Education: Questions about Charter School Proposal

by Judy Ferro

The Caldwell School District will host a community discussion on a proposed new charter school next Monday at 6 p.m. in the district office at Washington and 16th.

Right off the idea of a charter school to serve the 15% of Caldwell youth declared “at risk” of failing to graduate sounds good. A major objection to charter schools is that they bleed the best and brightest (some would add wealthiest and whitest) kids from public schools.

So who can object to a charter school proposal to work with the kids with learning and motivational problems?

Well, idahospromise.org has a two-part editorial by Vallivue teacher Levi Cavener stating some good reasons to oppose John and Joan Hall’s proposal for a Pathways in Education School in Caldwell.

The charter reads like an educator’s dream hitting all the right points—small group instruction, individualized programs, flexibility, productivity, even self-direction. But Cavener points out that the budget calls for only six FTE teachers for an enrollment of 300 students.

Can anyone advocate having a single teacher for every 50 at-risk students?

A 2006 Los Angeles Times article on the first 40 California schools for “at risk” students run by the Halls indicates how this might be done. Students there did most of their work at home and met with teachers only twice a week. So are the Halls asking Idahoans to pay as much for four hours a week of class time as we regularly do for 28?

Just how many total hours of instruction will each student receive each week? How will these hours be divided among large-group, small-group, and one-on-one instruction?

The article also mentions that the state of California was objecting to $46 million of overcharges and to the $600,000 annual salary for the Halls. At that time about 11% of the students in the Halls’ charter schools were graduating. (I’d quote a more recent article if I could find one.)

Caldwell has a good alternative school. Canyon Springs Alternative School does a lot to encourage student responsibility and cooperative planning. Its four-year graduation rate is just under 50%. Vallivue’s alternative school has a higher rate, but Middleton’s and Nampa’s are lower. Cavener points out that about 30% of students at a North Idaho charter offering a program similar to Pathways in Education earn credit.

On-line virtual schools are notorious for signing kids up, getting the state’s money, and then letting the kids drop out.

What is the average graduation rate at the Hall’s PIE high schools?  The rates at the top 10 and bottom 10?   

And let’s not ignore the money thing. Cavener states that our “local” PIE Charter will be managed by the Halls’ Pathways Management Group (PMG). The cost will be about $170 thousand a year for the first three years and then be $127 per student per month.

If you think that means costs will level out after start-up expenses, do the math; that is $38,100 a month for the 300 projected students. Since the school gets to decide which students need summer school, that’s a possible $457,200 for a 12-month school year. Mind you, that’s not total expenses—that’s overhead. There are also materials to be bought from other Hall entities. (An Alabama articles lists five.)

Is PIE here now because Idaho just passed a law that allows charter schools to hire teachers who are uncertified and not even college graduates?

Someone should be talking to administrators at a dozen or so school districts that have chartered a Hall school. What overhead rate are the paying? What is the teacher turnover rate? Are teachers competent and qualified?

We’re talking about the last best-chance for many of our youth.