BOISE, Idaho (AP) — Lawmakers in the Idaho House advanced legislation Wednesday that would lift the state's cap on charter schools while also allowing more than one to open within the boundaries of a traditional school district each year.
The House Education Committee voted 12-5 to support the measure amid opposition from the statewide teachers union, the Idaho School Boards Association and the Idaho Association of School Administrators.
Supporters of the bill say Idaho's law on public charter schools is outdated and harming Idaho efforts to secure federal grant money for the state. They also point to a charter school waiting list that includes some 7,000 students.
But critics say Idaho's scarce public education dollars are already stretched thin and now is not the time to expand the system with more charter schools. Idaho now limits the number of new charter schools to six per year.
When touting his legislation to eliminate limits on charter schools, House Education Committee Chairman Bob Nonini told legislative budget writers last week the cap was unnecessary, as the state had yet to hit it. But he later acknowledged charter schools did reach the six-per-year limit at one point, several years ago.
In 2004, the state approved seven charter schools but only six were allowed to open in the fall of 2005. The seventh school had to wait until the following year.
After lengthy testimony in Nonini's committee Wednesday, Rep. Linden Bateman of Idaho Falls was among two Republicans who joined the panel's three Democrats in voting against the measure. Bateman noted the opposition from education groups.
Specifically, Bateman said, the piece allowing more than one charter to open within a school district's boundaries each year gave him pause.
The Idaho Association of School Administrators testified the move could harm traditional districts that no longer have funding protections to offset enrollment declines when students leave to attend a new charter school.
"I think we need to reconsider what we're doing here," Bateman said. "I just think this is not the year to remove the cap per district."
Groups in support of the legislation include the state Department of Education, headed by public schools chief Tom Luna. Idaho had been receiving federal grant money to help new charter schools with startup costs for more than a decade, said Luna's chief of staff, Luci Willits.
But last year, the grant was not renewed, said Willits, who pointed to Idaho's charter school restrictions.
"Idaho's charter school law is behind," she said. "It's not seen as innovative and it's not seen as progressive."
The state law allowing charter schools was passed in 1998 and allowed for the creation of a dozen each year. The law was revamped in 2004 with a new cap narrowing the number to six a year. Charter schools are funded with public money but given more freedom in how they operate and dozens have been established by teachers, parents and community members.
Tamara Baysinger heads the state's Public Charter School Commission and told lawmakers the state Board of Education supports efforts to remove both limits on charter schools. The board has previously waivered on the issue.
At a meeting last October, trustees voted against plans to strike both the cap and district boundary rule. But hours later, the board reversed its course and approved a revised proposal, one that supported lifting the cap but ditched language eliminating the rule on district boundaries.
The board changed its position yet again during a special meeting this month and voted to support eliminating both limits on charter schools.