Education in Idaho operates on lean rations. The state’s per student spending is second lowest in the country (only Utah spends less per student). Things have been especially difficult since 2008 as both the national and state economy have struggled through the Great Recession. A new report from the University of Arkansas, Charter Funding: Inequity Expands, reports “from 2003 to 2011, Idaho school districts saw their inflation adjusted per pupil funding decline from $8,081 to $7,253 (a difference of $828).” When Gov. Otter signed the state’s $1.37 billion K-12 budget bill in late March this downward trend was set to start reversing itself, but no one expects school spending to get back to pre-recession levels any time soon.
As tough as things have been for school districts in Idaho, according to Charter Funding: Inequity Expands, it has been even harder on the state’s 48 charter schools. Collectively, these schools serve about 19,500 Idaho students, and according to the University of Arkansas report they saw their per pupil funding decline from $6,205 in 2003 to $5,643 in 2011 (a difference of $562). So, on average, charter schools in Idaho operate with about 22 percent less public tax dollars than their district peers.
The primary cause for the funding inequity in Idaho is that charter schools lack access to local tax dollars. This matters because some local school districts – with the accent of voters – have been able to cushion some of the pain of lost state dollars by raising local funds. For example, the Boise schools saw their per pupil funding drop from $9,472 to $8,519 (a difference of $953), but they were able to cushion some of the pain through local taxes. Charter schools in Boise lack this option. Subsequently, charter schools in Boise during the 2003 to 2011 period saw per pupil funding drop more than any other city in America – from $6,573 to $4,881 (a difference of $1,692).
As tough as these numbers are, it is actually even worse when one considers that charter schools have to pay for their facility costs out of these relatively meager per pupil funding dollars. The good news here is that charter schools in Idaho are set, for the very first time, to get some facility dollars from the state this year (about $120 per student in 2013-14 and $180 in 2014-15). This helps and is much appreciated, but still leaves a yawning gap for charters to fill from basic operating funds.
Despite the money challenges, charters in Idaho are adding students and performing well. The Idaho Department of Education reports that there are about 11,400 students on waiting lists to get into a charter school. As a group, charter students perform well in Idaho with fourth and eighth grade charter students outpacing their district peers in both reading and math on recent National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) assessments. Further, charters largely serve the same demographic of students as district schools. The Idaho Office of Performance Evaluations, for example, reports the average poverty rate for charter schools is 46 percent, while it is 50 percent for traditional district schools. The percentage of charter school and district students receiving special education services are eight percent and 10 percent respectively.
But, charters and school district share more than just the same kids. They also share a need for better resourcing, and just as important, assistance in doing more for students with limited resources. It’s true, Idaho has a number of school districts and charter schools that get a phenomenal return on their investments. The results they achieve with relatively few public dollars is exceptional. It is surely a reflection of hard working educators in districts and charter schools, as well as strong families that are the backbone of Idaho. But, imagine how much more the school might achieve if they saw funding levels closer to that of national funding averages, or even funding just at the levels of 2003.