Chartering Policy: Key to State Success

As I travel the country, I’m always surprised at how legislatures find ways to complicate the basic fundamentals of the original charter law. The model law of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools is based on those fundamentals, so its annual ranking of 43 charter school laws in the U.S. is instructive.

Let’s take Idaho’s law, now ranked #22 in the nation. Last month I had opportunity to talk with legislators there about the strengths and barriers inherent in their law. Funding is an issue, of course, as their state provides the second-lowest per pupil funding in the country. But two policy barriers could be easily changed without new funding. Both changes would return chartering to its origins and create a more robust and autonomous charter sector.

The first policy issue is déjà vu for me. For a charter school to be authorized by the Idaho Charter School Commission, the applicant must first be rejected by the local school district. Why must a charter school applicant be stamped “Denied” by a sometimes hostile school district before moving forward? Why require an applicant to withstand the expense and delay of application to the school district, rather than allow direct application to another authorizer? I don’t see how that creates a better charter school.

Minnesota’s law in 1993 was similar. Charter applicants had to apply to the local school board before they could appeal to the state board of education. While this was better than the original 1991 law that required approvals by both the school district and state, the appeals process didn’t work. It was burdensome, bureaucratic, and unnecessary. Legislators removed that restriction shortly thereafter and allowed charter applicants to apply directly to an authorizer. Idaho legislators can learn from chartering history.

I was even more surprised that Idaho requires a common education contract for district and charter school teachers. Only one other charter state—New Mexico—requires that. That undermines other autonomy provisions in Idaho’s law. Legislators can restore full autonomy to charter schools by removing this restriction and bolstering the fundamentals of chartering: autonomy and innovation.

I hope Idaho legislators will let charter origins inform the future of chartering in their state. Idaho families are counting on that.