Las Vegas Sun

September 19, 2014

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Charter schools law tougher

A little change in state law could make a big difference for the future of charter schools by making it tougher to open a new school.

The 2005 Legislature gave the state Board of Education the discretion to deny an application for a new charter school, which board members say is long overdue.

Prior to the change, if a charter school application was denied twice by a local school board, the group proposing the school could go to the state board, which had to approve the charter if the group had all of its paperwork in order.

"The change in the law gives us the opportunity to really scrutinize carefully and make an informed choice on whether a charter school (application) has merit," said Gary Waters, Board of Education member.

"Before, we couldn't say no if the i's were dotted and the t's were crossed. Now we can examine not just if they are meeting the letter of the law, but if the program will make a difference in student achievement."

The charter school movement has spurred considerable debate within the educational community. Although hailed by advocates as a way to expand parents' and students' choices, charter schools have drawn criticism from skeptics who see them as undermining conventional public schools.

Because of greater latitude accorded charter schools, opponents also have sometimes questioned the qualifications of the schools' administrators and teachers.

Charter schools receive the same per-pupil funding as regular schools, but are given more leeway in hiring staff, devising curriculum and setting instructional methods. Sponsorship must be granted either by the state Board of Education or local school boards.

The previous loophole in the state law essentially invalidated the authority of local districts, said Craig Butz, executive director of Clark County's Odyssey Charter School.

"A school district could very legitimately decline an application and then see it approved by the state because they had no choice," said Butz, an officer with the Nevada Association of School Administrators. "And then the school would end up operating in the same district that originally turned it down."

Butz said getting approval from either the local board or the state "shouldn't be easy."

Three of the state's 18 charter schools were approved by the state board before the change in the law. One, Nevada State High School, is in Clark County.

Former Board of Education member John Hawk, who resigned his seat last year to become executive director of Nevada State High School, which he co-founded with his wife, said the changes to the law are positive.

Hawk's application was rejected twice by the Clark County School Board, which questioned the lack of license requirements for the college instructors who would teach the students.

"It's going to provide both organizations, the charter school committee and the state board, with more flexibility," said Hawk, whose program has 104 students earning dual-credit courses at Nevada State College in Henderson.

"It may actually move up the timeline for opening a charter school, and the state will now be able to consider contingencies beyond the basic noncompliance issues."

The revised charter schools law allows applicants to apply directly to the state for sponsorship without first being turned down twice by local school boards.

On Saturday the state board rejected applications from the Marion Bennett Leadership Academy and Clark Nevada Charter School, citing incomplete applications and questioning the groups behind the proposals.

The organizing committees of both charters planned to hire outside education management organizations -- for-profit companies that provide services and support -- to run the schools. The campuses would have served at-risk minority students in West Las Vegas, the predominantly black and economically depressed area near Martin Luther King Boulevard and Bonanza Road.

State law requires that charter schools be organized by committees made up of local community members with a governing body that includes teachers. Once organized, charter schools may contract certain services with for-profit companies, but must retain overall control.

In denying both requests, the Clark County School Board cited concerns about the level of involvement of the education management organizations in both the application process and the proposed daily operations.

In the case of the Leadership Academy, the outside company planned to hire the school's staff and initially sought the right to keep as profits any state funding that remained unspent at the end of the academic year.

"The law is very clear: You cannot grant a charter to a for-profit organization," said John Gwaltney, president of the state Board of Education.

Emily Richmond can be reached at 259-8829 or at [email protected]

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