Return Operational Flexibility to Idaho’s Public Charter Schools
by Terry Ryan, CEO
This past year saw a growth in Idaho’s charter public school enrollment of over 1,200 new students. This is the largest expansion in new charter school seats in the Gem State since the 2012-13 school year. Despite this growth in student numbers, there is work to be done to improve the operational landscape for the state’s charter schools.
Fact is, Idaho’s charter schools have become the most regulated public schools in the state. How can this be? The state’s charter schools are required to follow the majority of the federal and state issued rules and regulations that apply to traditional public district schools, and like traditional district schools charters must operate within the parameters of more than 25 distinct funding silos that prescribe how schools must spend their money.
But, unlike traditional district schools, charter schools must also comply with the oversight of charter school authorizer(s). In Idaho, public school districts and the Idaho Public Charter School Commission serve as charter authorizers. Every charter school has to have an authorizer, the entity that approves it and determines, on the basis of performance, whether to extend or end a charter’s right to operate. The 36 charter schools authorized by the state’s public charter school commission, for example, sign a performance certificate with the commission. This 22-page document spells out in detail how charter schools will be held accountable for their performance. That’s fair if things stopped there, but charters aren’t getting any of the operational flexibility from state rules and regulations for this extra level of accountability.
Back in the 1990s when charter school laws in Idaho and across the country were created, the “big idea” behind these schools was that in return for performance accountability they would be freed from many of the regulations governing district schools and thereby enabled to map their own path to innovation and educational quality. These operational freedoms were to be around things like uses of money, staffing flexibility, and creative uses of time, technology and non-certified staffing.
Jump to 2017, there is little space for charters to be different from their district brethren. My colleagues and I at the Idaho Charter School Network are committed to advocating for increased charter school flexibilities so that Idaho can get closer to the charter idea of “accountability for performance” in return for “true operational flexibilities.”
This effort to roll-back the input rules and regulations confronting charter public school will not be easy. There are good people in public policy and public education who believe charters should simply follow the same rules as district schools as a matter of fairness, or that providing charter schools with increased flexibilities will give charter schools unfair advantages or that providing flexibility for charter schools will open the door to chaos and charters running amuck. Such arguments miss the point of charter schools.
We are not arguing against holding charter schools accountable for their academic performance. In speaking with many of the state’s charter school leaders in recent months there is a clear understanding that charter schools should deliver quality and measurable instructional opportunities for their students. There is even general, if not universal, agreement that those schools that fail to deliver over time should lose their right to operate. District schools, in contrast, never close for academic failure. So, let’s hold charter schools accountable for their performance, but in return, it is appropriate to find ways to offer these schools more space to be different.
According to the Idaho State Department of Education’s web site, “Charter schools give parents a choice to sending their children to a school that uses innovative methods to provide a quality education.” It is time to help ensure that Idaho’s charter schools do in fact have the space to innovate and try new things for their students.
Idaho’s charter schools have earned this right to be different. Most Idahoans support charter public schools. Some of Idaho’s highest-performing public schools are charter schools. The charter schools, as a group, deliver an excellent Return on Investment for Idaho taxpayers (see here). There are somewhere between 6,500 and 11,000 students who want to attend a charter school but currently are on waitlists. If the 21,000 or so students enrolled in Idaho’s charters were all in one school district, it would be the third largest district in the state after the West Ada and Boise school districts.
What could Idaho’s public charter school sector deliver if they were given some of their operational flexibilities back? It is past time to find out.