CharterFolk Contributor Terry Ryan – Idaho’s Public Charter Schools at 25:  The Best is Yet to Come

Hello Charter Folk!

Today we are pleased to share a contributor column from Terry Ryan, CEO of the Boise-based education non-profit Bluum.

I provide Terry’s bio below.

Terry Ryan is CEO of the Boise-based education nonprofit Bluum and Board Chair of the Idaho Charter School Network. Ryan is responsible for leading Idaho’s effort to double the number of students in Idaho high-performing public charter schools. Ryan leads Idaho’s federal Charter School Program (CSP) grant of $22 million. Ryan was Vice-President for Ohio Programs and Policy at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute/Foundation from 2001 to 2013. He began his career in education as a teacher in Poland and worked with the Polish Ministry of Education and the Foundation for Education for Democracy on education policy and civic education. In the 1990s, he served as research director for the UK-based 21st Century Learning Initiative. Ryan served on Idaho Governor Brad Little’s “Our Kids, Idaho’s Future” education task force. He is a member of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools Policy Advisory Council. He served as a Commissioner for the CAEP Commission on Standards and Performance. Ryan was a research fellow at the Hoover Institution and was a 2008 Aspen Institute/Pahara Fellow.

Going back to its creation story in the last quarter of the 20th century, the public charter school bargain in America called for an exchange of operational freedom for schools in return for accountability tied to results. As far back as the 1970s the University of Massachusetts-Amherst education professor Ray Budde proposed letting teachers create semi-autonomous schools that would combine enhanced teacher freedom and flexibilities with stringent accountability for student results. In his 1988 book, Education Charter: Restructuring School Districts, Budde outlined his plan for what would from then on be known as “charter schools.”

That same year, Albert Shanker, the influential president of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), embraced the charter school concept at a speech he gave to the National Press Club in Washington, DC. Shanker was the first national figure in American education to propose charter schools. He argued, “the goal of charter schools should not be innovation for its own sake, but innovation for improved student achievement.”

Minnesota was the first state to approve a charter school law. Ember Reichgott Junge, the Democratic state senator who crafted Minnesota’s law argued, “the purpose of the chartering legislation was to give freedom to parents and teachers to create new schools outside the existing system.” Minnesota’s first charter school opened its doors in 1992. Several states quickly followed suit: California, Colorado, Georgia, Massachusetts, Michigan, New Mexico, and Wisconsin had all approved charter school legislation by the end of 1993.

My state, Idaho, would pass its first charter school law in 1997 and the state’s first school opened its doors in 1998. From the start Idaho, like other charter school states, struggled to get the balance right between “freedom and operational flexibility” for “accountability for results.” The early law in the Gem State was a consensus document that tried to balance the charter school idea of operational freedom for accountability, with the many concerns of traditional education groups about giving public charter schools too many competitive advantages.

In the early years of Idaho’s charter school experience growth was slow and tedious. Charter schools had few operational freedoms and received less money than traditional district schools with no financial support for facilities. In 2008 the Center for Education Reform rated Idaho’s law the “14th weakest of the nation’s 41 charter laws.” Under the original law only school districts could authorize charter schools, that is allow them to open and operate. This was problematic because few district officials even knew what a charter school was, let alone had any interest in launching schools with independent boards of trustees who would compete with their schools for students and the state and federal dollars that followed them. In Idaho, no local tax dollars follow students to their local public charter schools.

Operational freedom for Idaho’s public charter schools came through political struggle over multiple legislative sessions. Governor Dirk Kempthorne, who was elected in 1998, followed the lead of other charter school states and in 2004 proposed the creation of a statewide charter school commission with members appointed by the governor and legislative leaders that could authorize charter schools independently of school districts. Kempthorne was pummeled politically for his proposal. “That statewide thing is just rotten,” argued rural Republican Senator Tom Gannon. “It takes out of local hands any control over the creation of a charter school.” Senator Gannon and many of his colleagues feared charter school competition would “destroy the public school system.” Idaho Statesman political columnist Dan Popkey wrote, “Governor Dirk Kempthorne is attempting to grab power from the elected trustees in 114 school districts for himself.” Kempthorne signed the bill into law in April 2004.    

Kempthorne showed political courage in creating the Idaho Public Charter School Commission, and this success opened the door for further gains by the state’s charter school sector. In 2022, the Commission authorized 60 public charter schools across the state. But the battle for operational freedoms, both expanding and maintaining them, is by necessity relentless. The Idaho Charter School Network (of which I am board chair), its partner schools, its supporters, and its allies in state government have made steady gains over the last decade. These include legislation that:

  • (2012) removed the growth cap of six new public charter schools per year and the cap of one new, public charter school per district per year.
  • (2016) made it easier and faster for successful schools to get approval to replicate their models and streamlined the charter application and approval process so that startup charter schools could be opened in a matter of months as opposed to years of delay.
  • (2016) allowed public charter schools to sign administrators and teachers to one year contracts.
  • (2019) created a charter school administrator certificate as an alternative to traditional administrator certificates.
  • (2020) created a weighted student lottery system for schools targeting needier students.
  • (2022) allowed public charter schools to hire individuals with a bachelor’s degree and develop and certificate their own teachers without going through the cumbersome and costly traditional teacher certification process.

