Idaho families value, and benefit from, school choice. This has been true for decades, but it is becoming more and more a fact of life for an increasing number of Idahoans. Our state’s children participate in homeschooling, open-enrollment across school districts, magnet schools, public charter schools, and private and parochial schools. Education in varied forms in Idaho is older than Idaho.
Our first school to open in the territory that would become Idaho was a Catholic missionary school opened in 1836 at the Lapwai Mission for the Nez Perce. The first public school district was founded by the Washington Territory government in 1862 in Lewiston. Fast forward 135 years and Idaho’s first public charter schools opened their doors in 1998.
Going back to 1836, every one of these schools would have an origin story to tell. And, surely those involved in opening these first schools in their place and time were tough as nails and totally committed to building a better future for their children and for Idaho. It is also fair to assume that these early school innovators faced their share of criticism and resistance along the way. Change agents are rarely loved.
The historical record around Idaho’s first public charter schools is pretty solid. It shows the struggle that charter school supporters went through to create more options for Idaho families. In 1995 Boise Republican state representative Fred Tilman worked to get his charter school legislation through the Idaho House. But that same year he saw it die in the Senate Education Committee. The assistant superintendent of Coeur d’Alene school district Dave Teater summed up the criticism of the charter school effort when he told the press it was as “a step closer to using public funds for private schools.” This is an argument that is still used today against expanding school options for parents.
Tilman worked the legislative process, and in 1998 Idaho passed a public charter school law. Over the last quarter century Idaho’s charter school sector has grown to more than 70 schools serving over 30,000 students. If charter school students were all in one school district it would be the third largest school district after West Ada and the Boise School District. Most importantly, Idaho’s public charter school sector is relatively high performing and well regarded by parents and taxpayers alike with support for public charter schools steadily climbing.
The evidence in Idaho, and this is true in states across the country, shows school choice helps children, families and educators achieve more and do better. Giving parents choice empowers families because it allows them to proactively select schools and learning opportunities that align to their values and beliefs. It gives them skin in the game.
But what’s less understood or discussed is that school choice also empowers educators who can work and lead in schools that reflect their educational and pedagogical values. There are multiple pathways to becoming a good and successful citizen, taxpayer, and human being. There are also multiple ways for teaching children to be successful. Parent and school choice, which Idaho’s well-established public charter school sector proves, accepts and builds on that proposition.
I’ve seen this work across the state at public charter schools like the Upper Carmen Charter School outside of Salmon, the Elevate Academy for career tech education students in Caldwell, the Treasure Valley Classical Academy in Fruitland, Future Public School in Garden City; and I saw it in action recently at the Alturas Prep Academy in Idaho Falls. There are many more such examples across our state.
The reality of public school choice in Idaho is very different from the recent vitriol and canards thrown around publicly by the Idaho Freedom Foundation (IFF), and its equally rabid critics. IFF has made headlines by calling for the defunding of all public schools, while its critics attack school choice as an IFF inspired effort backed by out-of-state money.
Neither side actually represents Idaho’s families and children who both support public education and want to see it fairly funded, but who also favor and value more learning options for their children. In Idaho, as across the country, education and school choice have become pawns in the larger social and cultural battles swirling around us. This development does not benefit our growing state and the varied and rapidly changing needs of our families and children. Idaho has educated its children since the 1830s and it must continue to provide the resources and support for schools into the future, but it must also be open to new ways of learning and educating that expanded school choice offers.