Friday, June 19, 2015


Charter Schools

Charter schools are public schools operating under the supervision of a Board of Trustees, which may be elected or appointed. The Board is held accountable by whichever agency charters the school, be that the Board of Trustees of a local school district or the Idaho State Board of Education.

According to the Idaho Department of Education's Charter School web page:

"In 1998 Idaho's legislature passed the Idaho Charter School Law. Since the law was passed a total of 57 charter schools have opened and eight of the schools have closed. As of the 2014-2015 school year, there are eight virtual charter schools, some with a blended model of online and onsite capabilities. There are 41 "brick and mortar" charter schools in operation."

Specifically, House Bill 517 established the petition procedure for charter schools:


(1)  Any  person  may request the board of trustees of a school  district  to  establish  a  charter school, or to convert an existing school within the school district to charter
status...A petition  to  establish  a  new charter school shall be submitted to the board of trustees of the district for review  after the petition has been signed by not less than thirty 
(30) qualified electors of the district."

After lengthy negotiations, ANSER, a school emphasizing Expeditionary Learning, multi-grade classrooms, and small class sizes, became the first Idaho Charter School in 1999, authorized by the Boise School District. ANSER initially offered its program at a gymnastics facility on River Street in Boise, and later moved to a building in Garden City.

Many legislative changes have followed, but among the most important occurred after districts began to reject charter applications, primarily on the basis of lack of a feasible fiscal plan.  In 2005, the legislature established the Idaho Charter Commission, which functioned under the auspices of the Idaho Board of Education. The Charter Commission could approve charters that were rejected by school districts.

There are currently 48  charter schools in operation in the state of Idaho. 13 are authorized by districts, and 35 by the Idaho Charter Commission. 8 are primarily or completely virtual schools. 9 subscribe to the Harbor curriculum, a skills-based, discipline intensive program. 8 charter schools have closed since 1998, and 1 (Hidden Springs) was closed and reopened as a Boise District school.  Charter school enrollment has grown rapidly since the authorizing law was passed, from under 1% of the public school student population in Idaho to almost 8%.

The intent of the legislature was included in HB517, as follows:

"(1)  Improve student learning;
(2)  Increase learning opportunities for all students, with special emphasis on expanded learning experiences for students;
(3)  Include the use of different and innovative teaching methods;
(4)  Create new professional opportunities  for  teachers,  including  the opportunity to be responsible for the learning program at the school site;
(5)  Provide  parents  and  students with expanded choices in the types of
educational opportunities that are available within the public school system;
(6)  Hold the schools established under this chapter accountable for meeting measurable student educational standards..."

Certainly, Idaho's first charter school, ANSER, met those criteria. However, in March 2013, the Office of Performance Evaluations released a report entitled "Policy Differences Between Charter and Traditional Schools" in which they examined the purported differences between charter and traditional schools, and found that:

"As public education policies have changed, we found that the elements intended to distinguish charter schools are no longer as distinct. In many cases, traditional schools have found ways to offer many of the expanded choices once available at charter schools. Now students in both charter and traditional schools are offered additional opportunities such as specialized curricula, different instructional methods, and online instruction." (Executive Summary, page x).

The OPE report also raised questions about the demography of charter schools when compared with traditional public schools, especially with Limited English students:

"Putting these numbers into percentages, 6 percent of total district students were identified with Limited English proficiency compared with less than 0.5 percent of total charter school students." (page 39).

In April, 2015, Levi Cavener, a  Special Education teacher in the Vallivue District, wrote an op-ed for Idaho Education News entitled "Charters are no Choice for Idaho's Minority Students" Using State Department of Education data, Cavener revealed that most charters had low percentages of Special Education, Limited English, and Free/Reduced students compared with the districts in which they were located. 

Though Idaho Charter Network personnel wrote responses that were published in Idaho Ed News, the Annual Report from the Idaho Charter Commission that supported Cavener's argument and led to another op-ed entitled "Charters Must Now Recognize Disparity Exists".

Finally, Centro de Communidad y Justica (Center for Community and Justice) filed a complaint with the United States Office of Civil Rights against the State of Idaho, Idaho Board of Education,  Idaho Department of Education, Idaho Charter School Commission, and the 48 Idaho Charter Schools and their Boards, utilizing data from the Charter Commission and State Department of Education to allege discrimination based on race, color, national origin, ethnicity, and disability.

Among the statements in the complaint is this one:

"Although the CCJ has attempted to persuade the Idaho legislature, the Idaho Department of Education, and the Idaho Charter School Commission that this systemic discrimination should be rectified, Idaho official have turned a deaf ear to CCJ's concerns and refused to engage in any meaningful discussion."

The relief sought by the CCJ includes:

  • a thorough investigation of Idaho's charter schools
  • a determination that the (Idaho Charter School) Act violates federal law
  • a determination that the Act discriminates based upon race, color, national origin, ethnicity and disability
  • a requirement that Idaho Charter School lottery system be completely revamped
  • a requirement that a comprehensive busing system be implemented statewide to remove geographical inequities in charter schools
  • a mandate that all charter schools implement free/reduced lunch programs
  • a mandate that Idaho apply a broad range of approaches to prevent the reoccurence of the discrimination claimed.
In the final post of this series, we'll discuss open enrollment as a form of school choice.