Idaho’s public charter schools as a sector are doing very well by almost any metric. Idaho families are enrolling their children in public charters across the state and even as we add more schools and charter school seats there are waitlists for yet more seats. Idaho’s charter schools in the aggregate are delivering academically (more on that below). And, our public charter schools provide a significant Return on Investment (ROI) for taxpayers. Idaho has added 16 new public charter schools since 2014. In that time, we have seen the construction of over 530,000 square feet of public school space for Idaho school children. Every square foot has been built without a penny of local taxpayer funding. That is an outstanding deal for families and taxpayers across the state.
Yet, much of the public conversation around Idaho’s public charter schools would make one think they are a mess and that there is a need to change laws and rules around our public charter schools and how they are authorized or allowed to operate. A group calling itself the Idaho Coalition of Charter School Families has been trashing the Idaho Public Charter School Commission since last April despite the actions taken by the Commission to improve how it works with schools and for schools. The Commission has the unpopular task of holding its authorized schools accountable for their results. While not perfect, and like any public body it has room to improve, the Commission authorizes the majority of Idaho’s public charter schools. They deserve their fair share of credit and recognition for the success of so many of our public charter schools.
On the other side, a group representing some of the largest traditional school districts in Idaho called RISE have shared talking points with members in recent weeks that includes the false narrative that, “Charter schools have not expanded choice for parents and students. Rather, the choice has become for the charter schools to decide their parents.” As a father of two daughters who attended an Idaho public charter school in Boise, graduated and have gone on to the University of Utah and are now thriving, I find the notion that my wife and I had the school select us galling. Fact is, we elected the charter school over other quality Boise School District options and private school options because we simply felt it was the best fit for our daughters. I suspect many of the other 40,000 or so charter school parents and guardians across the state feel the exact same way.
Fact, Idaho public charter schools are public. They are not connected to or affiliated with religious institutions. Public charter schools are open to all students who apply and cannot charge tuition.
Since 2013, we have seen Idaho’s public charter school sector expand from 44 schools serving 18,782 Idaho children to 60 schools in 2020 serving almost 26,000 children. For many communities with public schools bursting at the seams, this growth has been an important safety valve for their overcrowded district schools. As Idaho Ed News reported in late 2019, “charters enroll just under 10 percent of the state’s roughly 300,000 K-12 public education students, yet the schools accounted for about half of the growth (in new students) from last fall (2019), adding around 1,700 kids.” These new schools have opened or expanded across the state from the Treasure Valley, to Fruitland, to Pocatello, to Idaho Falls to Salmon to northern Idaho.
Even with this growth in new charter school seats there is still an estimated 8,000 to 11,000 students on charter school waitlists. As the state continues to add students, and as we face demand from families for more school options, public charters are and should continue to be a critical part of our state’s overall new school growth strategy.
Our public charter schools serve children and families well academically. Whether one looks at state achievement data, SAT scores, or NAEP results, charter schools lead Idaho’s public schools in both student achievement and student growth. If Idaho’s charter school students were their own state, that state would be the highest performing in America in both 8th and 4th grade math and reading. Critics claim Idaho’s public charter schools don’t serve needier students. That’s false and with each new school opening across the state even less true as Idaho’s charter schools work to recruit all students to their classrooms and programs.
It is because of this high performance and the demand of families for great charter schools that Idaho – through my organization Bluum – was awarded a $22 million dollar Charter School Program (CSP) grant from the U.S. Department of Education to “increase the number of quality charter school seats by 8,200 students, especially for our most educationally disadvantaged and rural students, through start-up, replication and expansion. This grant received the support of many leaders across our state including Senate President Pro Tempore Brent Hill, Senate Education House Speaker Scott Bedke, U.S. Senator Mike Crapo, Congressman Mike Simpson, recently retired Governor Butch Otter, the Idaho Farm Bureau, and the J.A. and Kathryn Albertson Family Foundation.
Idaho’s public charter schools are an important part of our state’s evolving education landscape. As a sector, these schools are delivering for families and children. They are not, however, a replacement for traditional public schools. Rather, they are allies in helping Idaho improve its public education statewide and in providing new and different learning options for families and children in our rapidly growing state.