The Idaho Charter Schools Story

Idaho charter schools were granted state authority to operate as public schools in 1998. But 26 years later, their purpose, function, effectiveness, funding and how they differ from what we call traditional public schools remains a mystery to much of the public. That’s not right, or good!

It’s scary to think we have politicians in charge and we trust them—to a point—to provide meaningful oversight. We best be watching them work with a bit of this Idaho charter schools saga in mind.

Basically, Idaho charter schools are of two distinct types (legally two others—not yet used).

District-authorized charter schools are school district approved through a locally-elected school board. (So, yes, we need to pay attention locally and vote.)

Commission-authorized are another story—THE STORY.

This story begins in 1998, but we’ll skip through the 26 years quickly. It began with two routes for Idaho charter schools to be approved; through the local school districts, and through the Idaho State Board of Education (ISBE). All petitions to open a charter school went through the local school boards first. If denied, there was an appeals process that could land the charter under the state board of education. ISBE would then “assume the role of the chartering entity.”

In 2005 (based on a committee study done in 2004), a slew of charter school laws were passed including the official creation of “the public charter school commission” as a third way “to control the public charter school” independently from any school district board.

Importance: Two things, 1) we had No Child Left Behind advancing and financing “accountability, flexibility, and choice” as reforms, and 2) the commission was not independent from the state board at this point.

Idaho Welcomed Charter Growth

By 2013, a new hired-gun arrived. Charter school expert, Terry Ryan, came to assist Idaho charter schools in securing facilities financing, among other things. He left his work in Ohio behind and got to Idaho about the same time our own Office of Performance Evaluations (OPE) was looking at policy differences between charter schools and traditional public schools.

… in 1998, legislative intent was written to identify specific elements that would distinguish a charter school from a traditional school…. we found that the
elements once intended to distinguish a charter from a traditional school have become less clear.”

And the OPE made recommendations to the legislature. But as it happened, in 2014, the Idaho legislature handed over more authority to the commission in making policy to govern themselves and in making recommendations to the state board “regarding oversight” of Idaho charter schools. Meanwhile …

A special state audit of charter-school sponsorships shows a “broken system” and “highlights the need for increased sponsor oversight of schools,” [Ohio] State Auditor Dave Yost’s office said. The audit was done to determine whether sponsors “sufficiently protect taxpayers’ dollars.”

“Sponsorship” in Ohio is what Idaho calls “authorizing.”

Mr. Ryan kept busy in Idaho working on several charter start-ups, establishing non-profits, and lobbying lawmakers. That last piece seemed to really pay off in 2021 when the Idaho legislature passed law allowing the commission to relocate their office away from the state board offices. Plus, the law took away having the senate pro tempore and speaker of the house each appoint two commissioners. All appointees are now through the governor with senate approval.

That brings us to now, 2024, facing what looks to be a pivotal decision—a bill— HO422 “Accelerating Charter Replication.”

Can We Trust the Idaho Charter Schools Industry to Multiply Under Their Rules, Or Ours?

People will need to decide for themselves. And what we really need are facts. But we don’t have those. The OPE recommendations mentioned above were never followed up on by the legislature.

Consider whether the elements intended to distinguish charter schools from traditional schools are still relevant. If so, consider creating a formalized, statewide mechanism to measure and track the desired outcomes linked to those elements.

As Idaho continues to make advancements in educational data collection, policymakers may wish to commission a comprehensive comparative study of student performance between charter and traditional schools. Idaho OPE, 2013

If lawmakers are going to want to compare charter and traditional student performance, they better hurry. HO422 “Accelerating Charter Replication” does not say students will use the “same standardized tests” as the public school students must take. That’s one of the many changes.

And with good reason to believe that the commission broke the rules of charter law in considering replication of the Treasure Valley (Hillsdale Barney Charter) Classical Academy —twice— we need to add a comparative study of district-authorized versus commission-authorized.

Build trust through transparency and by following the rule of law.