Shifting Sands: Idaho’s Changing Student Demographics and What it Means for Education


By Terry Ryan and Matthew Kitchen

Read the Shifting Sands Summary Report here or the Full Technical Report here.

Since Idaho’s first charters opened in 1998, over 50 of these schools have operated across the state (some have since closed). In recent years fewer new schools have been authorized to open, but the total population of charter school students has increased significantly and close to seven percent of the state’s 289,000 K-12 students now attend a charter school. At the same time the Idaho State Department of Education (ISDE) reports many students on wait lists for charter schools. This begs the question of: where should charter schools open in coming years to best help meet the needs of Idaho’s changing student demographics?

BoxIn Idaho, as in other states, charter schools operate under a charter agreement with an authorizing agency and are exempt from some of the state laws governing public education. The intent behind charter agreements is that charter schools will be given more autonomy with respect to matters of school operations including budget, staffing, and curriculum. In return charters are held accountable for meeting performance objectives that are set out in the charter agreement. Failing to meet performance standards set out in the school charter can, depending on specific terms of the contract, and state law governing charter school operations, lead to sanctions and ultimately the closing of a school.

Based on the intent language included in the state statute, it is clear that the goal for the establishment of Idaho charter schools is to provide new choices in school services for students, parents and school professionals. Idaho’s charter school program is now well into its adolescence, and the Idaho Charter School Network is interested in understanding the dynamic environment in which these schools operate. It is critical for the charter sector to be
strategic in the pursuit of new schools and expansion opportunities.

Meanwhile, other changes are afoot. To better understand changing demographics and what they might mean for education in the Gem State our two organizations teamed up, with grant support from the J.A. and Kathryn Albertson Foundation, to organize and lead an investigation of the state’s changing student demographics. Specifically, we wanted to see what population and household projections for the period 2014-19 would show and what this would mean for charter schools and Idaho’s school districts. The primary finding from this study is that the state’s student population will undergo significant changes in coming years. Population and household projections indicate that the future school-age population will be increasingly urban, more racially diverse and from lower income households. These trends will present challenges for many districts. Many rural districts will continue to lose students while more urban districts will struggle to meet growing enrollments. And Idaho’s schools will need to adapt to the changing needs of their student populations. Considerable additional details with respect to population and household change are included in the main body of this document and a technical background report.

Some high-level findings from the population and household projections for the period 2014-2019 follow:

  • Idaho’s school-age population has been getting increasingly diverse in terms of racial composition. This trend is expected to continue.
  • The Hispanic school-age demographic is expected to be the fastest growing group.
  • School-age population is expected to see a net increase in the 15-17 age group, but declines in both the 5-9 and 10-14 age groups.
  • Change varies greatly across the state. Census tracts that are projected to have a decline in student-age population are mostly in non-urban areas, while census tracts that are projected to have a total increase in school-age population are in a select few urban areas.
  • There will be an addition of approximately 23,500 new households.
  • The state is expected to see net growth in lower income households and net declines in households with incomes above $50,000.
  • Much of the state is projected to see an increase in the share of households with an income of less than $25,000. The exceptions are in a handful of urban areas where there are projected to be declines in the share of households with incomes of less than $25,000.

In order to gain insights into how charter schools in Idaho can continue to add value and better serve the state’s families we examined a wide variety of other data sources on district and charter school enrollments, attendance, performance, staffing, and funding. Key findings include:

  • Charter schools account for a steadily growing number of the state’s K-12 students.
  • Charter Schools serve a less diverse population of students than district run schools, but these numbers are narrowing.
  • Idaho’s student population growth is slowing, with many rural districts seeing a decline in student numbers.
  • Some districts struggle with disproportionately low attendance rates.
  • There are schools scattered across the state that struggle to educate students to reading and math standards. The problem is especially acute for 8th grade math, a key gateway to college and career readiness standards.
  • In the aggregate, statewide reading and math scores are similar for charter and district students. But there is more variation within the charter sector – with some high-flyers and low-performers.
  • As with the US as a whole, Idaho’s teachers and administrators are getting older.
  • State funding rules protect low enrollment districts, placing many charter schools at a disadvantage, specially those that are adding students.
  • Per pupil expenditures for districts and charter schools with larger enrollments is less than that for smaller schools and districts.
  • Increased reliance upon supplemental levies to fund district operations coincides with changes in state funding for education. Charter schools do not have this option.
  • Not all parts of the state have equal capacity for local funding, the value of property on a per student basis varies widely from district to district.
  • The variation in district expenditures per student is now more closely tied to the value of property within the district, and less tied to state funding allocations.
  • The share of expenditures on maintenance and operations that comes from state funds is 80 percent for district-operated schools and 94 percent for charter schools.

