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Eye on Boise: Reform bill has good news for virtual charter schools

BOISE – Among the little-noticed provisions of the complex, sweeping school reform bill that’s rocketing through the Idaho Legislature is one that would double-fund virtual charter schools for their existing computers.

SB 1184, state schools Superintendent Tom Luna’s reform bill that passed the Senate on Thursday and is awaiting consideration in the House, sets a goal of a 1-to-1 ratio of computers to high school students, phased in over several years, and it shifts money out of the state’s teacher-salary fund to pay for the purchases. But school districts that already have reached that 1-to-1 ratio will get the money as discretionary funds, to use for whatever they like.

Here’s where the double-funding comes in: Idaho already has paid for one computer for every student at virtual charter schools, which are online charter schools in which students study at home and are issued computers and other materials; Idaho has three, with more than 4,000 students enrolled.

A half-dozen years ago, the Legislature authorized funding student computers and other high-tech equipment for virtual charter schools from the state’s “pupil transportation fund,” reasoning that where brick-and-mortar schools have to transport students to school, virtual charter schools use computers to transport the education to the students.

Last year, those three schools received $1.57 million in “pupil transportation” funds from the state to pay for computers, Internet connections and the like for their students.

“Schools can only receive reimbursement for certain items, such as Internet connectivity or computers, to name a few,” said Melissa McGrath, Luna’s spokeswoman.

All three schools, the Idaho Virtual Academy, iSucceed and Inspire, would qualify for the new additional discretionary money. McGrath said they could choose instead to get new computers and upgrade, but if they did that, they couldn’t also get transportation reimbursements for the same new computers. They could, however, continue to claim transportation reimbursements for other qualifying expenses, like Internet connections.

That means under SB 1184, the state will double-fund the virtual charters for their existing computers, but only single-fund new computers they get in the future.

In 2009, lawmakers asked a task force to investigate how the state was spending its school transportation funds; among the findings was that the state should do away with using bus money for computers at virtual charter schools, an expense that the task force’s report noted was growing each year. No action ever was taken on the report.

Changes already

Legislation was introduced in the Idaho House of Representatives Friday to change the newly signed SB 1108, the teacher-contracts bill, repealing a provision that requires teachers who are laid off in the fall due to declining enrollment to get severance payments of 10 percent. That repeal would be permanent.

Then, the bill proposed by House Majority Caucus Chairman Ken Roberts would grant partial relief from the end of the “99 percent floor” in state funding for school districts that lose enrollment, which was repealed by SB 1108. That provision has long permitted school districts to keep their state funding at 99 percent of the previous year’s level when they have enrollment swings.

What the new bill would do is allow a district that’s lost enrollment in the 2011-2012 school year to get 97 percent of its previous-year state funding, rather than 99 percent as the previous law required, or no protection, as SB 1108 required. But that would last for just one year, and then it would expire. After that, districts would get neither the funding protection nor the money for severance payments.

‘Skin in the game’

As the Senate debated and passed a higher education budget for next year that’s the lowest in state funding since 2000, Sen. Jim Hammond, R-Coeur d’Alene, noted that most Idaho students don’t even go on to higher ed, but those who do benefit greatly, including by earning higher salaries throughout their lives. “Tuition in Idaho is still one of the best buys in this country,” Hammond said, “and yes, they will have to pay a little more. … This all costs money and the students have to bear some of that load.”

He said, “Quite frankly I’m not going to feel bad about that. They’ve got to have some skin in the game as well, and it’s good for them.”

Betsy Z. Russell can be reached at (208) 336-2854 or betsyr@