Skip links

At the Wheel of Idaho’s Public Charter School Program

by Terry Ryan & Roger Quarles
This post originally appeared on the Thomas B. Fordham Institute Flypaper Blog
A willfully one-sided and misguided “study” emerged the other day from something that calls itself the “Network for Public Education” that purports to show that the federal government has wasted a lot of money trying to expand and improve America’s public charter schools. This outfit, which appears to get support from the teacher unions and their fellow travelers, cites several states that, in the authors’ view, have mishandled the money and bungled the program.
One of them is Idaho, where we live and work on education issues. Together we had the honor of teaming up with other Gem State entities as a consortium led by the nonprofit Bluum to obtain and manage a substantial grant from the federal Charter Schools Program (CSP). And it’s going great.
In our state, as in many fast-growing parts of the country, public charter schools are an important safety valve for managing enrollment growth. Idaho’s 2019 K–12 public school enrollment was 307,416 up 5,084 students from a year earlier. Four in ten of the seats for these new pupils are in charter schools.
To help Idaho expand quality seats in the charter sector to accommodate its growing and diversifying student population, the nonprofit Bluum partnered with the J.A. and Kathryn Albertson Family Foundation, the State Board of Education, the Idaho Public Charter School Commission, and the nonprofit Building Hope to compete in the federal CSP. In 2017 we lost to other states that made stronger cases for such support. But this past October, after two years of work, revisions, and improvements to our plan, Idaho was awarded a $17.1 million five-year grant from the U.S. Department of Education.
These federal dollars are committed to growing the number of quality charter seats in Idaho by 8,200 students. Today, the state has fifty-five charter schools in operation, serving over 24,000 students. That’s almost 8 percent of Idaho’s total K–12 enrollment. The CSP grant will support at least nineteen charter schools in their start-up, replication or expansion phases and will build on more than $45 million in private investments that have been made in the charter sector over the past six years by the Albertson Family Foundation, the Charter School Growth Fund, the New Schools Venture Fund and other state and national partners.
In other words, federal dollars are matched in the Gem State by serious private and public support to open and expand quality charters in places where communities struggle to keep up with enrollment growth and/or need additional solid education options for their children. In this growth lies the opportunity to create new schools that provide different, innovative, and hopefully high-performing learning options for kids who need them and families that want them.
Idaho’s charter sector isn’t perfect, of course, but it’s very strong, and that academic success was critical to our receiving the federal support. In February, the Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO) at Stanford University reported that Idaho’s “Brick-and-mortar charter schools in urban or suburban settings are associated with significantly higher progress in math and reading compared to traditional public schools that is equivalent to thirty additional days of learning in either subject.” What’s more, “brick-and-mortar charter school students in town or rural settings in Idaho show higher academic progress than traditional public school students in math and reading, that is equivalent to forty-one and thirty additional days of learning, respectively.”
This impressive reality contrasts starkly with the assertions made in that dubious Network study, which erroneously alleged that Idaho stopped applying for “federal SEA grants, according to a spokesperson, because the federal government stepped up its insistence that states have documented plans for closing failing schools.” The truth is Idaho’s state government stopped applying because the costs of administering the federal dollars were significantly greater than Uncle Sam was willing to reimburse.
So our consortium applied on behalf of Idaho. Bluum’s management of the federal CSP grant is a good deal for all concerned, including both state and federal taxpayers. Fully 90 percent of the $17.1 million will go directly to public charter schools. Another 7 percent goes to improve the work of the state’s charter authorizers (i.e., quality-control agents), to provide technical assistance to schools, and to enable research to distill and share lessons from the program while making it better. Just 3 percent goes to administration—and that reimburses only half of what it will cost our team to actually administer the federal CSP grant over five years.
Before ever receiving a federal penny, Bluum invested $145,000 of philanthropic dollars in staff time, legal fees, consulting expertise, technology, and in building a grant management system. None of that will be reimbursed. But it was a good investment, for that’s what it took to create the capacity to do a first-rate job of managing a compliance-heavy and highly scrutinized federal grant.
Why do this work when it costs money, causes plenty of bureaucratic hassles, and faces staunch criticism from many quarters that cannot abide charter schools (including the aforementioned network)? Because Idaho needs to grow new schools, create more great schools, and improve some of the schools we have. We need to deliver for families and children. We do this work with eyes wide open and white knuckles on the wheel.

Don’t Miss a Blog Post – Subscribe to our Newsletter!