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September 19, 2014

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Airing of charter tensions set

State, local moratoriums on new applications have education officials, lawmakers butting heads

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Tiffany Brown

Middle schoolers at Andre Agassi College Preparatory Academy head for home. The Las Vegas school will host a meeting of the Legislative Committee on Education Thursday on charter schools.

Timeline

In the 11 years since the Nevada Legislature first authorized charter schools, the alternative education program has had its ups and downs in the Silver State. Here are a few highlights — and lowlights:

June 1997: The Legislature authorizes creation of charter schools, with local school boards as sponsors.

August 1998: I Can Do Anything Academy opens in Washoe County, becoming the state’s first charter school.

August 1999: The first two Clark County charter schools open: Odyssey Charter School, which allowed students to study via home computer with weekly visits from licensed teachers, and Keystone Academy, serving high school students in rural Sandy Valley. Preliminary sponsorship is also approved for the Las Vegas Charter School for the Deaf. (The school has yet to open its doors because of a lack of facilities.)

December 2000: Clark County’s third charter school, TechWorld Academy, abruptly shuts its doors after just nine weeks of operation. The school’s failure costs the School District $315,000 in per-pupil funding from the state.

August 2001: Andre Agassi College Preparatory Academy opens, serving at-risk students in Las Vegas. By 2003, Rep. Jon Porter, R-Nev., is showing it off to his congressional colleagues as a model of a successful charter school.

August 2003: Explore Knowledge Academy, which offers students “project-based learning” and the opportunity to advance at their own speed, opens in Las Vegas. (Several years later, at the request of parents tired of fighting traffic to take their children to the Sandhill Road campus, the school adjusts its schedule so that students are required to be on-site only Tuesday through Friday.)

June 2004: Washoe County School District becomes the first in the state to put a moratorium on new charter school applications, capping its total at eight.

December 2004: After several turbulent years, the Clark County School Board revokes Clark County Team Academy’s charter, citing shortcomings in record-keeping and instructional methods. More than 300 students of the distance-education program must find new schools in the middle of the academic year.

March 2005: Douglas County School District decides the one charter school it has is enough, and announces it will no longer accept applications for sponsorship.

June 2005: The Legislature authorizes charter school applicants to go directly to the State Board of Education for sponsorship, eliminating the requirement that proposals be turned down twice by local school boards before they can be taken to the state board. The state’s charter school law is revised, giving the State Board of Education the discretion to turn down applications even if all statutory requirements have been met. The Legislature also approves legislation allowing the Nevada System of Higher Education to serve as a charter school sponsor. As a result the Davidson Academy of Nevada at UNR, the first public university school for gifted and talented students, is created.

August 2006: Innovations International Charter School opens its doors in the former Temple Beth Shalom on Oakey Boulevard. It offers a dual-language program, with students learning both English and Spanish. Also opening is the 100 Academy of Excellence, North Las Vegas’ first charter school. Affiliated with the nonprofit 100 Black Men of Las Vegas, the academy is managed by Imagine Schools, which has contracts for about 50 charter schools in 11 states.

April 2007: After the Clark County School District promises to open an alternative high school program for rural Sandy Valley students, Keystone Academy announces it will close its doors at the end of the academic year, two months later.

July 2007: Odyssey and Agassi both make the district’s list of “exemplary” schools for performance under No Child Left Behind.

August 2007: The last two Clark County-sponsored charter schools open: Rainbow Dreams Academy, which grew out of an Anthony L. Pollard Foundation after-school program for at-risk students, and WestCare Charter School, which serves students in the nonprofit health system’s substance abuse program.

October 2007: The Clark County School Board votes to put a moratorium on charter school applications, capping its total at eight: Agassi Prep, Explore Knowledge, Innovations International, Odyssey, Rainbow Dreams and WestCare (both of which began in the fall), 100 Academy of Excellence and the yet-to-be-opened Las Vegas Charter School for the Deaf.

November 2007: Citing a lack of resources, the State Board of Education approves a moratorium on acceptance of charter school applications. The 11 applications already pending will be reviewed, state officials say. Lawmakers call for an inquiry and the Legislative Committee on Education schedules a meeting for Thursday to discuss the issue.

-- Emily Richmond

Nevada parents want the option of sending their children to charter schools.

State and local education officials say they won’t approve charter schools unless they can ensure the schools meet standards.

That’s all good, right? Well, it has educators and lawmakers in the bureaucratic equivalent of a schoolyard shoving match.

Following the Clark County School District’s lead, the State Board of Education in November said it was suspending approval of new charter school applications. The education officials said they did not have the staff to handle the workload. So, they said, until they can handle new charter schools properly, they aren’t going to handle them at all.

There were some tense exchanges among state board members and lawmakers in the days leading up to and following the moratorium vote.

Some lawmakers were infuriated, alleging the motives had more to do with turf protection than logistical challenges. A few legislators suggested the vote had violated the state’s open meeting law.

Others said the board had no authority to put a moratorium in place and is required by statute to review every application submitted.

That may be the one aspect of the debate that has been hashed out.

