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October 1, 2014

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After session, launching a charter school no easier

Proposal to cut back on red tape failed in session, and other hurdles remain

In a conference call with reporters this week, Education Secretary Arne Duncan once again touted the benefits of innovation and reform, urging states to lift caps on the number of charter schools that are allowed to operate.

But removing the cap alone doesn’t mean charter schools will suddenly flourish. Just look at Nevada.

The Silver State’s cap on charter schools expired in 2006. Since then 11 charter schools have been added, bringing the statewide total to 22. But that’s hardly a stampede, given that Clark County is the nation’s fifth-largest district, and states with smaller K-12 enrollments boast dozens of charter schools. Real barriers — put in place by cautious lawmakers — remain for Nevada applicants, and the 2009 Legislature backed away from a bill that might have helped smooth the road.

Lawmakers rejected a proposal to create the Nevada Charter School Institute, which would have taken over the responsibility of authorizing the alternative public campuses from the State Board of Education. In addition to approving and monitoring charter schools, the institute was intended to make it easier for people to navigate the red tape of the application process.

Right up until the session adjourned, Assemblywoman Bonnie Parnell, D-Carson City, believed the institute still had a chance. Parnell is chairwoman of the Assembly’s education committee, which spent long hours before the Legislature convened fine-tuning the legislation to avoid as many potholes as possible once the session got under way, but the efforts were still for naught. The Assembly Ways and Means Committee declined to take action on May 27, and attempts to push the bill’s language through during the final night of the session failed.

Charter schools receive the same per-pupil funding as traditional public schools but have greater freedom in daily operations — and have lengthy waiting lists. Charter enrollment growth has far outpaced that of traditional campuses, said Patrick Gibbons, education policy analyst with the Nevada Policy Research Institute, a conservative think tank.

Given the long-standing moratoriums on new charter school applications in the state’s largest districts, including Clark County, the only possible sponsor is the State Board of Education (which imposed a nine-month moratorium of its own last year, citing the drain on staff resources).

Six charter-school applications are pending before the Board of Education, including three in Clark County. Five of the six applicants have cleared all of the hurdles except finding a suitable campus, and could conceivably open in the fall if sites are found.

Charter school organizers struggle to raise money, recruit families and find appropriate facilities. And ties to local communities are often tenuous, at best. Of the five newest charter schools sponsored by the Board of Education since 2007, three are virtual programs that provide only online instruction. Out-of-state providers opened four charter schools in Nevada after getting local residents to serve on their organizing committees, as required by state statute.

Parnell’s bill would have allocated $716,000 over the biennium to fund the institute and its staff. That would have been a considerable fiscal commitment for a legislative session in which cuts to existing education spending, rather than new allocations, were the norm.

The perception that the institute would be adding another costly layer of bureaucracy sank the legislation, said Craig Butz, a consultant with Connections Academy, an online education provider that has charter schools in 15 states, including Nevada.

Butz, who served as principal of Clark County’s first online charter school from 1999 until 2007, said the institute would have been a step forward for Nevada, which has long been considered hostile territory for education innovation. Clark County School Board and State Board members insist they support the charter concept, but want to make sure the programs that move forward are academically and fiscally sound. But to some applicants, the moratoriums speak for themselves.

By comparison the institute “would have been a willing partner,” Butz said.

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