Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Let's hold off on more charter schools

By Senator Dick Sagness

In a recent speech on education, President Obama surprised some listeners by saying that the nation needs more charter schools. It’s true that, at their best, charter schools can be laboratories of educational innovation. However, many states are struggling with how to fund charter school expansion at a time of shrinking or stagnant budgets for traditional public schools. Boise School District officials have announced they must lay off 122 teachers next year, and other districts are certain to require similar layoffs.

Yet amid these deep cutbacks, Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Luna has called for lifting the cap on charter schools. I think that’s the wrong idea during this current economic downturn, and I have introduced legislation to put a three-year moratorium on new charter schools. The Senate Education Committee agreed to print Senate Bill 1085 way back in mid-February, but it’s been languishing there ever since. That’s a shame, because SB 1085 is needed at a time when Idaho’s traditional public schools face historic cuts. Allow me to explain why Idaho needs this moratorium:

When a new charter school starts, the vast majority of the students moving to the charter school district come from the traditional school district in which the charter school district resides. When the students move to the charter school district, the money allocated per child under state formula follows the child. In other words, the money that was supporting the student in the traditional public school is now supporting the education of the child in the charter school district. On the surface this makes sense except, like many things, the devil lies in the details.

When a child leaves the traditional public school district, many of the district’s costs remain essentially the same. Base costs for teachers, administration, facilities, maintenance, transportation and other support functions have to be maintained as they were before, but with the shift of funds to the charter school district, the traditional district has fewer dollars to cover essential costs. In some larger districts like Pocatello or Nampa, the charter school district receives more funding per child than the traditional public school district receives.

Each new charter school district gets about $1.3 million in funding for its first year – money that follows students from the traditional public school district to the charter school. However, since Idaho law says that if the traditional public school district loses 1 percent of its student population during the first year of the new charter school district operation, the traditional district in which the charter school district resides will be compensated for 99 percent of the revenue lost to the charter school district. This means that six new charter school districts could drain about $8 million per year from overall funding for K-12 schools.

Senate Bill 1085 would put a moratorium on starting new charter school districts for three years, July 1, 2009 through June 30, 2012, a period for which most people agree Idaho will continue to have serious revenue shortfalls. If we don’t do this, approximately $8 million dollars per year – or up to $24 million over the three years – will have to be taken from state funding for K-12 schools. This makes no fiscal or educational sense. If you agree that this would do grave damage to Idaho’s children, contact Senate Education Committee Chairman John Goedde and ask that the committee hear Senate Bill 1085.

Senator Dick Sagness of Pocatello is retired dean of the College of Education at Idaho State University.