- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 18, 2009


A few minutes after the bell rings, Gus Spiropulos waits for the fifth-graders to finish their noisy parade out the door before he reluctantly begins his calls to parents.

His approach is polite but pointed; there are only a few troublemakers. But he’s careful not to stir resentment because parents in this tiny dairy community no longer have to send their children to Gooding Elementary School, or even Gooding Middle School. Starting this fall, they’ll also be able to opt out of the traditional public high school here.

That choice is as Idaho lawmakers intended when they authorized charter schools a decade ago, part of a wave of states that embraced an alternative to the conventional classroom.

Since then, conventional public schools across the state have lost students to charter schools. Gooding is the poster child for the impact of charter schools on one of the poorest districts in the state.

“I’m not sure they totally understood what they were doing, the ramifications of putting a charter in a rural school district,” Mr. Spiropulos said. “Now they know.”

While charters have become ingrained in the educational fabric of states such as Arizona, Michigan, Colorado and Florida, there are still Idaho lawmakers who consider them a threat to the traditional public school system.

Less than a year after North Valley Academy opened in Gooding, the traditional public school system has lost about 100 students, 10 percent of its total enrollment, and a portion of the tax money that supported those students.

On Feb. 10, voters had to pass a supplemental property tax levy to raise about $325,000 for the Gooding School District to ward off the elimination of music and athletic programs caused partly by the departure of the charter school children and in part by the economic downturn. The levy gained many supporters, including Heather Williams, the district superintendent, and it passed 669 to 393, but it also worsened a rift that emerged in Gooding when the school buses started carrying two sets of children.

The students headed to North Valley Academy wore sharp uniforms, khaki bottoms and polo or button down shirts in red, white and blue. Those bound for the regular public school were suddenly different.

”It segregated the community,” said Holly Church, a teacher who lives in Gooding and works in the public schools in nearby Wendell.

Butch and Mary Stolzman will have grandchildren in both public school systems this fall. They voted for the levy in support of the regular public schools, but parents also seem to like the charter school. “We haven’t quite figured out which one is better,” said Mr. Stolzman.

More than 30 charter schools have been established in Idaho by teachers, parents and community members. For just about every one of the 11,000 students enrolled in a charter school, there is another child on a waiting list.

They are public schools, funded with state money, but given more flexibility in how they operate. They draft charters with specific goals and their students are subject to standardized testing, just like they would be in regular schools.

They enroll students through a lottery system and attract a smaller percentage of minorities compared with traditional schools statewide. Several, such as North Valley Academy, have adopted rigorous college-prep programs and students adhere to strict discipline codes.

Debra Infanger wanted students in Gooding County, where cows outnumber residents 12 to one, to have the same alternative being offered in school districts across the state. She founded North Valley Academy, which has about 162 pupils in kindergarten through eighth grade and will expand to include grades 9-12 this fall.

“I don’t regret it at all,” said the retired owner of a glass-repair business. “I don’t like to see rural kids shorted just because we live in the country and don’t like a lot of traffic.”

Lawmakers in the state capital have set the stage for a legislative battle over a plan to temporarily freeze approval of new charter schools for the next three years, beginning in July.

State Sen. Dick Sagness, a Democrat, wants to place a moratorium on the establishment of new charter schools until the economic turmoil subsides. Charters received nearly $60 million last year in state money, while more than half of the 115 school districts in Idaho have gone to local taxpayers and are operating with supplemental levies, he said.

“If they’re in a district where the charter school resides, it’s having an impact; opportunities are being reduced,” he said. “Tell me how that’s fair, or reasonable.”

At least one Republican senator vowed to oppose the bill when it was introduced to the Senate Education Committee last month. The legislation, which is likely to fail, has also drawn criticism from public schools chief Tom Luna.

“I think it would send a signal to the parents of Idaho that we are not going to respect their demands,” said Mr. Luna, who supports a plan to raise the cap on the number of new charters allowed to open each year.

In Washington state, the Legislature’s approval of charter schools in 2004 was swiftly overturned by voters in a referendum at the next election.

Nationwide, efforts to stymie the growth of charter schools have largely failed, and there are now 4,600 of them in 40 states with 4.5 million students, said Jeanne Allen, president and founder of the Center for Education Reform, a school-choice advocate based in Washington.

”Lots of people wanted to shut down the competition, but reason prevailed and traditional school leaders learned how to do better,” she said. “Those who didn’t have either continued to suffer, or they have closed.”

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