Voices from the Idaho EdNews Community

How Idaho earned a $24.9 million grant to expand school choice opportunities

So much of what happens in the world of public education occurs in the trenches of anonymity where teachers work day-in and day-out to help their students learn, and where administrators labor to make the environment their teachers teach and their students learn as healthy and vibrant as they can, and where parents drop their children off at schools in the hope that their babies will learn what they need to excel in life and as educated citizens of the greatest country in the world. As an educator – or really as a friend and advocate for education and parent choice in learning – it feels good when the work you do is acknowledged and appreciated.

Thus, it was with great pride that I read Governor Little’s recent Tweet (a.k.a. X-positing or whatever we call it these days!) declaring, “Idaho is already a leader in school choice as a top 10 state for the share of students in public charter schools & this grant will expand education freedom even further. Congrats to Bluum on securing this grant to strengthen Idaho’s charter schools!”

Governor Little was referring to the $24.9 million federal Charter School Program (CSP) grant my organization Bluum earned on behalf of Idaho. This grant award is a reflection of the hard work carried out by our charter school board members, leaders, administrators, innovators, teachers and students over the last 25-years. In addition to the support of Governor Little (and that of previous Governors Otter, Risch, Kempthorne and Batt) our state has also been blessed by consistent support in the legislature. We’ve seen a series of legislative improvements to our charter school law in recent years that have given our public charter schools flexibility in the hiring of teachers and school leaders, and we’ve had changes to law that provides support for the creative financing and refinancing of public charter schools. This has been especially important in an era of rising interest rates. Idaho’s public charter school sector has steadily grown and improved over time.

These steady improvements in operational flexibility and financial support have been backed up by an evolving state law that demands results from our public charter schools. This focus on performance is baked into the Legislative Intent of our charter statute which seeks in part to, “Improve student learning, increase learning opportunities for all students, with special emphasis on expanded learning experiences for students, and hold the schools established under this chapter accountable for meeting measurable student educational standards.

This emphasis on performance and results is unique to public charter schools. While traditional public schools that fail never close, public charter schools can be closed in Idaho for failing to deliver academically, financially and/or operationally over time. State law in Idaho ensures the charter school bargain – increased operational freedoms and flexibility for measurable student performance over time – and ensuring this bargain is the responsibility of charter school authorizers. In our state, the vast majority of our 70+ public charter schools are authorized by the Idaho Public Charter School Commission (IPCSC) whose seven members are appointed to serve by the Governor. While the IPCSC has been imperfect in its performance over the years, and in fairness no form or function of government is perfect, it has accumulated a portfolio of public charter schools that have largely delivered for families, children and taxpayers. No doubt more can be done to improve the performance of the IPCSC. My organization Bluum is prepared to use a portion of its Congressionally appropriated federal CSP dollars for technical assistance to provide expert support in updating and improving the data and management systems the IPCSC uses to ensure school transparency and performance for its growing number of schools.

As we observed in our winning CSP grant proposal, “Idaho’s public charter schools as a sector are high-performing academically. NAEP is considered the ‘Gold Standard’ for evaluating student performance over time across the nation’s schools…Despite the impact of COVID on student learning, Idaho public charter school performance remains relatively high compared to the performance of students in Idaho’s traditional schools, and in 2022 they were some of the highest performing students in the nation across grades and subjects tested.” The NAEP summary table below attests to this fact:

2022 Idaho NAEP Results in 8th Grade Reading & Math

Our public charter school achievements go beyond just test scores though. Using unique indicators of success for measuring results – like job placements after graduation – we have Career Tech charter schools in the Elevate Academies that serve at-risk students and turn around lives as well as any such schools in the country. We also have charter schools like Cardinal Academy that partners with the Salvation Army and the Promise Academy that works with the Idaho Youth Ranch to provide learning opportunities for our state’s most vulnerable students. And we have innovative school model like Gem Prep learning societies that are drawing the attention of education leaders and innovators from across the country. I could go on.

Idaho won a competitive $24.9 million grant because our schools deliver for families and children, and we have a demonstrated need for more quality school choices. We won because our state lawmakers and education leaders support school choice, we have a nonprofit charter school support organization in Bluum that works to launch and support high-performing schools, we have generous philanthropic support for charters, and we have a 25-year old charter school law that does a respectable job of balancing operational flexibilities with accountability for performance. This is a mix worth protecting and honing in coming years. This is a mix that made Idaho a winner in the competition for federal charter school program dollars. This is the recipe that works for our children and families.

Terry Ryan

Terry Ryan

Terry Ryan is CEO of the Boise-based education nonprofit Bluum and Board Chair of the Idaho Charter School Network.

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