Idaho has also made improvements to its charter school facility financing landscape in recent years. This is especially impressive in a fiscally conservative state where new dollars for education are hard to earn. Yet, Idaho public charter schools are still some of the lowest funded public schools in the nation. Even with comparatively meagre school funding rations, improvements to state law around operational freedoms have had the effect of accelerating the expansion of the state’s public charter school sector.

Over the last decade Idaho’s overall K-12 enrollment has grown by about 55,000 students, almost 20% of that new enrollment (10,422 students) has been in the state’s public charter schools. Most importantly, this growth has been quality growth. Idaho public charter schools are perennially top performers on the state’s literacy assessments, the state’s achievement tests, and on the SAT. And, despite the fears, charter schools operate in rural Idaho without damaging the traditional public schools. In fact, several rural school districts authorize public charter schools of their own. What’s more, public charter schools and rural school districts have found common ground in seeking more freedoms and flexibilities for their schools and their educators. They also realize that they can do more together in fighting for better facility funding than they can do alone. Idaho’s charter school story may be 25-years-old, but the best is yet to come. This should be a net positive for our state’s families, children, and educators.  

Sometimes The Best Way to Grow Big is to Remember the Importance of Remaining Small

Good day, CharterFolk.

We continue to face some technical issues getting out posts to our now larger readership.  Some of you, we have learned, are having images redacted from CharterFolk posts. While we work to get this issue addressed, I will send out a few text-only columns.  I thank you for your patience.

I also extend thanks to Chris Ferris for her Contributor Column on Friday regarding small schools.  It was great to have Chris’s presence felt at CharterFolk again.  Some readers may remember the CharterFolk X Column we published in 2020 about Chris’s contributions to Our Community School in Los Angeles, and to Highline Academy in Denver, where she currently serves as Executive Director.

Chris’s thoughts about small schools are perfectly timed for the moment.  

As large urban school districts continue to see enrollment declines, they will inevitably look to close more schools.  Some communities will be accepting of school closures.  My elementary school alma mater closed with so little acrimony I didn’t even find out about it until months later.  Other school communities will be highly resistant.  Hunger strikes in Oakland this spring pointed to the degree of resistance some communities are prepared to put up.

The question for us in Charterland is: 

On whose side of this should we be?

Do we stand with those within our “Normal Streets?”  With school district central leaders who are “making the hard decision” to close schools down?

Or do we stand with parents and teachers and other community members who may want to do what is considered the abnormal thing – support a school whose enrollment is smaller than what the mainstream would consider viable?

Or do we just stay silent, following the reasoning that, because the closures are someone else’s issue, isn’t it better for us to keep our heads low?

Our rationale for wanting to keep heads low is clear.  Why would we want to make a school district’s effort to close a school even more complicated?  In many cases, the school districts seeking to close schools are authorizers of local charter schools.  In places like California, school districts also determine what district facilities are made available to charter schools.  Why would those charter schools want to risk irritating their authorizer when those authorizers can and do retaliate against charter schools whenever they make districts’ lives more difficult, never mind on an issue as contentious as school closure?

This is a dynamic that third party observers of public education just don’t get.  So often people who aren’t deeply aware of the power dynamics at play in education will ask why CharterFolk won’t just enact some change that seems clearly in the interests of students and families.  

What these people invariably fail to take into account is how vulnerable to retaliation many charter schools feel, either from their local school district or from the local teacher union or from other local parties who have the power to make a charter school who deviates from local orthodoxy pay a significant price.  

This reality was certainly a big subtext to everything we saw during Covid.  

Generally, those charter schools that felt less vulnerable to retaliation were the ones that deviated most from district practice (i.e. offered more in-person instruction than district schools were offering).  Those that felt their local school district or their local teacher union would target them if they dared deviate from local dogma were much less willing to try something different.

It’s yet another argument for why we want charter schools to have authorizers and facility providers that are independent from local school districts and other local decision-makers.

In terms of decisions related to the possibility of small schools in public education, it is evident that advocacy priorities for charter schools generally overlap with the interests of those wanting to operate small schools.

