The face of public education in Idaho is changing. Today it’s possible for families to take advantage of learning opportunities beyond their neighborhood schools. Right now, about one in five Idaho students in elementary school or high school attend a school of their choice—whether it’s a public charter school, a district magnet school, an alternative public school, a private school or a virtual school online.
And the numbers are growing. The Idaho Department of Education reports that enrollment in the state’s 50 public charter schools has doubled from around 10,000 in 2007-08 to more than 20,000 students this year. Another 11,000 students are waiting for a seat in one of those schools.
School choice is good for families and children. Idahoans value individual freedoms, including the freedom to select the schools and learning opportunities they think work best for their children. Parents who actively decide where to educate their kids have more skin in the game than those who simply take what they get. Those parents either don’t know or may not understand they have options, too.
Some school districts have embraced choice strategies of their own. In Meridian, the West Ada School District offers a range of options from science, technology and mathematics (STEM) academies and a culinary arts school to a rigorous International Baccalaureate Program. The district also authorizes the Meridian Medical Arts Charter High School and the Meridian Technical Charter High School. The Boise School District authorizes the Anser Charter School, which is one of Idaho’s top K-8 public schools.
School choice is not just for urban or suburban communities. Rural families benefit too. About 5,700 students — often from the remotest parts of the state—attend one of Idaho’s seven no-cost online schools.
In Salmon, the school district has embraced the Upper Carmen Charter School and its 86 K-8 students. Rathdrum, meantime, is home to North Idaho STEM Charter Academy one of the top STEM schools in the Pacific Northwest. In southern Idaho, the Advanced Regional Technical Education Coalition charter school works across five school districts to offer professional programs to nearly 200 students.
More students up and down the state are taking courses (sometimes advanced or even college-level courses unavailable in their home school or district) and gaining credits through online programs such as the Idaho Digital Learning Academy or California-based Khan Academy. The Khan Academy in Idaho worked in 49 schools, helping 10,500 students improve their math knowledge and performance last year.
School choice delivers for families, for students, and for taxpayers. Consider the state’s charter schools. On the 2012-13 state report cards, the latest available, 69 percent of Idaho’s public charter schools received a four- or five-star rating. On the 2014 SAT, six of the state’s nine top-performing high schools were charters.
According to a 2014 study by the University of Arkansas, the Idaho charter school sector had the second highest-rated “return on investment” in both math and reading in the country. That means for each dollar spent, Idaho’s charters maximized the return on student achievement. This return is critical, as the Gem State battles Utah for the lowest per pupil charter school funding in the United States at roughly $4,800 a student.
Fact is, school choice is paving the way towards better and more customized educational options for Idaho’s children. National School Choice Week, which runs January 25-31 this year, celebrates these advances in Idaho and around the United States. We look forward to the day when all parents and children can take advantage of the learning opportunities that suit them best.
Terry Ryan is president of the Idaho Charter School Network.