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Seeking Balance: Authorizers Work to Adapt to Idaho’s New Public Charter School Law

By Alan Gottlieb

As the founder and leader of the high-performing Compass Public Charter School in Meridian, Kelly Trudeau sees a lot to like in Idaho’s newly updated public charter school law.

In particular, Trudeau is fond of a provision that provides established successful schools like hers with a 12-year charter renewal if Compass demonstrates strong academic performance and solid financial and operational systems. Schools performing at a less optimal level can get a renewal term of six years.

“We are performing well as a school and we don’t have any financial issues,” Trudeau said of her 19-year-old K-12 school. “If that’s the case, why should we not be granted some kind of meaningful benefit?”

Trudeau drew an analogy between tiered charter renewal periods and how teachers differentiate instruction for students with varying needs. Just as some students need more attention from teachers than others, so do some charter schools require more attention from their authorizers if they are struggling with academics or to make financial ends meet.

Other schools, Trudeau said, are functioning at a high level and benefit most from being left to chart their own course.

“These longer renewal periods free up (the Idaho Public Charter School Commission) staffers to provide additional support to schools not meeting expectations and help them be more successful,” Trudeau said.

That last point hits upon one of the key elements of the revamped law that has received less attention than others: the potential to strengthen charter school authorizing in Idaho. Under the law, authorizers are required to “continually monitor the performance and legal compliance of the public charter schools it oversees, including collecting and analyzing data, and may conduct prearranged site visits, if needed, to support ongoing evaluation according to its performance certificate.”

That sounds good in theory, but in reality, many school districts, especially in rural communities, lack the staff or expertise to perform authorizers’ functions adequately.

And The Idaho Public Charter School Commission, which has authorized the lion’s share of the state’s charter schools, is understaffed based on national comparisons – it has just four full-time employees – and at times it has seemed overwhelmed by its workload.

To perform their oversight responsibilities adequately, authorizers need resources and support, and that is where Bluum has stepped in to try and help.

The recipient of a five-year $24.9 million federal Charter School Program grant in 2023 (the organization’s second), Bluum has contracted with the National Charter Schools Institute (NCSI) to provide technical assistance and professional support for the Idaho Public Charter School Commission; as well as for local school districts that authorize public charter schools and want the assistance. The $198,000 contract runs from February 2024 through February of 2025, and could be extended if all parties so desire.

Jim Goenner, NCSI’s president and CEO, heads a team that is working directly with the commission and its staff. NCSI has subcontracted work with district authorizers to the National Network for District Authorizing.

Idaho’s new law requires some changes to the state’s charter school Performance Framework, which is used to issue Performance Certificates to charter schools. This puts a heavy burden on the commission staff, especially as more than fifteen charter schools are currently working through the renewal process. It also creates new and additional work for staff in districts that have authorized charters.

In an interview, Goenner said his work with commissioners will consist primarily of “strategy, ideas, and support in their role as the governing body for that agency.” Work with staff will be more “hands-on implementation, like application processes, renewal processes, oversight, and monitoring elements of performance certificates.”

The law’s mandated changes to performance frameworks aren’t major, Goenner said. “It still comes back to are kids learning, is the money being taken care of, and are you operating as a public body in good faith? Charter school boards are representing the public and they have a fiduciary obligation in that role.”

Alex Medler, the executive director of the National Network for District Authorizing, said his organization hasn’t launched into its Idaho work yet. But based on work his network does in eight other states, he said in Idaho his staff will convene authorizing districts to “to collaborate to improve authorizing.”

The network’s theory of change, Medler said, is “based on the fact that if you get districts together, and honor the things they’re concerned about, they will adopt best practices.”

Terry Ryan, Bluum’s CEO, said Idaho’s new law reflects that state’s philosophy that charter school authorizing should encourage transparency and where possible deference to market forces, as embodied by families choosing schools that best meet the needs of their children.

He contrasted this approach to what he called the “East Coast theory of authorizing,” which focuses almost exclusively on holding schools accountable for performance based on state test scores and moving aggressively to close schools that are not performing up to a one-size fits all standard.

Goenner echoed Ryan’s perspective. “From the origination of the charter school concept, there was this idea that there would be dual accountability, so there would be accountability to the market forces of parents voting with their feet, and there would be the government or public accountability through a charter school board, a charter school authorizing agency, and a state apparatus.

“Over the years there has been a dynamic tension between those two. Some states say we want more market forces. Some say we want more government accountability. Idaho has said we’re going to go stronger on the market accountability side. We’re going to also still maintain some of the public accountability side but we’re going to try and strike a different balance. Many people would say that the balance has been shifted more to the government accountability side, moved away from the market base, students voting with their feet. And I think Idaho is trying to shift that back in a different direction.”

Medler, working with district authorizers, faces a different set of challenges and perspectives. Smaller, rural districts in particular often have had no authorizing experience at all. The first step is working with staff and school boards to develop an application process, including careful review of the application.

Districts working on charter school applications for the first time also need to learn that authorizing best practices serve everyone well. “Best practices are not pro-charter or anti-charter,” Medler said. “Strong authorizing focuses on the merits of proposals, and we work to help districts understand that this is in their best interest.”

Trudeau of Compass Public Charter School testified before the legislature in favor of the new law. She said that after 20 years of operation, “we’ve obviously figured this out. I’m not saying we don’t need help or are above that in any way. But we’re like the kids who the teacher can tell, ‘you’ve got this, let me go over there and work with your peers who need a little extra time with the teacher.’”


Alan Gottlieb is a Colorado-based writer, editor, journalist, communications consultant, and nonprofit entrepreneur who owns Write.Edit.Think, LLC. He founded EdNews Colorado, which later merged with Gotham Schools to form Chalkbeat. He does consulting work for Bluum, an Idaho-based non-profit education group.