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School choice advocates gather at the Idaho State Capitol

ERIN BANKS RUSBY - Jan 24, 2023

BOISE — Last year, Marilyn Villagomez thought she would drop out of school.

“At my previous school, I constantly avoided going to class,” Villagomez said. “I did not feel that the teachers cared about us. It was so big, there were so many students, it was almost impossible to make a connection with any of my teachers.”

But Villagomez got a call one day asking her if she would like to take a tour of Elevate Academy, a year-round career technical charter school. She agreed, and it changed her life, she said.

Now a senior, Villagomez has attended the school for less than a year and said she has been given opportunities to learn about careers in her community through field trips, and to visit colleges she is interested in attending.

“Being at Elevate (Academy) has shown me that no matter where you come from, or where you’re at, if you want something, you can truly do it with the right people around you,” Villagomez said.

Villagomez was one of several students and advocates who spoke during a rally at the Idaho State Capitol for School Choice week. Hundreds of students from schools across the Treasure Valley gathered to show support for the ability to send students to learning environments that fit them best.

The event was hosted by Florida-based organization National School Choice Week, whose purpose is to help parents explore school choices, including “traditional public, charter, magnet, online, private, and homeschooling,” according to a press release about Tuesday’s event.

Idaho Superintendent of Public Instruction Debbie Critchfield said that Idaho ranks third in the nation for “its educational freedom.” About 17% of Idaho families choose a nontraditional school environment for their children, Critchfield said.

“I want you to know that I will continue to defend and protect and support parents’ right to make those choices and that we can support the good schools in all of the forms that I’ve seen them … and I know I want to make a commitment to you that the State Department can and will do better as we connect our families to the choices that are available in their communities,” Critchfield said.

Tom LeClaire, president of the Coalition of Idaho Charter School Families, said his organization is committed to being advocates for parents.

“We love parents, we trust parents, and we fight like parents,” LeClaire said, encouraging parents to reach out “if you ever get in trouble with any of your regulators, or (have concerns.)”

Sofia Sanchez Chapman, a senior at Idaho Virtual Academy, will earn her high school diploma this spring and will also be graduating summa cum laude with her associate’s degree in liberal arts from the College of Western Idaho. Sanchez Chapman said she experienced bullying and ostracism at a traditional middle school before her family made the decision to enroll her elsewhere.

At her new school, Sanchez Chapman said, “my mother and I had the ability to completely choose who I was in direct contact with and I was able to grow and learn in a space that felt safe.”

Idaho passed legislation permitting charter schools in 1998, according to the State Department of Education’s website.

Karen McGee, now vice president of the Coalition of Idaho Charter School Families, said she helped craft that legislation through her roles at the State Board of Education. She also served on then-Lt. Gov. Janice McGeachin’s task force examining indoctrination in education, according to reporting from Idaho Education News.

“It warms my heart to know that that charter law led to parents having a choice for their children.”

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