BOISE – Idaho officials troubled by news that the state’s high school graduation rate is much lower than previously thought have identified where the problem is occurring: at the state’s “virtual” charter schools and alternative schools.
The graduation rate for Idaho’s state-authorized virtual charter schools is just 20 percent. For alternative schools in Idaho school districts, which serve students at risk for educational failure in regular junior high or high schools, the graduation rate is 36 percent, the state Board of Education reported to lawmakers.
“The bad news is that alternative schools and virtual schools have very low graduation rates, which drag down the overall state average,” Board of Education President Don Soltman told lawmakers Monday. “The good news is that for students attending regular schools or charter schools … actually 88 percent and 91 percent” graduate.
“This analysis provides the board direction to investigate strategies to help these low-graduating populations improve,” Soltman told the Legislature’s joint budget committee, kicking off a week of education budget hearings.
Students in virtual charter schools receive their education online, rather than in person. Idaho authorizes and pays for an array of them as options for families.
Some of Idaho’s state-authorized virtual charter schools specifically target at-risk, minority or underserved students, and some were set up locally. The largest, Idaho Virtual Academy, uses a curriculum developed by a national, for-profit education company and targets the general population. That virtual charter school has 2,237 Idaho students, according to the state Department of Education.
Kelly Edginton, head of school for the Idaho Virtual Academy, issued a statement Wednesday questioning the methodology behind the graduation rates. He said the rates don’t take into account the virtual schools’ high rate of transfer students who start out already behind on credits when they enter the schools, and said among the minority of students who remain at the IVA for all four years of high school, 90 percent graduate on time.
Sen. Bob Nonini, R-Coeur d’Alene, a supporter of charter schools, called the low graduation rate for virtual charters “disheartening” and said, “It definitely needs to be looked into so it can be corrected, because it’s unacceptable.”
Idaho’s high school graduation rate for students in regular public schools is 88 percent. For students in brick-and-mortar charter schools, whether the charters are authorized by local school districts or the state, it’s 91 percent. Other types of schools within school districts have an 80 percent graduation rate, the board reported.
Idaho long had relied on figures showing the state’s high school graduation rate was high, at 83 percent or more, even as the percentage of students who go on to higher education lagged. But new federal reports that make the data comparable between states put Idaho at an overall graduation rate of just 77.3 percent, tying for 41st nationally.
Soltman said in his experience, virtual charter schools and alternative schools generally serve the same population.
“I applaud the work they do,” he said, in serving “the type of student that has not fared well in the public school system.”
Matt Freeman, executive director of the Office of the State Board of Education, said the board was keen to find out more about the new graduation rate numbers.
“The value of this data is that we’ve been able to identify the outliers that are dragging down our overall rates,” he said.