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When it comes to public charter schools, districts just say no

By Terry Ryan, originally posted on
“Why aren’t more school districts in Idaho working with charter schools,” I was asked by a friend recently. This seemed especially odd as 14 of the 44 schools (32 percent) on the state’s list of top performing high schools were public charter schools.
The most common way for school districts and public charter schools to collaborate is through charter school authorizing. In Idaho, school districts can authorize public charter schools along with the Idaho Public Charter School Commission and the state’s public colleges and universities. Authorizers are the entities that approve a public charter school and determine, on the basis of performance, whether to extend or terminate its license to operate.
A handful of the charter schools on the list of top performing high schools are authorized by their local school districts (Idaho Arts is authorized by the Nampa School District while both Meridian Medical Arts Charter High School and Meridian Technical Charter High School are authorized by the West Ada School District). Other schools on the list (North Star Charter School and Coeur d’Alene Charter Academy) were once authorized by their districts, but aren’t any longer.
The fact is, fewer school districts in Idaho – even those that are needing to build and open new schools at a rapid clip like the West Ada School District and Idaho Falls – are less interested in authorizing public charter schools today than they were in the past. In this trend Idaho follows national tendencies. According to new research from the National Association of Charter School Authorizers, “for the first time, most new charter schools are opening under authorizers other than local school districts, with state education agencies and independent charter boards leading the way.”
In 2018, the Idaho Public Charter School Commission authorized 37 of 52 charter schools with 11 school districts authorizing the remaining 15 schools. The Nampa School District is the largest district authorizer in Idaho with three charter schools in its portfolio.
For a charter school to open in Idaho, state law requires the charter petitioners (the group seeking to open the charter school) to submit a letter and their completed charter petition to the “superintendent of each district that overlaps the proposed public charter school’s primary attendance area. The purpose of the letter is to inform the superintendent that petitioners are seeking an authorizer, and to offer to attend a district board of trustees meeting, if the superintendent so requests.”
Thus, local school districts are one of the first groups in Idaho to hear about a new charter school that is proposing to open in their area, and despite this, few want to actually authorize these public schools. Why?
I will offer up five reasons why I think school districts and public charter schools march down their separate paths when they could do more together. I’m sure my list is not exhaustive, and I am sure there are readers who will disagree with me and/or want to add some additional points. It would be great if you did.
First, some argue the economics of charters don’t work for school districts. There are staff and even legal costs associated with overseeing and evaluating charter schools. The state allows authorizers to charge their schools an authorizer fee. The amount of fee is proscribed in statute via a complicated formula, but the average annual authorizer fee for charter schools is somewhere between $10,000 and $14,000 a year depending on school enrollment. Charter school operators, however, will tell you that is more than enough to pay for an outsider to monitor their efforts, especially when charters are required to follow the majority of federal and state issued rules and regulations that apply to the traditional schools.
Second, charter schools by design are independently run schools where the school’s governing authority and its leadership are ultimately responsible and control the budget, hiring and firing, curriculum, schedule, professional development, etc. This is counter to how most school districts work. District officials like having district wide initiatives, unified pay schedules, district wide curriculum development, etc. This is a command and control issue. Command and control for charters lie at the building level while districts run school systems. Charters and districts are culturally different.
Third, while the former head of the American Federation of Teachers Al Shanker was one of the earliest proponents of charter schools in America as laboratories of innovation for great teaching and learning that vision among teacher unions is largely dead. Teacher unions nationally, and in Idaho, would prefer an education world without charter schools. District leaders have plenty of tensions to deal with and adding charters to their plate may be one more “problem” they simply don’t want to have.
Fourth, some of the strongest and most opinionated educators in Idaho and across the country run charter schools. They got into charter schools because they had a vision or a passion for education that works great in a single building that they are free to run as they see fit. These charter educators, however, may not work well in larger systems where they are expected to make compromises in their building for the overall benefit of the larger district. In northern Idaho these charter educators are known as “Pirates.”
Fifth, a lot of traditional educators buy into the false argument that public charter schools are really private schools that educate only middle and upper middle class students. They say charter schools skim the best and brightest and leave the hard to educate kids behind for them and theirs to educate.
While there was undeniably truth in this last position in the early years of Idaho’s charter school program, that is no longer true. Idaho has, and is opening more, public charter schools that are aimed at serving all of Idaho’s students well. This, in fact, is something Idaho’s school districts could help do more of if they can ever get over the various reasons they have for saying no to charters.

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