Printed on: March 04, 2013

Idaho Press Tribune: Charter bills could have merit

Charter school supporters rightly emphasize the educational choice these public schools provide to parents and kids, giving them different instructional options that might be better suited to the way a student learns. Some kids who have struggled in traditional public schools have thrived in charters.

Detractors point out the uncertainty and risk in creating a new school, highlighting examples of failed attempts such as Nampa Classical Academy, which folded after just a year because of poor oversight and financial mismanagement.\

Two bills in the Idaho Legislature attempt to improve the charter process. One is full of measures that would reduce the chances of more high-profile failures and deserves strong support. The other would provide funding for building costs, and it should be handled more cautiously.

House Bill 221 addresses many of the oversight pitfalls that have led to disaster, and the measures in the bill are all logical and reasonable. They are:

* Requiring charter schools to meet performance standards and be subject to renewal every five years,

* Creating performance contracts

* Allowing the Department of Education to reduce the front-loading of charter school funding if notified by the school's authorizer that the school is fiscally unsound

* Allowing additional entities, including colleges, universities and some nonprofits, to authorize charter schools

All strong ideas in a logical, well thought-out bill.

As for House Bill 206, which would provide building money for charters, supporters are correct when they point out that traditional public school districts have the advantage of being able to put bonds up to a vote for the purpose of constructing new schools. Charters don't have that option.

If passed, this would cost $1.4 million next year, $2.1 million the following year and either increase or decrease after that in correlation with increases or decreases in the state's education budget.

Some charters have been able to raise money and build shiny new buildings. Others have had to use portables or makeshift facilities. But the same can be said for traditional public schools, depending on district size, affluence of the community, etc.

Many charter schools also have the advantage of serving as their own school districts, with separate boards and administration. So determining "equity" among schools and districts isn't as simple as it sounds.

And it's safe to say traditional schools won't be happy that House Bill 206 would be funded with money that had been set aside for school reform.

With the stronger oversight promised should House Bill 221 be approved, there could be a case to be made for giving charters building money. But they should have to prove their viability first. Taxpayers shouldn't be on the hook for a shiny new building for a school that crumbles the way Nampa Classical Academy did.