Charters are no choice for Idaho’s minority students

The charter school movement in Idaho is often couched in terms of “choice” for families to choose a school that is best for the family and student. Terry Ryan, President of the Idaho Charter Network, wrote in a January “Voices” column that school choice aligns with the “freedom” that Idahoans desire.

Yet, the “freedom” to choose charter schools appears not to be a choice, or at least an uphill battle, for minority students in Idaho. Data from public record requests delivered by the State Department of Education indicates that consistently across the state minority population students are largely left out of Idaho’s charter schools.

Remember, charter schools are public schools; they are open to all of Idaho’s students regardless of ethnicity, religion, gender, or disability. Yet, in instance after instance, charter schools’ student demographic makeups are outrageously imbalanced in comparison to the communities’ demographics that they operate in.

A few examples from the State Dept. of Ed’s data:

Coeur d’Alene School District’s special education population makes up about 7.5 percent of their roughly 10,000 total student body. Yet, Coeur d’Alene Charter Academy, a school that is often touted as a flagship model in this state due to its “rigor” and high percentage of college enrollment, has less than 10 special education students out of its 700 student body (the Dept. of Ed redacts minority data when there are fewer than 10 students in order to prevent the possibility of a single student being identified).

Even assuming Coeur d’Alene Charter Academy had just missed the cut for redaction with nine special education students, that would still only equate to 1 percent of the student body.

In other words, CDA Charter Academy has a significant under-enrollment of special education students in comparison to the local public school district; this disparity means that CDA local public schools have an inequitable burden of providing services, which are often very expensive, to the community’s special education students.

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Another example: Victory Charter School operates in Nampa School District boundaries. Despite the fact that ethnic minority students make up 38 percent of Nampa’s roughly 15,000 student body, Victory Charter School only has 14 percent ethnic minority students in its roughly 400 student body; a disparity of 24 percent more than what should be expected if it was reflective of the surrounding community.

One final example: Liberty Charter is another charter operating in Nampa School District boundaries. Nampa has a Limited English Proficiency (LEP) population of about 6.5 percent of its 15,000 total student body, but Liberty Charter has fewer than 10 LEP students in its roughly 400 student body, resulting in the State Dept. of Ed redacting the data.

Even assuming Liberty just missed the threshold with nine LEP students, it would still only be 2 percent of its total student body qualifying as LEP; that would still create a significant disparity in comparison to the surrounding district, and burdens the surrounding district to supply LEP services, which like special education services, can be costly.

A sift through the data indicates a consistent pattern in which minority students are largely left out of Idaho’s charters in comparison to the local district the charter operates inside of. An obvious question presents itself querying how this outcome came to be, and more importantly what we are doing to correct the imbalance.

Terry Ryan argued in his January column that, “parents who actively decide where to educate their kids have more skin in the game than those who simply take what they get.” His conclusion, apparently, completely negates the possibility that parents are also actively choosing to send their children to the local public school, particularly for parents sending minority students.

Is it so impossible in Ryan’s world that the local public school is a great place providing an excellent quality education? Is it not also possible that the local public school either truly provides, or at least is perceived to provide, better programs for minority student populations such as special education and English Language Learner (ELL) programs?

We need to ask ourselves why parents of minority population students are actively choosing not to send their students to Idaho’s charters. Part of answering that question requires ensuring that charters are providing appropriate special services to minority populations that allow them free and equal access into charter facilities such as special education and ELL programs.

Charters often complain of an imbalanced funding formula in Idaho due to their inability to levy additional funds like a traditional school district. However, consider that the data released by the State Dept. of Ed indicates that charters, largely, are not equitably sharing the burden of providing services with the surrounding public school districts for minority students such as special education and ELL services which can be extremely expensive.

Fixing this imbalance first requires a general recognition that this disparity exists; the next step is developing an action plan to correct this situation and ensure that access to Idaho’s charters is truly a freedom that can be exercised by all of Idaho’s students.

Levi B. Cavener is a special education teacher in Caldwell. Data referenced in this column is from the State Department of Education and also can be found in entirety on his blog at IdahosPromise.org.