Since authorized for creation by the Legislature in 1998, Idaho has been home to 44 charter schools with a handful coming and going since then. There are currently 40 charter schools in the state.
How they are funded, created, maintained and the rationale for doing so involve a mix of public and private funding plus oversight issues unique to charter schools compared to a traditional K-12 education setting.
Tamara Baysinger is the director of the Public Charter School Commission (PCSC). She says a public charter school may be authorized by either the board of the local school district in which they are physically located, or by the PCSC. Proposed public charter schools must initially apply to the local school district board. The district board has three options: approve the petition, deny it or refer it to the PCSC.
If a district or the PCSC denies a petition, Baysinger said there is an appeals process.
In the event of an appeal, the superintendent of public instruction appoints a hearing officer to consider if the denial of the request to form a charter school was based on solid reasons. If not, the hearing officer could recommend that the petition be reconsidered.
Virtual public charter school operate somewhat differently in that petitions must be sent directly to the PCSC because there is not a “brick and mortar” factor (an actual physical facility) involved.
A key element with charter schools is funding. The Legislature is considering a bill that, if it becomes law, would allow the state’s charter schools to receive funding that, at present, is only available to traditional K-12 schools.
If it becomes law, the bill would move charter school funding closer to parity with traditional, district-operated schools.
Under current Idaho law, charter schools receive similar portions of state funding as traditional schools. Yet property tax revenues that are collected by local school districts are only spent on traditional schools, with charter schools prohibited from receiving any portion of them.
During House debate on the bill to increase charter school funding, Rep. JoAn Wood, R-Rigby, said “We have a law in this state that allows public charter schools, and we have a responsibility to be funding them.”
The chairman of the House Education Committee, Rep. Reed DeMordaunt, R-Eagle, said charter schools are in a “dire situation” in needing additional funds to remain open.
Now what about initial capital or startup money for a charter school?
“If they have found extra money so much the better,” says Baysinger. She said it is acceptable if the founding board has people who want to donate to the school in its initial creation, but it would not be required to have a large funding mechanism in place in order to be formed.
Idaho Code is even specific about outside help for charter schools. Idaho Code § 33-5208 (6) states that, “Nothing in this chapter shall be construed to prohibit any private person or organization from providing funding or other financial assistance to the establishment or operation of a public charter school.”
Penni Cyr, a teacher in the Moscow School District for 28 years, is now president of the Idaho Education Association (IEA). She said charter schools have a degree of funding flexibility not available to traditional K-12 schools. “They don’t have to do the ‘use it or lose it’ funding that traditional public schools have to use. So they can use their money that they get from the state in different ways.”
While charter schools are part of the public school system, they are able to craft a curriculum and teaching methods outside the K-12 norm.
Cyr explained that in creating a charter school system, “The intent was that they (charter schools) would be incubators of innovation. They were outside the normal policies of traditional public schools so they could go out and try new teaching methods or various things like that. The intent was to bring those things back into the traditional public schools, things that were successful, things that worked.”
The IEA president said that while charter schools are typically thought of as innovative, she hopes all public schools are innovative in their approach to educating students. “Charter schools are public schools. We need to have choice. IEA members believe students should have choice because all students need to find a place where they can grow, be successful and get the best education possible.”
Still, charter schools are created by their boards with the idea of approaching K-12 education differently. One such example is the Village Charter School in Boise, founded in 2010. The school’s founding document is based on what it calls the ACE approach to education: (A) Personal Accountability; (C) Consideration of Others; and (E) Equip Students for Future Situations
The Village Charter School’s founding document states, “There is a great need for options in education. Students are unique and have gifts which need to be cultivated through a variety of activities. Families need an option where each of their children can pursue individual interests within the same school.”
Ann Ritter is the president of the executive board for the Idaho School Board Association. She says a lot of time and energy go into forming a charter school, plus emotional involvement on the part of parents of the children. Because students come and go in a charter school, there is turnover among the parents thus the need for a new generation of enthused and committed parents to become involved in the school.
Since Idaho charter schools are just now in their second decade of existence, she said it will be interesting to see what some of the charter schools do in the future because sometimes it’s difficult for schools to "maintain the amount of enthusiasm." However, Ritter says she sees some charter school boards move into new generations of board members so that bodes well for the long-term prospects for those schools.
Each charter school must start out with a founding board, which usually consists of 4-10 members. The board develops a petition to be reviewed by the Idaho Department of Education for viability and to ensure the charter school proposal would be in compliance with Idaho Code. The department refers to this process as a sufficiency review.
The Idaho Department of Education has a charter school coordinator and there is a private coalition, the Idaho Charter School Network, whose mission is “to ensure and share the success of Idaho Public Charter Schools, for the benefit of Idaho children and families.” The organization is a nonprofit 501(c)(3) group.