The Idaho House of Representatives closed the 2011 legislative session on a high note when it passed a bill lifting the cap on the number of public charter schools that can be created each year. Charter schools have been hugely important to education reform: demand is high, parents love them and they are accountable in a way that isn’t possible for the regular public schools. Legislation facilitating the creation of more public charter schools should be a priority in 2012.
It is arrogant and insensitive for public charter school opponents to ask “what’s the rush?” to lift the charter school cap. There are more than 9000 students waiting to get into these innovative schools – a nearly 30% increase from last year. With academic results at least as good as or better than those of the regular public schools, public charter schools enjoy an incredible 97% satisfaction rate with parents.
Why do so many parents want their children in public charter schools and why, once they’re in, are 97% of parents satisfied? The short answer is charter schools can’t help it. Unlike the regular public schools, charters get paid only when students actually attend, so it behooves them to do everything possible to attract and motivate students.
Regular public schools receive local property tax dollars regardless of student enrollment. Public charter schools do not. Right now, many regular districts are conducting campaigns – at taxpayer expense – asking patrons to vote in favor of raising their taxes. It is the nature of these levies to pass: a small tax spread over a large population is almost never unpopular enough to garner much protest. Additionally, usually only those who are most motivated for the levy to pass turn out to vote. Property tax monies are unrelated to either the product the schools turn out or to customer satisfaction. Receiving them does nothing to make the regular system more accountable.
To find a demotivator truly turning schools away from the students they’re supposed to serve, consider that regular public schools also can receive money for students who aren’t enrolled. When a district loses more than one percent of its students between school years, it still receives funding nearly identical to the previous year when it had more students. If a student leaves the district in favor of another public school, such as a public charter school, Idahoans pay twice: once for the child to go to his school, and again for the child to not go to the school he used to attend. Last year taxpayers were on the hook for the equivalent of more than 800 of these ghost students. The Luna school reform package repealed the law allowing this, but fear of a lawsuit prompted passage of a similar law which, thankfully, will sunset at the start of the 2012-2013 school year.
Public charter schools show there is an effective, hugely popular way to do public school that costs less and yields results at least as good as the current system. Public charter school opponents have claimed we need the cap because public charter schools cost the state too much. This is the case only because state money doesn’t follow the child. Once this changes in 2012, the legislature will no longer have any financial reason to keep the charter school cap in place. Removal of the cap would be a strong step forward towards fulfilling demand and true public school accountability.