When my husband and I were considering moving our family to McCall, we had an item on our pros-and-cons list that ultimately would make or break the deal: What was the state of the public school system in McCall and would the schools be a good fit for our autistic son?
We were overjoyed when we realized that McCall was unique in the landscape of public education, particularly in a state like Idaho, where per-pupil spending is dismal (49th in the nation), and test scores and literacy lag behind national averages. The McCall-Donnelly School District was the canary in a coal mine. Adequate funding, excellent academic achievement and robust resources for children such as ours made moving to McCall an easy choice, and the school system, its leadership and the stellar faculty have been supportive and helpful at every turn.
Our son and his younger, neurotypical sister are thriving in ways we never dreamed were possible. Our son is loved and accepted for who he is, and the way our community has welcomed him moves me to tears every time I think about it. His academic progress has been staggering. While he works hard at his schoolwork, we know his progress would not be possible without the system of interventions and support he receives in the classroom — all of which we never had to fight for, we simply asked. The resources and funding were there for teachers, aides and specialists to use in helpful ways that propel his academic achievement.
When you live in a wonderful, well-funded town like McCall for a length of time, it’s easy to forget just how good you have it, though. The grass starts to look greener elsewhere, and shaking it up begins to look more appealing.
We moved to McCall from an area where charter schools were on the rise. We watched as money moved away from local neighborhood schools and into charter schools. We watched as families chose to move their kids out of these schools, leaving less-privileged children behind with even less money and resources. We watched as other families with disabled children came out of combative Individualized Education Program meetings distraught and in tears because there just wasn’t enough money to fund the unique academic needs of their child. Public school budgets were getting spread thinner and thinner as more and more families chose to divest from the system in favor of “school choice.”
I’m sad and embarrassed to admit that we were one of those families. Like so many parents, we wanted what was best for our child, but our understanding was limited, our scope was myopic, and we made the decision to pursue a charter school education in hopes that we would find the services our boy so desperately needed in the classroom. It’s a decision that had a broader impact than we realized, and it’s a choice we made that didn’t accurately reflect our values as members of the community. I think about it and wrestle with our choice every day.
Public schools are the heartbeat of neighborhoods and communities, pillars of our social and common life together. They aren’t perfect. Even MDSD schools aren’t perfect, as any of the school faculty, principals or even our superintendent, Jim Foudy will tell you. Even the top-ranked schools have room for improvement, and that includes ours.
But choosing to start a charter school in a community like ours under the guise of increased choice or educational improvement is a huge mistake. Because we’re a small community, the impact may seem insignificant at first, but it could make a monumental impact on the quality of our unique and very successful school district over time. State dollars follow the child into a charter school. If the proposed charter school in McCall gets its desired 95 students in two to three years, that is over $800,000 that move out of the public schools in McCall and neighboring communities, like the already-struggling Meadows Valley. In a small town like ours, this would be devastating, and the effects would be felt immediately by the children who need the most help.
Much of the support for a charter school in McCall comes from families who have children who don’t fit the traditional model. To those parents who have children who don’t fit, I say, “Welcome to the club.” If you want to know what it’s like to raise a child who doesn’t fit into the structures our society has in place, look no further than the parents of disabled, neurodiverse and special-needs students. Having a child who doesn’t fit the mold is a life that we know intimately, and it’s an experience that we will live and carry long after our child’s K-12 education.
You want what’s best for your child. I do, too. And study after study, report after report, shows that what’s best for children who are on the margins is integration, not segregation. Not only does my child benefit more by being included and accounted for in the McCall Donnelly system, but other children benefit by simply being around him. He’s funny and kind, courageous and tender. And empathy, compassion, reduced stigma and open communication about differences are all byproducts when classrooms are filled with diverse students of all abilities.
In the petition brought forward to the Idaho Public Charter School Commission, it mentions that a charter school such as the McCall Community School would be “in line with the values of this small mountain town and its neighboring communities.” We moved to McCall because of those values, and those values have been communicated in the welcome of our family – and more specifically, our son.
The values I have experienced are inclusion, integration and acceptance. But those values are only as strong as the investment we make in them, especially for the next generation. If the charter school in McCall moves forward, we will need to face the harsh reality that our community’s values are moving backward.
Nish Weiseth is a writer and McCall resident who has had pieces published in Cosmopolitan magazine, the Deseret News and Christianity Today.