With school choice being a hot-button topic in recent times, it has many in Idaho wondering if it’s possible for alternatives to traditional public schools to come to the more rural areas of the Gem State. To showcase what resources are available to prospective charter school operators, Treasure Valley Classical Academy hosted the ‘Idaho’s Rural Charter School Development Opportunities’ conference, in conjunction with the U.S. Department of Agriculture on Sept. 30.
The conference was presented by the Boise-based nonprofit Bluum organization, which seeks to expand educational opportunities for Idaho students by supporting leadership training and encouraging innovation in K-12 school models, the BuildingHope Foundation in Washington D.C., the Charter School Facility Center at the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools and Momentum Strategy & Research.
To help prospective operators understand the various definitions and the available resources, the conference hosted several talks about charter school finance, examples of what has and has not worked in practice and means of bringing alternative programs to rural districts.
According to their reports, Idaho has 12 charter schools funded; nine of these are community facilities and three are funded through the Business and Industry loan guarantee program.
Terry Ryan, CEO of Bluum, said one of the biggest challenges facing prospective operators is paying for walls to be built or fixed up.
“What we want as a supporter … is to ensure that the financing that they get is at the best terms possible, at the lowest interest rate. USDA financing offers that.”
Conference reports pointed out that USDA Rural Development has $215 billion in financing available through the nation’s top 15 banks, with 47 state and area offices staffed mostly by rural employees.
The J.A. and Kathryn Albertson Family Foundation, credited with spearheading this effort, estimated in 2014 that upwards of 20,000 new seats would be needed statewide by 2024. Ryan says that target has been adjusted to around 16,000 to 18,000, not all of which are as of yet paid for.
“About seven thousand of those are gonna receive funds from either the federal charter school program,” according to Ryan. “Congress authorized $400 million for this program,” between 2015 and 2016. Ryan says Bluum applied for and received $17 million of that for the state of Idaho, which was put towards opening up to 19 new schools statewide.
Bluum’s efforts aren’t limited to charter schools, though the majority of seats Bluum sponsors are charters; Ryan says Bluum was a key sponsor of St. Ignatius School’s grand opening, the first catholic school to be built in Idaho in 50 years.
“They are part of our effort, they were part of funding under this umbrella,” according to Ryan, “as was the high school in Pocatello, Grace Lutheran.”
Ryan says Bluum also supported the opening of Gem Innovation School, a hybrid concept in Nampa.
The definition of rural does vary, from as little as 10,000 all the way up to 50,000 depending on the source of funding sought for a school concept. Regardless, growth in population has seen the need for seats grow.
“Idaho… in the last couple of years has, along with Nevada, been one of the fastest growing states in the country,” according to Ryan. “We’re growing fast and we need to open schools, so there’s opportunity here to try to utilize some of these [grant] dollars to help open schools that will be innovative and different than what otherwise would open.”
TVCA principal Steven Lambert talked about hosting the conference in a brand-new school.
“We were asked to host it as an example of some of the challenges and successes that a rural charter schools experiences in this kind of setting. Because Bluum is one of our sponsors, one of our partners in this endeavor, when Terry Ryan asked if we were willing to host of course we obliged. We’re thrilled to be able to do this just thirty days in, really.”
Lambert pointed out that despite being in a historic facility, as TVCA formerly housed Fruitland High School, it’s what happens inside that counts.
“As much as this is a special place … it’s not the building that makes the school. It’s the teaching and the students in the classroom. That’s what makes the school.”
Rather than think of it as a business, Lambert points out this kind of school is all about “forming human beings.”
Ryan thanks TVCA for hosting
the conference and the Albertson Family Foundation for their continued support.