Concerned North Idaho residents asked legislators Wednesday night to proceed with caution in creating public charter schools.
School administrators, teachers and parents largely supported the concept of charter schools but asked a special House-Senate committee studying the issue some tough questions.
Such as: How will the small, autonomous schools be paid for?
What happens to the students and teachers if a charter school fails?
Who’s responsible for oversight?
Education Committee Chairmen Sen. Gary Schroeder, R-Moscow, and Rep. Fred Tilman, R-Boise, are gathering comments and ideas statewide and circulating a draft bill phasing in charter schools.
Advocates argue that allowing a charter school to operate under a special agreement would lift many of the regulatory constraints that stifle innovation and experimentation in regular public schools.
Some Idaho lawmakers have floated the idea of creating charter schools that focus on foreign language, at-risk students or alternative teaching methods. Such charter schools exist in 25 other states.
Freedom to try new ways of teaching is attractive to David Jenkins of Sandpoint, who said the city’s Waldorf School will be among the first to apply if the proposed legislation passes this session.
“I will be pursuing a charter for our wonderful little Waldorf School and a democratic school where children are free,” Jenkins said.
At Waldorf School, arts play a central role and teachers follow the same group of students from kindergarten through eighth grade.
Schroeder and other opponents worry that charter schools could drain badly needed funding from conventional schools.
School board members from Bonner, Boundary and Kootenai counties expressed concern about the proposed legislation, which would allow 30 charter schools in the first two years after passage. Coeur d’Alene schools Superintendent David Rawls also cautioned the committee.
“There’s a fear that the intention is to create schools where children are like ‘my children’ and not like the other children,” Rawls said. “And smaller is not always more efficient.”
Post Falls School Board member Charles Eberle pleaded with the committee to wait before spending tax dollars on “an experiment.”
“Instead, remove the strait-jacket of regulations from your public schools,” Eberle said. “Give them the same advantages that you are probably contemplating giving to charter schools and you will see charter schools just aren’t needed.”
Gail Warden of Post Falls said she supports charter schools, but noted that they have been successful only in states that generously support public education.
“I would love my kids to attend a school with a focus on arts or science,” she said.
“But these states with charter schools are not 48th in the nation in per-student funding. They don’t have $700 million in facilities needs; they do not litter their school grounds with portable classrooms …”
Frustration with public schools, however, is causing some parents to favor charter schools.
Parent Susan McCray said she walked away in frustration after a reading curriculum committee in the Coeur d’Alene School District ignored her concerns.
‘I tried to work within the system. It did not work for me and consequently my kids are in private schools right now,” she said.