A popular charter school in Rathdrum has been approved to expand from its current K-8 focus into high school grades – over the objections of the local school district, which says the move will siphon away money that now provides more course choices for students in its regular high schools.
Lakeland School District officials have high praise for the North Idaho STEM Charter Academy, which focuses on science and math and uses an innovative project-based learning approach. But they say under Idaho’s school-funding system, expanding the charter means cutting funding for Lakeland and Timberlake high schools.
“There’s very little recognition of the impact it has on districts when they lose students,” said Tom Taggart, director of business and operations for the Lakeland district. “We actually took that hit last year when they opened and we lost about 130 students to the school. That’s a big hit financially.”
Under Idaho law for charter schools, the funding follows the student – so if a family chooses to move a child from a traditional school to a charter school, the per-student funding is subtracted from the former and added to the latter.
“In other parts of the country, they have some ways to ease the pain as you go through this, to help the district taking the impact,” Taggart said.
At North Idaho STEM, students, parents and staff are excited about the expansion, which will take the 2-year-old school’s total enrollment from 315 to 724 over the next nine years. The change will be phased in, with one ninth-grade class added next year, one 10th-grade class the year after, and so on.
Scott Thomson, executive director and principal at North Idaho STEM, said, “This is an opportunity for our students. Our parents are telling us that they want the students to stay with the program through high school.”
Thomson and his wife, Colleen, who founded the school, were longtime Lakeland district teachers. They’re committed to project-based learning: Students at the school learn core subjects in the morning, with a heavy focus on science, math and technology. Then in the afternoons, they work on projects like programming robots, putting their classroom knowledge to work.
“Our school is a very specialized school, so what we do, we focus like a laser on it and we do it very, very well,” Thomson said.
His school will not have all the offerings that Lakeland or Timberlake high schools will, he noted, “and that’s OK. That’s what parental choice is all about. … We’re offering more choices for the exact same amount of tax dollars.”
Idaho has 48 charter schools, including seven “virtual” schools that offer instruction online. The charters enroll 17,201 students, 5.8 percent of the state’s public school student population. Last year, state lawmakers removed a cap restricting how many new charter schools can form each year.
According to the state Department of Education, more than 11,500 students are on waiting lists for Idaho charter schools; the North Idaho STEM Charter Academy alone has 200 on its waiting list.
The Idaho Public Charter School Commission unanimously approved the Rathdrum school’s expansion last week, despite the concerns raised by the local school district. The commission cited the school’s “high academic results, quality governance and administration, strong community support, and continued fiscal responsibility” in its decision.