For Idaho’s charter schools to best meet the needs of the state’s changing demographics and education landscape, the sector needs to grow in ways that are strategic and targeted to the state’s high demand markets and to its neediest students. For this to happen charter school providers, authorizers and state policy- makers should consider the following:

1. Growing the Urban Market. Idaho’s urban areas are adding students fast. School districts in these areas can’t add new buildings quickly enough. These are the areas where some of the state’s current high-performing schools operate. These schools should be encouraged to expand their market share through strategies like incubation and the development of charter school management organizations.

2. Tackling the Rural Challenge. Significant parts of Idaho will see a continued decline in student enrollment. This may necessitate the consolidation of school programs, or developing alternative means of serving a spatially distributed student base. Charter school programs should work with rural districts and other education providers to help meet these needs. Charter schools could also serve rural educational needs through high quality, effectively designed and administered online programs. There may be a role for charter management organizations (with strong involvement from community partners) in terms of serving a multi-district regional market. Rural districts may face challenges associated with adequate staffing and provision of services for special needs populations. The kind of cooperative agreements and use of remote service delivery models that are sometimes used by charter school programs could offer alternatives to traditional methods of serving kids with demands beyond the core school services. Sharing resources and talent, as opposed to consolidating districts, may prove a better strategy for delivering efficiency while pre- serving local community involvement in its schools.

3. Responding to the Dynamics of Growth.  The changing age distribution of Idaho students will increase the near-term demands placed upon some secondary school programs only to be followed by enrollment declines in later years. Volatility in the student enrollment can present significant challenges for districts in terms of staffing and budgeting for individual school programs. It is not uncommon for charter school programs to incorporate multi-age classrooms and curricula or other strategies that respond to an age skewed population of students. The flexibility available to charter schools, in terms of curriculum, staffing, use of technology and budget development, might be put to use to design programs that respond to this volatility in the student population.

4. Serving a More Diverse Student Body. Charter schools in Idaho are serving a more diverse student population now than it did 5-10 years ago. But the charter sector needs to do more. The charter school student population is still less diverse in terms of race, income and special needs than the statewide population of public school students as a whole. These are the fastest growing demographic of Idaho’s K-12 students, and for charters to grow and add value they need to serve more of these students. Supports that might help make this happen include: creating a school information clearinghouse to provide all parents – not just those with the time and resources to explore choice options on their own – with easy to understand and bilingual information about schools and their programs. Charter school models with experience working with high-need students should be recruited to Idaho, and their growth and expansion supported. State funding for charters needs to be increased, or at least harmonized so that schools that grow and add students don’t see per pupil funding decline.

5. Focusing on Attendance. Students who attend class do better than those who don’t. Unfortunately, there are parts of the state plagued by chronic low attendance rates. Charter school programs with a record of effectively targeting absenteeism in high poverty communities should be encouraged to target these areas as a way to address problems of low student achievement. As the student population in Idaho continues to change over time these kinds of schools and programs may have an increasing role in the future of Idaho’s education system. Programs that charter schools have used to target absenteeism include extending the school year to better accommodate lower attendance during certain parts of the year, and having staff that repeatedly contact parents of students that are missing school to ensure better attendance.

6. Pushing Innovation. Charter schools have slightly more flexibility when it comes to hiring teachers and how teachers are deployed. But, more should be done. In order to allow maximum flexibility for charter schools, the legislature should consider allowing charter schools to avoid using certified teachers, especially when it comes to hard-to-staff subjects like advanced mathematics or career-tech fields like welding. Charters should also be encouraged and freed up to create “an elite corps of remote teachers.” These educators could work on-line with not only charter school students but also students in the state’s remotest school districts.

7. Making School Funding Work. Many of the service delivery challenges that will be faced in coming years by charter schools and school districts alike could be better addressed with state funding formulae that fund students and student needs rather than the current approach of funding staffing levels and staff experience.

Read the Full Summary of the Shifting Sands Report here. You can also view the Full Technical Report Here.


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