CharterFolk Contributor Terry Ryan – Review of Choice Out West – Lessons and Challenges from Idaho, Colorado, and New Mexico


Hello CharterFolk!

Today we are pleased to share a contributor column from Terry Ryan, CEO of the Boise-based education nonprofit Bluum and Board Chair of the Idaho Charter School Network

I provide a bio for Terry 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.

Review of Choice Out West – Lessons and Challenges from Idaho, Colorado, and New Mexico

Colorado has long been a national leader in charter schooling and innovation in education more generally. The Centennial State was the third state in the nation to pass charter school legislation when it passed its law in 1993. The state’s charter law is perennially one of the top rated in the country by the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools. The state innovated further in 2009 when it experimented with granting some district-run schools a taste of charter school autonomy by allowing them to become innovation schools. Denver was an early adopter of the notion of a portfolio school district, and the some of the nation’s earliest and most rigorous teacher pay-for-performance efforts occurred in Denver and the Harrison School District in Colorado Springs

During my time in Ohio (2001-2013) with the Thomas B. Fordham Institute we would often look to Colorado for ideas and approaches that could improve opportunities for students in the Buckeye State. For example, efforts to create portfolio school districts played out in districts like Cleveland, Columbus, and Reynoldsburg. Colorado was also an early adapter in developing a student growth model for measuring student performance as opposed to just looking at student proficiency. For years, Colorado has been a national beacon of innovation in the relentless struggle to improve K-12 education.

In contrast, for much of this same time Colorado’s Mountain West neighbors Idaho and New Mexico have largely been afterthoughts in the national conversations around charter schools and school improvement efforts more generally. Both Idaho and New Mexico have had charter laws on the books since the 1990s. But, just as recently as 2013, the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools ranked Idaho’s charter school law as #32. New Mexico, meanwhile, worked overtime to limit both the number and autonomy of its public charter schools over the years.

Fast forward to 2023, and both Idaho and New Mexico are quickly catching up to Colorado as states on the move when it comes to growing their charter school sectors, while also serving as drivers of larger school improvement efforts in their jurisdictions. Denver-based journalist Alan Gottlieb shares the evolving charter school stories of Colorado, New Mexico, and Idaho in the new report Choice Out West.

Luke Ragland of the Daniels Fund shared, “In five years, people will look back and will be writing stories about what happened in New Mexico’s charter school space…New Mexico is poised for some of the most impressive charter growth in the country.” While in Idaho homegrown charter school networks and innovative start-ups are utilizing generous support from the J.A. and Kathryn Albertson Family Foundation, a significant federal Charter School Program grant, and increasing state support and flexibility to expand efforts across the Gem State. Over the last decade Idaho’s overall K-12 enrollment has grown by about 55,000 students, almost 20 percent of that new growth (10,422 students) has been in the state’s public charter schools.

In Choice Out West Gottlieb reports that, “Organizations like Bluum, the Colorado League of Charter Schools, and Excellent Schools New Mexico (the three organizations that commissioned this report) have pushed consistently for policies and practices that give charter schools a fair chance at success. Their efforts have been broad-based, but have included advocating for fair funding for charters, access to facilities and transportation, and high-quality authorizing, including options for authorizing other than local school districts.” In recent years Idaho and New Mexico have been able to stand next to colleagues in Colorado with their heads held high.  

But all three states face challenges moving forward. Gottlieb warns, “One common threat to school choice that spans all three states is the widening national political divide, though in Idaho, where Democrats hold little sway, the divide is less evident. What had been a bipartisan consensus in support of high-performing charter schools among more moderate Democrats and Republicans during the first 15 years of this century has begun to break down…That fracture could be exacerbated should the U.S. Supreme Court decide that it would be unconstitutional to deny approval of religious-based charter schools. The court opened the door to that possibility in the 2022 Carson v Makin decision.”  

Charters and school choice are alive and well in the Mountain West, but to sustain itself in coming years there is a lot of work left to be done. Long-time California charter school advocate and CharterFolk founder Jed Wallace warns those of us in Idaho, Colorado, and New Mexico that “we in the charter world have lost that sense of moxie, we have lost a sense of confidence that we are on the right side of history.”  

The sense that the best days are behind for those of us who support school choice is real across the country, but in Idaho, Colorado, and New Mexico we see the threats and opportunities clearly. With eyes wide open we believe the best days are still ahead of us. To learn why please check out: Choice Out West.