Shut down that troubled charter school? Not so fast.

Updated June 27 at 11:16 a.m. with comments and information from Idaho Public Charter School Commission Director Jenn Thompson. 

The State Board of Education made a once-in-a-decade decision last week, siding with the Idaho Public Charter School Commission to permanently close a struggling school.

Another Choice Virtual Charter must shut its doors later this month.

The move was rare, but the message was clear: what the state giveth, the state can also taketh away.

“Can” is the key word here.

In Idaho, the charter commission, school districts and higher education institutions have authority to authorize charter startups — and can shut them down if they deem necessary. The seven-member commission, which authorizes 57 of the state’s 75 public charters, regularly reviews the performance and operations of most of the state’s charters, but rarely opts to close troubled ones down. From 2000 to 2011, the commission had voted just once to close a school.

In February, commissioners voted unanimously to shut down Another Choice following a long string of academic and operational concerns.

Another Choice got another chance after the State Board allowed a public hearing on the matter. That effort fell flat last week when the board sided with the charter commission to close the school indefinitely.

State Board President Kurt Liebich stressed the board’s belief in school choice, but added, “… (W)e also believe in public school accountability.”

Still, as the commission’s track record shows, the push to maintain school choice through charters has far outweighed efforts to shutter ones that continually struggle. And as Another Choice’s looming closure shows, there are a lot of moving parts to consider when shutting a school down, including the emotional toll it takes on students changing schools and teachers losing jobs.

Since 2000, charters have only strengthened their foothold in the state, bringing choice to families in communities urban, rural and anything in-between. Today, the schools enroll around 9% of the state’s 312,000-plus public K-12 students, thanks largely to widespread support among top state leaders and a trove of federal and private dollars earmarked for charter startups.

It’s not that there’s a shortage of struggling charters. The schools are regularly among Idaho’s highest and lowest performing, with virtual offerings like Another Choice, which typically serve high numbers of at-risk students, turning up at or near the bottom of statewide tallies comparing things like graduation rates and standardized test scores.

And some struggles transcend academics. In 2019, a third-party review of this commission-authorized Boise charter found “incompetent” financial practices. This Idaho Falls charter last year made thousands of dollars worth of unexplained payments to its administrators. The commission will consider contract renewals for both schools next year.

Another Choice’s struggles stemmed from years of academic and operational shortfalls, including authorization of hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars from the school’s head administrator and board chair to companies owned by that same administrator.

On any given year, the charter commission draws up a variety of conditions aimed at helping its struggling schools improve. Again and again, the commission grants its struggling schools chance after chance to stay open.

Part of the rationale is philosophical. Struggling schools can improve, charter commission chairman Alan Reed told EdNews in January. Visit any of the commission’s regularly scheduled meetings and you’ll hear discussions about how to help make that happen at certain schools.

Troubled charters have also made positive changes with the commission’s help over the years, said commission director Jenn Thompson, who pointed out that the commission’s investigations of issues at schools have led to school boards replacing ineffective administrators and correcting poor practices.

And schools that struggle on paper can also have a big impact on kids, Reed added, pointing to two graduation ceremonies he attended over a year ago: one featuring students at a high-performing charter and one for students at a low-performing virtual charter.

“Some of those kids wouldn’t have graduated had it not been for online schooling,” Reed said. The school might struggle, he added, but helping kids achieve something they might not have is “a wonderful thing.”

Reed reiterated his goal to continue providing time for struggling charters to improve instead of shutting them down.

But factors aside from academics also swirl around school-closure decisions, including social dynamics and employment. In 2019, two charters in Blackfoot, both run by the same board and administration, came under heavy fire from the commission after EdNews uncovered some $46,000 in unexplained payments to administrators at the school.

The ordeal fueled an uproar among supporters of both Bingham Academy and Blackfoot Charter Community Learning Center. Local authorities investigated but chose not to file charges.

One thing jumped out to me several times through the ordeal: despite a range of issues and questions at the schools, it had become a beloved place for dozens of students and their families.

Parents and students passionately defended the school at various public meetings I attended, lauding school choice as a saving grace for their kids. Take away the school, take away that choice, they argued.

These parents rallied with other advocates from across Idaho to push hard to keep the schools going.

The commission last year renewed Bingham Academy with financial conditions that will be monitored each year. If the school fails to meet those conditions on any given year, the commission could revoke its charter. The commission will consider BCCLC’s renewal in 2024.

The schools’ employees were among their most ardent supporters. Which brings up this reality: charters, like Another Choice and others that continually struggle, also provide jobs for educators across the state. Shutting one down means killing some of those jobs.

State leaders must come to terms with that reality when closing a school. In Another Choice’s case, it means forcing some 400 at-risk learners to find another place to learn, and at least 38 certified staffers to find another place to work.

The school and state leaders are weathering that reality now.

Devin Bodkin

About Devin Bodkin

EdNews assistant editor and reporter Devin Bodkin is a former high school English teacher who specializes in stories about charter schools and educating students who live in poverty. He lives and works in East Idaho. Follow Devin on Twitter @dsbodkin. He can be reached by email at [email protected].

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