This has been a bad summer for the Idaho Public Charter School Commission (PCSC). The recording of their April executive session, apparently recorded and shared by their own staff via a public records request, is painful listening. The inappropriate comments made about the city of Jerome, its school district and its families and children have generated fitting public criticism.
It has also led some to call for changes to the commission and how it works. Any structural changes that might be made need to be well-considered and publicly debated. History and context matter here.
The PCSC is tasked with a tough job. Its board members are unpaid volunteers appointed to their roles by either the Governor, the Speaker of the House or the Senate President Pro Tempore. The commission has to balance competing interests in opening schools in communities where some people don’t even want the competition, while also holding these same schools accountable for their academic, operational and financial performance. It is a difficult balancing act to get right, and rarely will all stakeholders be satisfied or happy with PCSC decisions.
Recall, Idaho’s charter school commission was born in controversy. It was launched in 2004 after it became clear that many of the state’s traditional school districts would not authorize charter schools on their own. For charter school supporters, the commission was a necessary creation (some might say evil) if Idaho was to grow its public charter school sector and launch more school choices and learning opportunities for its families and children.
The reaction to the birth of this independent charter school authorizer by traditional school district supporters and advocates was swift. It also laid bare the simmering tensions around public charter schools. “That statewide thing is just rotten,” said Republican Senator Tom Gannon of Buhl who spoke for many at the time. “It takes out of local hands any control over the creation of a charter school. You gotta realize the places I represent – Buhl, Filer, Castleford, Homedale, Marsing – you could destroy the public school system.”
In addition to being responsible for opening schools that compete with existing district schools for students, attention and support the commission is tasked with holding its authorized schools accountable for their performance. According to Idaho’s charter school statute, an important component of the legislative intent of the law is to: “Hold the schools… accountable for meeting measurable student educational standards.” For many, “accountability” is a dirty word. It means “bureaucrats” from outside a school or even a local community making judgements about their performance based on things like test scores and financial data.
Yet, holding public charter schools accountable for a basic level of financial and academic performance is a necessary public good for taxpayers, families and students alike. Consider the story of the Odyssey Charter School in Idaho Falls. In October of 2014, the school folded after it failed to garner required accreditation and it couldn’t pay its bills. Its failure resulted in academic disruption for students and families who had to find a new school mid-semester.
It also required the state of Idaho to pay the school’s teachers for an entire year even though they had no students to teach. The PCSC has a role to play in trying to prevent this sort of thing from happening in the future. The reality is that some charter schools fail, and they need to be closed in ways that protect students and taxpayers alike.
Despite recent headlines and the debacle around the PCSC’s executive session recording, Idaho’s charter school sector is generally strong, high performing and in demand by parents. Idaho charter’s regularly rank in the top of all public schools when it comes to SAT scores and I-SAT scores. There are more than 55 charter schools in Idaho serving over 24,000 students (about 8 percent of all Idaho public school students), and there are somewhere between 6,000 to 10,000 students on charter school waitlists. The PCSC is Idaho’s largest authorizer, with a portfolio comprising 73 percent of Idaho’s 56 charters.
Idaho’s charter schools are also an important safety-valve for creating new school seats in a rapidly growing state. According to the Idaho Ed News, in March Idaho’s total 2019 public K-12 school enrollment was 307,416 up 5,084 from a year earlier. Four in 10 of these new school seats were in public charter schools.
The Idaho Public Charter School Commission has an important role to play in sustaining and growing Idaho’s public charter schools. The frustration and demand for action triggered by the PCSC’s recorded executive session must be balanced by the need for a strong, unbiased, transparent, and data-driven statewide authorizer committed to growing and protecting the state’s public charter schools. We need to protect the baby while we clean up the bath water around her.
Written by Terry Ryan, the CEO of the Boise-based nonprofit Bluum.