A party-line vote in the House Education Committee today sent HB 206, the charter school facilities funding bill, to the full House today with a recommendation that it “do pass.” The committee’s three minority Democrats voted against the bill, after a long hearing that saw several charter school heads plead their case for more funding, while others, including the state’s teachers union, objected to shifting the funds from Idaho’s regular public schools.
Jason Hancock, aide to state schools Superintendent Tom Luna, said the measure was developed by a group that’s been meeting since June, and included representatives of school boards, school administrators, the state charter school commission, a network of charter school families, and the state Department of Education. Hancock explained the complex bill to the committee, which would amend Idaho’s public school funding distribution formula to take money off the top for two items: A per-student allocation to charter schools that have school buildings, and a reimbursement to virtual charter schools for 50 percent of their actual building costs. Hancock said those likely won’t be high, since they’re mainly just for offices or testing centers; those schools rely on students learning at home by use of school-provided computers and Internet connections. Of Idaho's 18,152 charter school students, more than 5,000 are in those virtual schools. The state has 266,831 students in regular, non-charter public schools.
The per-student allocation to charter schools would come to a total of $1.4 million next year, and then would rise to $2.1 million the following year. After that, it would rise in 10 percent increments whenever the state’s school budget rose by 3 percent, or decrease if the school budget decreases. For regular public schools, Idaho now requires school districts to ask local voters to raise their property taxes to fund buildings, though approved bond levies can qualify for some limited state matching funds. Charter schools don’t have that taxing authority.
The bill also requires charter schools to pay an “authorizer fee” to the entity that charters them; a separate bill also introduced in the same committee this morning would expand those who could authorize charters from the current state charter commission and local school districts, to also include public or private universities and non-profit corporations.
Rep. Lance Clow, R-Twin Falls, said, “This obviously has a cost, and it’s going to come out of the existing appropriation or we appropriate more funds.” Rep. Linden Bateman, R-Idaho Falls, moved to approve the bill, saying Idaho’s charter schools are in a wide range of facilities, from “gleaming” buildings with hardwood trim to “a bunch of trailer houses jacked up on cinder blocks.” He said that raises concerns about uniformity.
Rep. Janie Ward-Engelking, D-Boise, said, “This is a real dilemma for me, because I support charter schools, but I know the state has a real responsibility to fund schools. This facilities money does not go through a voting process. … I want charter school students funded adequately so they have good facilities, and I want public school students funded. And I don’t see this doing it for both groups, and that’s bothering me.” Engelking said she’d like to see the per-student funding go to all schools, not just charter schools, and asked the committee chairman, Rep. Reed DeMordaunt, R-Eagle, if she could offer an amendment. “We cannot amend in this body,” he responded. “You certainly could bring other legislation. … Once it is introduced, it cannot be amended in this committee.”
Clow said one upside to the legislation might be that parents of charter school children would be more likely to support their local school districts' bonds or levies, whereas now they get nothing from those. “I would like to see more funding for education as well,” he said. “I don’t think we can go to the extent that Rep. Ward-Engelking is suggesting, but this is a move in the right direction and I support it.”