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Idaho mulls funding building costs for charter schools

Idaho would help out charter schools with their building costs under legislation that cleared a House committee Tuesday, but it would come at the expense of the state’s other schools.

The bill was approved after a long hearing that saw several charter school directors plead their case for more funding, while others, including the state’s teachers union, objected to shifting the funds from Idaho’s traditional public schools.

“This obviously has a cost, and it’s going to come out of the existing appropriation or we appropriate more funds,” said Rep. Lance Clow, R-Twin Falls, who backed the bill.

Rep. Linden Bateman, R-Idaho Falls, said Idaho’s charter schools have widely varying school buildings, from “gleaming” structures to “a bunch of trailer houses jacked up on cinder blocks.” That’s not right, he said.

Idaho traditionally has relied on local residents to raise their own property taxes to pay for school buildings. Voter-approved school bonds qualify for limited state subsidies, but most of the cost is shouldered locally. Charter schools, however, don’t have any taxing authority.

Jason Hancock, a top 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 said the complex bill 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 latter costs likely won’t be high, since they’re mainly just for offices or testing centers. Virtual charter schools rely on students learning at home under parental supervision, using school-provided computers and Internet connections.

Of Idaho’s 18,152 charter school students, more than 5,000 are in those virtual schools, according to state Department of Education enrollment records. The state has 266,831 students in traditional 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.

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.”

Ward-Engelking said she’d like to see the per-student funding go to all schools, not just charter schools.

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 and so might oppose them. “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.”

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 Tuesday 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.

The funding measure now moves to the full House for debate; to become law, it would need to pass both there and in the Senate, and receive the governor’s signature.