions involved a Waldorf school (i.e. experiential learning) and a virtual school.

Ultimately, these changes make for good politics. It’s clear that red state voters are clamoring for legislation that overhauls state education systems to bring them in line with the idea of educational freedom. Although Idaho fell short of passing a universal education savings account—the gold standard for realizing new aspirations about state education systems — the new policy modernizes the state’s robust charter sector, eschews old ways of thinking about “accountability” in favor of a parent-centric model, and brings the state in line with evolved sensibilities about the purpose of school choice.

The change comes at an opportune time. Historically, the state has largely deferred to guidance and personnel from the National Association of Charter School Authorizers (NACSA) to navigate charter policy and school authorization decisions. The national membership organization proudly ascribes to and advocates for the old vision of charters as a technocratic lever for test score improvement. They also frequently advocate for the principles of diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) within the charter authorizing space, thereby drawing flak from influential conservative organizations, including the Heritage Foundation in Washington DC.

HB 422 signals that the state is serious about assertions from Idaho Public Charter Commission chair Alan Reed that the state will not partner with NACSA because NACSA’s approach is “different” from the one he envisions for Idaho. Likely, the state now finds itself outside of Heritage’s crosshairs.

These reforms also make for good policy. Managing charters according to test score performance has proven to be more difficult in practice than in theory, and indeed NACSA’s track record on guessing which schools are most likely to bolster student achievement is poor. Still, efforts to regulate by test scores come at significant cost, including disincentives for innovation, increased sensitivity to authorizer demands at the expense of parental preferences, disproportionate entry barriers for black entrepreneurs who aspire to open charter schools, and the disproportionate closing of charter schools that serve black students.

Idaho has a long way to go in realizing the dream of educational freedom, but HB 422 marks a significant and laudable milestone in that journey.

Ian Kingsbury

Ian Kingsbury

Kingsbury researches and publishes on educational freedom. He is a Senior Fellow at the Educational Freedom Institute.

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