Idaho’s Superintendent of Public Instruction Candidates and School Choice

Mitch Coffman Primary/Secondary Education

Candidates for Idaho State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Luna and Stan Olson spoke recently on two separate occasions at Sage International Public Charter School in Boise on the topic of “The Sustainability of Charter Schools in Idaho.” Neither was asked to address specific questions but the freewheeling sessions brought forth each candidate’s thoughts on school choice.

Stan Olson
Stan Olson oversaw changes in Boise during his eight-year tenure as district superintendent. Boise opened enrollment and started transforming dying neighborhood schools into schools of choice. Olson was frank about why: Boise was rapidly losing students and wanted some of those kids – and their per-pupil funding – back. Before pursuing any changes, he sought the blessing of neighboring Meridian School District superintendent Christine Donnell. She gave it because Meridian was gaining at least a thousand kids per year.

Choice slowed the bleeding in Boise. Even though enrollment numbers have steadily dropped for a decade, every year hundreds of kids living outside the district choose Boise schools. The Harbor Method school, math and science magnet junior high and other schools of choice have lengthy waiting lists.

This begs the question: why hasn’t Boise created or transformed more of it schools and attracted even more students? The district had the opportunity to do so when Rolling Hills, Sage International School and The Village petitioned the Board of Trustees for charters. However, whether chartered by its surrounding district or by the state Charter School Commission, a charter school, not any district, receives and controls the school’s per-pupil funding entitlement.

The Boise School District rejected all three charter petitions with Olson claiming it was because the school’s business plans were poor. The state Charter School Commission disagreed, granting charters to Rolling Hills and Sage, and The Village is slated to open in fall 2011.

Olson prefers the public school establishment control school choice through the existing district structure. He is against removing the six-per-year charter school legislative cap.

Tom Luna
After being elected state Superintendent of Public Instruction in 2006, Tom Luna reorganized the Department of Education and created a Division of Innovation and School Choice. He sees it as the Department’s job to facilitate charter school creation.

During his talk Luna mentioned reforms which will need executive branch leadership followed by legislative action. The six-per-year cap on new charter schools must be removed. Restricting innovation shows Idaho isn’t serious about education reform – a fact not lost on private entities giving money to education reform like the Bill and Melinda Gates and Walton Family foundations. The cap also took Idaho out of the running for Race to the Top federal funds.

Luna also cited Idaho’s need for more charter school authorizers. Currently a charter school can petition for a charter from either the school district surrounding the location where the charter school will be physically located or from the Idaho Charter School Commission. In other states universities, cities and even hospitals can authorize charter schools.

Luna rejected the idea that charter school students are more expensive than regular public schools. Some charter schools receive higher per-pupil funding from the State of Idaho due to the state funding formula, but all charter schools are less expensive for the taxpayer because they don’t take local property taxes. The state education funding formula needs to be reworked to reflect school choice – another task which will require strong executive branch leadership and then legislation.

The Idaho Freedom Foundation does not endorse candidates or take a position on who should win elective office. We hope whoever wins the race will lead the legislature closer to education freedom and school choice.