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Lawmakers reluctant to embrace innovation

Lawmakers reluctant to embrace innovation

Wayne Hoffman
March 8, 2010

The early graduation idea promoted by Reps. Steven Thayn of Emmett and Brandon Durst of Boise is the most innovative education concept to hit the Statehouse since the late 1990s. The Thayn/Durst plan, which passed the House 61-7 last month, would start a pilot project that would allow students to graduate early. That would save taxpayers money, a portion of which would be allotted to students in the form of a scholarship.

For the last dozen years, state lawmakers have done very little in terms of inspiring innovation in the state’s public school system. Arguably, the last innovation was 1998, when the Legislature authorized charter schools.

Charter schools give parents and students more options and more choice in how and where kids are educated. But the state established a six-school cap on the number of charters that can be opened each year. As a result, today there are more than 7,000 students waiting to get into a charter school of their choice, and it looks like that’s not going to change.

A bill pending before the state Senate would very slightly loosen the cap on charters, allowing for schools that cater to underserved populations to be exempt from the six-school restriction. Senate Education Chairman John Goedde of Coeur d’Alene argued Thursday that lifting the cap in this manner would allow Idaho to get money through the federal government’s “Race to the Top” education grant program.

On charter schools, Goedde is right for the wrong reasons.

The state should expand choice in education because choice promotes competition, innovation and increased parental investment in schooling. Those factors result in schools that work harder, improving education for all students.

The potential of federal grant money is a lousy reason to pass a bill to do anything. The potential that Boise could get federal grant money sparked a ridiculous race in Boise to open a streetcar system in downtown. Thousands of dollars have been wasted on a rail to nowhere. In the end, federal puppet masters decided to award the streetcar money elsewhere.

Even without the federal government, lawmakers are reluctant to expand charter schools. Senate Finance Chairman Dean Cameron of Rupert told colleagues Thursday that charter school expansion would be a hardship on the state budget.

“I have to stand in opposition based on the budgetary constraints that we face,” Cameron said, citing the state’s public school funding formula that protects schools from losing money in the event of a student exodus.

This argument bypasses the fact that the state’s public school funding formula, now 16 years old, is outdated and undermines the development of new charters. Furthermore, in the last dozen years that Idaho has experimented with charter schools, the state has gone from economic boom to bust and back twice.

In good years and bad, lawmakers have never had the willingness to expand charter schools. Based on the votes Thursday, Goedde’s bill is on life support in the Senate.

The Thayn/Durst legislation, also awaiting Senate action, is a pilot project that would, incidentally, be capped at 21 school districts and three charter schools statewide. One can imagine that if this program is wildly successful, in much the way charter schools have been, that lawmakers will resist expanding it, also.

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