Public charter schools in rural communities are controversial. This point was made obvious by a recent Statesman Guest Opinion piece headlined, “If charter school in McCall advances, our community’s values decline.”
As with many debates in education, emotions run high when talking rural charter schools. That’s when looking at the facts matters most. What are the facts in McCall and in Idaho that should inform the conversation around the pros and cons of a public charter opening in Valley County?
I’ve been involved in this debate as I have spent the last year and a half working with the educational leadership team of the McCall Community charter school, their board and their community supporters to help plan, finance and launch the school.
First, the McCall-Donnelly School District is high-performing. It is an excellent option for many Valley County families and children. I have not heard anyone question that fact.
Second, Valley County is growing. Its estimated population in 2018 was 10,687, with a growth rate of 7.98 percent over 2017, according to recent Census data.
Third, for a number of years now there has been a growing educational movement in McCall to embrace what’s known as a “place-based model of learning.” This interest is evidenced by the 25 or so preschool students attending McCall’s Roots Forest Preschool. It is further evidenced by the success of the McCall Donnelly Expeditionary Homeschool Co-Op. The Co-Op hires an educator from the McCall Outdoor Science School (MOSS) to work with children.
Fourth, the co-founders of the McCall Community charter school come from Valley County, have roots in the area’s public schools, and are experts at place-based outdoor education. They have the curricular and programmatic support of one of the premier place-based education groups in the country with the backing of the Teton Science School’s Place Network.
Fifth, a significant portion of the McCall community support the efforts of the McCall Community school, even as they recognize and support the quality efforts of the school district. Evidence for this support has been the number of parents and citizens who have shown up to public hearings about the school. It also comes in the form of personal contributions of time and money to support the effort. The school’s nonprofit board members epitomize this support best.
Sixth, evidence from across Idaho shows us that charter schools in rural communities need not be a zero-sum game that comes at the expense of the local school district, let alone the larger community. This is especially true for communities with growing student populations. Idaho’s first public charter school opened in 1998. There are now more than 55 charter schools in Idaho serving over 24,000 students (about 8 percent of the state’s K-12 student population).
According to data from the National Center for Education Statistics, more than a dozen of these charter schools are located in rural parts of Idaho. A handful of these schools have been in operation for more than a decade. Consider the Upper Carmen Charter School in Lemhi County. Upper Carmen opened in 2005. Last year it served about 85 students in multiage classrooms in grades K-8. Early critics of the Upper Carmen Charter School argued that it would deplete the district of tax dollars while skimming the best students. Neither claim has proved to be true over the years.
Today, the Upper Carmen Charter School works in tandem with the Salmon School District to serve the community’s students well. For the past three years, the Salmon High School valedictorian attended elementary school at the Upper Carmen Charter School. This charter district partnership has paid dividends for Salmon’s students and families.
Or consider the North Idaho STEM Charter Academy in Rathdrum. The school opened in 2012 and is now serving about 480 students in grades K-12. North Idaho STEM’s SAT scores (averaging 1,206) in 2018 were the third-highest of all public schools in the state. These stellar results trailed only the Coeur d’Alene Charter Academy and the Compass Public Charter School.
Done well, rural charter schools add value to a community and create learning opportunities for families and children that wouldn’t exist otherwise.
Terry Ryan is CEO of the nonprofit Bluum in Boise.