It seems more and more Idaho families want their children to attend charter schools as an alternative to public schools.
According to figures provided by the Idaho Department of Education, the waiting list for charter schools has experienced large growth in recent years. In 2008, some 6,981 students awaited entry into charter schools, a number that increased to 7,500 in May of 2009. The latest figure, from May of last year, shows 9,304 Gem State students waiting to be admitted to charter schools.
The number might be elevated due to multiple entries of names, but the department isn’t sure how many duplicates may be on the list.
To gain entry into charter schools, parents shop around for a setting which might fit their student and then apply for that school. The student’s name is then placed on a waiting list. Students’ names are drawn at random in a lottery process to determine who gains entry. Those who are not picked are re-entered into the drawing for the next year.
Charter and traditional schools often butt heads over money for education. Charter schools receive money directly from the state, while districts receive that money, but also have one fiscal tool charters don’t: property taxes. Briana LeClaire, education analyst with the Idaho Freedom Foundation, says charter schools are adept at doing more with less money because they only receive about 85 percent of the total dollars for education when compared to traditional schools.
Traditional schools argue charter academies cut district funding because once a student leaves a district in favor of a charter, the money follows the student. It’s as if there are two competing school districts in the same area and whichever one the student chooses receives the money to educate the pupil. Districts say that leads to job loss, while charters argue that public schools should do a better job of educating students if they want to keep them.
Melissa McGrath, communications director for the state agency, says the growing numbers shows an increased interest in alternatives to traditional schools. “Clearly, there is a demand for more choice within public education,” said McGrath.
LeClaire said the numbers prove families are hungry for school choice. “The growing numbers prove if you build it, they will come,” said LeClaire. “When families hear they have school options, they want to choose them.”
LeClaire took aim at Idaho’s cap on new charter school creation, a regulation prohibiting the formation of more than six annually. “Idaho should remove the six-new-charters-per-year cap, enable more charter school authorizers like universities, hospitals and cities, and enact tax credit scholarship programs for private schools so that school choice supply can some day meet demand,” said LeClaire.
Another stakeholder in the charter school situation, Jane Wittmeyer with the Coalition of Idaho Charter School Families, agrees with LeCleaire’s assessment of the rising waiting list number. “It’s reflective of the need of more charter schools,” said Wittmeyer. “The Legislature needs to lift the cap so kids have real choice in education.”
In 2010’s legislative session, the Senate Education Committee approved a bill to lift the cap because removal would have helped Idaho gain access to federal education money under the Race to the Top Program, but the measure never cleared the full Senate. Midway through the process of passing the cap removal measure, it was announced that Idaho did not qualify for the federal funds, essentially killing the measure.
The major project of the 2011 legislative session, Superintendent Tom Luna’s education reform package, includes a provision that would allow colleges and universities to create charter schools under certain conditions. That, says Luna’s spokesman, is one example of the state department working toward greater school choice. “Since Luna took office in 2007, he has worked to expand choice and ensure families have many options to provide the best education possible for their children,” said McGrath.
Wittmeyer said that her group feels Luna has done his job in promoting charter schools. “He has been a champion of school choice,” said Wittmeyer. “He understands choice in education.
Note: IdahoReporter.com is published by the Idaho Freedom Foundation.