For charter school advocates, the key to promoting choice in Idaho is finding a way to pay for projects, since charter schools cant hold a levy election and must pay for facilities with the per-student operating money the state distributes.
The Idaho School Boards Association would like to see a system that allows districts to authorize charter schools without getting bogged down by administrative issues or doing the work without compensation.
And theres the flip side of the school building issue: If charters get facility funds from the state, would that be a disadvantage for districts that need to get supermajority voter approval for a bond levy?
I dont know if well find a happy medium on that, said ISBA Executive Director Karen Echeverria.
Leaders of the Idaho Charter School Network agree thats the prickliest of the many issues as stakeholders work to come up with legislation this winter.
Representatives of the school administrators association, charter school commission and State Department of Education have been meeting periodically since last summer, trying to reach consensus on how to improve the charter law.
If something comes forward from stakeholders, it will probably be well received, said Senate Education Committee Chairman John Goedde, R-Coeur dAlene.
Ken Burgess, a consultant and lobbyist for the charter schools, expects to see legislation within the next week or two.
A study commissioned by the J.A. and Kathryn Albertson Foundation may bolster the effort to rewrite Idahos charter law, Burgess said. Researchers say limitations on Idahos system deprive the states students of educational opportunities.
Weve found that there is a preponderance of opportunity in other parts of the country, and policies and programs that Idaho could adopt, said report co-author Christine Culver of CH Global Strategies. But the system has to be ready. And right now, Idahos regulatory and funding mechanisms lag behind the leading charter school states in the country.
Idaho falls in the bottom third of all states with charter laws, according to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools annual assessment. In the 2013 rankings released Tuesday, Idaho comes in No. 32 out of 42, the same spot it held in 2012.
Charter schools are public schools that are independent of the district in which theyre located. They are intended to offer families more choice in the style or focus of their childrens education and be laboratories of innovation. The 18 charter schools in the Treasure Valley range from college preparation to the arts, from classical education to premedical disciplines.
Idaho established a charter school law in 1998, then revised it in 2004 to create the Idaho Public Charter Commission and place a cap revoked last year on the number of new charters each year. There are 44 charters across Idaho and four more none in the Valley planned for fall.
The biggest need is to improve the financial footing of charter schools, which have been disproportionately squeezed by cuts to school funding, said charter network Acting Director Alan Millar.
Idaho has been supportive of charter schools, but this sector has been gradually starved, said Millar, principal of Sandpoints Forrest M. Bird Charter Schools.
Unlike school districts, charter schools have no taxing authority. The result, according to a study commissioned by the charter network, is that charter schools dip into state-supplied operating revenue at an average of about $549 per student to make building loan or lease payments. Millar said the average charter school gets around $6,100 per student each year.
About half of Idahos charter schools rent space because they dont have the money or credit to buy property, according to the study.
I believe the Legislature would support an equitable way to better facilities funding, but I want to see what the stakeholders believe is the best method, Goedde said. As always, funding will be tight, and charters will have to compete for whatever extra dollars they can.
OPTIONS FOR FUNDING
Possibilities for charter schools include a capital fund they could borrow against to get competitive interest rates an approach used in Utah or extending district levies to include the charters, Burgess said.
Many (charter school) parents vote for a bond levy and think it goes to our school, said Don Keller, principal of Sage International School in Boise.
Another option would be a per-student facilities stipend to compensate for the lack of taxing authority. Phased in over several years, that stipend could contribute $500 per charter student per year, Millar said.
If the stipend amount started at 30 percent, that would be about $45,000 for my school about a teachers worth and over time it would be $150,000, he said.
If that option were chosen, the phased-in stipend system would cost the state about $3.6 million in the first year, he said.
Gaining approval for that idea would represent a huge paradigm shift, Burgess said.
Appropriating a per-student stipend or otherwise setting aside state money for charter buildings would raise concerns among school districts, Echeverria said, because those dollars would come out of the big (public school funding) pie. The total moneys not going to go up.
And the possibility of partnering with districts for a levy would be an impractical way for a charter to fund a building, Echeverria said, because it would only work in those districts that are running a bond.
Other issues that might be addressed include allowing universities, nonprofits or others to authorize new charter schools. Under Idahos existing law, only school districts and the state charter commission have that authority.
Goedde said he would like to see charter legislation eliminate the financial disincentive for local school districts to authorize charters the time and effort of approving a petition and the cost of oversight.
Echeverria agrees, saying one element of a revised charter law could be to give authorizing districts a share of the charters funding.
And, she said, the revised law could require schools to renew their charters every four or five years. Under the current system, charters dont expire.
Sage Internationals Keller said the charter network would go along with renewable charters as long as the law protected schools from potential hostile authorizers or wary lenders by measures such as making renewal automatic if the school met agreed-upon performance standards.
Kristin Rodine: 377-6447