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Grad rate of 20% at Idaho virtual charter schools called ‘unacceptable’

Here’s a link to my full story at spokesman.com on how Idaho officials who’ve been troubled by news this year that the state’s high school graduation is much lower than had long been thought have identified where the problem’s 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 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,” state Board of Education President Don Soltman told state 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.

Virtual charter schools are those in which students receive their education online, rather than in person; Idaho authorizes an array of them as options for families, at state expense.

Some of Idaho's state-authorized virtual charter schools specifically target at-risk, minority or under-served students, and some were set up locally. The largest, Idaho Virtual Academy, uses the K12 curriculum, which is developed by K12 Inc., a national, for-profit education company, and targets the general population. That virtual charter school currently enrolls 2,237 Idaho students.

Sen. Bob Nonini, R-Coeur d’Alene, a supporter of charter schools, called the low graduation rate for virtual charters “disheartening,” and said, “Twenty percent is terrible. It definitely needs to be looked into so it can be corrected, because it’s unacceptable. … I want to look into it.”

Idaho’s high school graduation rate for students in regular schools in regular school districts 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 that the state’s high school graduation was high, at 83 percent or more, even as the percentage of students who go on to higher education lagged. But new federal reports this year that make the data comparable between states put Idaho at an overall graduation rate of just 77.3 percent, tying for 41st in the nation.

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, and the breakdowns help. “The value of this data is that we’ve been able to identify the outliers that are dragging down our overall rates,” he said.

Said Soltman, “We were able to pinpoint where the problems are.”



Betsy Z. Russell
Betsy Z. Russell joined The Spokesman-Review in 1991. She currently is a reporter in the Boise Bureau covering Idaho state government and politics, and other news from Idaho's state capital.

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