State Superintendent of Public Instruction Keith Rheault said Tuesday that he spoke with Legislative Counsel Bureau staff and was told, “as long as the moratorium doesn’t go on forever, and it’s really temporary, it looks like that’s OK. If they flat-out said they weren’t going to approve any more charter schools ever, that would be a problem.”

The board members’ authority is still being challenged by some of their fellow elected officials. Charter schools are the only topic on the agenda for the Legislative Committee on Education’s meeting Thursday morning.

The committee gave the board some homework to complete before the meeting — a list of pointed questions that had to be answered in writing. One question was: “Where is the confusion in Nevada law relative to the board’s obligation to accept charter applications?”

The answers are just as pointed: No confusion, the board said in its written response. People can keep submitting applications — they just won’t be reviewed or approved until the moratorium is lifted.

Assemblywoman Bonnie Parnell, D-Carson City, the committee’s chairwoman, said she expects cooler heads will prevail at Thursday’s showdown.

“The real question is where do we go from here,” Parnell said. “This is the time to see how we can fix what appears to be a bit of broken policy in this state.”

Parnell said she didn’t realize how much oversight charter schools require.

“We need to make sure that if we are telling our parents that the state or a district has sponsored a charter school, there’s as much of a guarantee that we can muster that those children will receive a quality education,” Parnell said. “That’s our legislative mandate.”

Charter schools have a mixed track record on performance locally and nationwide. Several studies have found no significant difference in student performance at charter schools compared with traditional campuses. But in a 2006 study released by the National Center for Education Statistics, charter school students scored lower than their traditional-school peers in reading and math.

In Clark County, charter schools have wound up at both ends of the No Child Left Behind spectrum, with some campuses identified as “exemplary” while others are “in need of improvement.”

Supporters — including many educators — point out that when charter schools are done right, they often serve as incubators for the best and most innovative educational practices.

The workload for the charter school’s sponsor can be overwhelming, however. The Nevada Education Department believes it needs two more full-time employees to handle charter school applications before the moratorium is lifted, twice the staff currently assigned to handle the duties. Given that Gov. Jim Gibbons is calling for a 4.5 percent cut to K-12 education, finding funding for those new employees might be difficult, if not impossible.

State Board of Education President Marcia Washington says she and her colleagues are being wrongly painted as anti-charter school, when it’s a lack of resources that motivated the moratorium.

“We asked for funding for more staff in 2005 and they (the Legislature) didn’t do anything to help us,” Washington said. “We can’t approve new applications when we don’t have a way to meet our responsibility to properly monitor the schools.”

While charter schools have greater flexibility in staffing, scheduling and instructional methods, they are still public schools and subject to many of the same requirements as traditional campuses. That means buildings must be up to code, special education and counseling services must be provided and meticulous financial and student records must be maintained.

The charter school’s sponsor, which must be a local school district, the State Board of Education or the Nevada System of Higher Education, is responsible for oversight. Charter schools receive the same per-pupil funding as traditional schools, although many programs supplement budgets with help from public grants and private donors.

Citing the work and expense involved in reviewing, approving and monitoring charter schools, Washoe County was the first school district to stop sponsoring new charter schools, capping its total at eight in June 2004. In March of the following year, the Douglas County School District decided it had enough work with the one charter school it already sponsored. And in October 2007, the Clark County School Board notified the Nevada Education Department that it would not be reviewing any new applications because it was already struggling to supervise the eight charter schools it sponsored.

It was Clark County’s moratorium that spurred the state board to action. Because Clark County accounts for roughly 70 percent of the state’s K-12 enrollment, it’s the most fertile territory for charter school growth. With the local district no longer interested in serving as a sponsor, the applications would go directly to the State Board of Education for approval.

At Andre Agassi College Preparatory Academy in Las Vegas, the waiting list is 1,000 names strong for a school that has room for only 600 students. That’s one of the reasons Roy Parker, principal of Agassi Prep’s K-8 program, is troubled by the moratorium.

“We can’t meet the needs of every family that wants to send their children here,” Parker said. “If no other charter schools are being licensed, then there are families seeking educational alternatives who cannot fulfill that aspiration.”

Thursday’s meeting will take place at 9:30 a.m. at Agassi Prep, which has become the state’s showpiece charter school by virtue of its track record for student achievement, innovative programs and community support.

Olympic tennis gold medalist Agassi himself might be the first to concede, as he did to Oprah Winfrey in an interview last year, that his namesake campus is unique. With significant outside financial support, the school is able to spend thousands of dollars more per student than is allocated by the state. But money aside, the school represents what charter school proponents say can be done when the state encourages alternatives.

And there is public support for such endeavors, according to a recent survey commissioned by the Nevada Policy Research Institute, a conservative think tank. In the December poll, 60 percent of those surveyed described themselves as either “not at all” or “not very” familiar with charter schools. But when the pollster explained the premise, 55 percent said they felt either somewhat or strongly favorable toward the idea.

To be sure, Nevada’s appetite for charter schools appears strong, particularly when it comes to those that offer “distance education”: online classes supplemented by telephone and computer help from licensed teachers. The two newest state-sponsored charter schools, K12 Academy and Nevada Virtual Academy, are that type of school. They opened in the fall and are already full for the year.

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