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Karen McGee: Idaho charter school movement has created wall of ineffective bureaucracy

Karen McGee

“We need to end the government monopoly in education by transferring power from bureaucracies and unions to families.” This sentiment expressed by Jeb Bush, 43rd governor of Florida, son and brother to two former presidents, reflects the reason the charter school movement began in Idaho. In the late 1990s, Idahoans recognized that all students learn differently and parents know their children better than anyone else. It wasn’t that citizens and lawmakers hated traditional public schools. It wasn’t to start a competition to see who could create the “best” school. The foundation for Idaho charter schools was a desire to offer choices that helped all students grow and succeed.

It’s easy to forget the past and re-write history to reflect what we want to hear instead of what really happened. After a while, we can even create our own version of history that guides political decisions. This is the case with the “High Performing” charter school rhetoric and the Bluum-funded CREDO study focused on calculating how much one school outperforms another. Do we really think we can create a simple calculation using ISAT scores to determine how many days-worth of learning students in entire schools achieve in a year?

The Idaho Charter School Movement is failing. The schools are not failing. The leadership is failing. The goal was to create choice for parents and schools. The leadership has created a new bureaucracy focused on power and competition.

Just listen to the recent executive session of the April commission meeting. You can hear the commissioners and their staff members violate Idaho law and discuss how to manipulate the public and our elected officials. Even more troubling, you can hear commissioners and their staff members gossiping, laughing and demeaning respected people and organizations.

As the former president of the Idaho State Board of Education, education adviser to Gov. Butch Otter and director of the Idaho State Board of Education, I worked with lawmakers and educators from across our state. Many of those individuals have dedicated their lives to improving education for every student in Idaho.

I have attended many open meetings and believe transparency is created when our citizens are able to listen and observe the discussion and actions of our elected and appointed officials. The commission’s discussion used the executive session as a way to shut the door and engage in a discussion that was shocking, inappropriate.

In fact, the Idaho Board of Education has very specific rules regarding student data. Data that includes five or more students is reportable in public forums. As a parent, I would be very concerned about state-appointed commissioners and their staff members looking at my children’s individual data. In fact, in all my years of public service, I have been able to gain very detailed information about the growth of students and organizations without ever having to go into executive session to examine the test scores of specific children.

The comments from the recording include commission staff members stating that they do not have an in-depth understanding of data and receive very limited support from the state in analyzing data. The recording demonstrates that they are not even following their own BOE data policies. The information they share is available on the Idaho Department of Education’s Report Card website and is also available on each school’s website as part of its continuous improvement plan. It seems logical that information available to the public could be discussed in a public setting.

That brings me to my final, and possibly most important point. I’m sure most of our parents taught us the idiom “If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all.” We might add that if you don’t understand the data, and don’t have the training necessary to accurately and fairly evaluate diverse schools across the state, you might not be the right person to make comments.

The commission members, Executive Director Tamara Baysinger and Kirsten Pochop, senior accountability program manager, clearly lack the training, expertise and knowledge necessary to understand and carry out the original intent of the Idaho Charter School movement (choice for parents and students). More important, they lack the professional and ethical foundation to serve the students, families and citizens of our great state. All schools have strengths and weaknesses. As a former state board member, I was fortunate to serve with other state officials who valued the hard work of our Idaho school administrators and teachers. That should be the expectation for all entrusted with leadership positions.

To end with another quote from former Florida Gov. Bush, “Treating people fairly and with civility is not a bad thing. … It would be good for our country if political leaders actually took that to heart.”

Karen McGee is a former president of the Idaho State Board of Education and director of the Idaho State Board of Education