Generally, we support:

  • Schools having flexibility.  Look at the things in Chris’s piece about teachers and principals and parents all doing very different things in order to remain financially and programmatically viable.  Just compare those things to what would be permitted within a typical district school.  The school principal being the plumber?  Parents making donations left and right to keep the school going?  Teachers having their assignments changed repeatedly?  All of these things are absolute nonstarters at Normal Street.
  • Schools having manageable levels of bureaucratic responsibility.  A school of less than a couple hundred students simply cannot handle the same level of red tape that a school district can with large numbers of central staff whose sole function is to manage red tape.  If what you’re wanting is public schools to operate in a big, large, impersonal, unaccountable, one-size-fits-all way, the best strategy for accomplishing that is to heap new regulation on the schools, no matter what that regulation might be!
  • Schools having control of their budgets.  Enough said.
  • Schools getting all the money that their kids generate rather than having money sucked away to pay for costs at other schools, or for the central bureaucracy, or for unfunded liabilities that should never have been allowed to accrue in the first place.
  • School districts being required to responsibly maintain their school buildings.  So often we find school districts deferring maintenance for decades, eventually leaving campuses in completely unsafe conditions, with the vast majority of the most seriously dilapidated campuses being located in historically underserved communities that often most want the option of operating smaller schools.
  • School facilities being allocated to schools in ways that encourage co-location and efficient use.  This is essential.  If the only option is a small school paying for the cost of an enormous facility it will only partially use, financial viability will remain out of reach.  But if you can find ways for multiple providers to share school facilities, not only do you get more options to different communities, but you find ways to share the cost of facilities across providers in ways that are much more economical for all.
  • Special education funding where funding follows students and need.  Generally, states and school districts do not fully fund special education but require regular education dollars to be directed to any unmet special education cost.  This approach favors the large school districts which can distribute excess special education costs across a large base of students.  For a small school, just a few high-cost special education students enrolling in the school could result in bankruptcy.  It is why we always want to advocate for funding approaches which ensure that all schools, irrespective of size, receive the full funding needed to provide whatever special education services happen to be needed at a school.

And most important of all:

  • Situating decision-making authority in the hands of parents and school site teachers and principals.  What we want is higher levels of agency within our public school system so that innovative solutions can emerge.  If a small number of teachers and parents have a vision for how their school can work, we should be doing all we can to give them a try.

Generally, when we see school operating conditions become fairer and more competent, smaller schools suddenly become more viable than is commonly understood.

Often what makes small school financially unviable, is not the school model itself.  

Most often, financial unviability is created by the financial irresponsibility that school districts have engaged in previously, which require dollars to be sucked away from today’s schools to pay for the sins of the past.  

It is far easier to hide where dollars have to be siphoned away from when they are being taken from schools that are larger and where the students who are being robbed from are nameless and faceless.

In the kind of school that Chris Ferris talks about, a school where the names and the family conditions of Bethany and Kayla and Dylan are intimately well known, it is much harder to siphon away dollars.

It’s because every dollar siphoned away is really felt. 

So for central district staff facing the near term fiscal imperative to shift resources around to meet whatever central expenses Normal Street is responsible for today, it is far better to get kids and families into larger settings where it is less transparent where the dollars are being taken from, and where culpability for the poor performance of those larger schools and for the district itself can be foisted upon forces outside Normal Street.

What’s the Normal Street Credo?

“It’s not that we have mismanaged our funding and our facilities and have offered programs that are worse than what could have been reasonably expected of us.  It’s that we’ve never been provided enough funding and facilities to offer quality programs in the first place.”

They say this despite in many cases having been provided gargantuan sums to develop massively expensive school buildings, some replete with talking benches.

Just in the last week we’ve seen both Chicago Public Schools and San Francisco Unified go forward with plans to build immensely costly new school buildings despite the fact that both districts are experiencing unprecedented enrollment loss.

Literally, both of their projects are projected to cost somewhere in the neighborhood of $200,000/student seat!

And they don’t have enough money available to keep some small schools going?

This is what happens when we leave funding and decision-making authority in the hands of Normal Street. We end up with a circumstance where the people we want to see most helped are the ones who end up most penalized.

  • Historically underserved kids and families.
  • Our highest need and most vulnerable kids and families.
  • And yes, our kids and families and educators wanting to operate smaller schools.

The new normal that we want is small numbers of adults being held acutely accountable for the educational experience of small numbers of kids and families.  And we want, of course, those school communities getting every penny of resource that was meant to be directed to the students the school serves.

And any player in the landscape that works to assist those wanting to make small schools, in this era in particular, is going to see massive new amounts of energy and creativity and appreciation and long-term loyalty come its way.

It’s why my sense is that, despite the blowback that we’re certain to feel in the short term, the right long-term place for us to be is on the side of parents and families wanting to make new small schools.  And it is to be on the side of larger organization who specialize in helping small schools open and thrive, like many of our most effective charter management organizations have become over the years.

Most specifically, it means working hard to make sure that there are charter school conversion laws on the books in every state in the nation, and there are supports available to any group that wants to convert a school to charter status so that anytime a school district decides it wants to close a school, the parents and the educators of that school know they have another option.

And they know they have someone at their back.

CharterFolk.

With the idea in mind that, hopefully, if we do our work right, those who we support to convert will become CharterFolk too.

In this way, we recognize one of the greatest ironies we face as a movement.

Sometimes the best way for the charter school movement to “get big,” both in terms of positive impact for students and families and communities, and in terms of our quest to build advocacy strength in service of us all …

… is to remember the wisdom that Chris shared with us last week:

The importance of remaining small.