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November 22, 2014

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SCHOOLS:

Lawmakers consider new panel to oversee charter schools

Panel would, among other roles, tackle the arduous application process

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Sam Morris

Edgar Juarez, from left, Diego Alcaide and Raimundo Crespo work this week on their model of the Golden Gate Bridge at Innovations International Charter School in Las Vegas. The exercise was part of the seventh graders’ social studies class.

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Nevada lawmakers are considering creating a new entity to oversee the state’s charter schools, a response to the State Board of Education’s 2007 moratorium on new charter school applications.

Assembly Bill 489 would create the Nevada Charter School Institute, a seven-member appointed panel to authorize new charter schools and supervise the eight charter schools sponsored by the State Board of Education.

Lawmakers say the institute — modeled on similar initiatives in Utah and Colorado — would ensure the application pipeline remains open and that adequate administrative support is available to help the alternative public schools flourish.

Nevada has been unfairly characterized as not being “charter school friendly,” said Assemblywoman Bonnie Parnell, D-Carson City, chairwoman of the Education Committee, which wrote the bill. The institute “would, most likely, sponsor schools that may be having a difficult time chartering due to moratoriums established by school districts.”

The bill, which would allocate $716,000 over the next two years to fund the institute, would give charter schools currently sponsored by school districts the option of moving under the institute’s supervision.

The state’s school districts, State Board of Education and Nevada System of Higher Education are authorized to oversee charter schools, which have greater flexibility in staffing, scheduling and instructional methods than traditional public schools. (They receive the same per-pupil funding, but many supplement their budgets with public grants and private donations.)

To start a charter school, an organizing committee must submit a lengthy application, laying out an educational program and showing that it would not duplicate offerings available in traditional public schools. Once a preliminary charter is issued, organizers must secure appropriate facilities before final approval is granted.

Statewide there are 22 charter schools, including eight in Clark County, the nation’s fifth largest district. Five charter school applications are pending with the state.

In 2007, the Clark County School District capped its charter school roster at eight, putting pressure on the state board to handle new applications.

State officials said the sudden flood of proposals overwhelmed the Education Department’s two employees assigned to cover charter schools. Soon after, the State Board of Education announced it was considering a moratorium on new charter schools, citing insufficient resources.

Despite pressure from legislators who argued that the State Board was acting beyond its authority and violating the spirit of the state’s charter school law, the board approved the moratorium. It was lifted nine months later, but not before lawmakers, long frustrated by the slow pace of the state’s charter school growth, decided to change the system.

State Board of Education President Anthony Ruggiero said relieving the board of its charter oversight role and creating the institute would merely replace one charter school licensing organization with another, without providing additional avenues to accelerate the process.

It’s “addition by subtraction,” Ruggiero said. “If you are truly a charter schools advocate, you should want more authorizers, not fewer.”

Ruggiero said he suggested an amendment to the bill that would allow the State Board to retain its authorization authority and work alongside the institute.

But state Sen. Maurice Washington, R-Sparks, said the State Board has indicated, “with its infinite wisdom in passing the moratorium,” that it does not want the responsibility of authorizing charter schools. Washington said he opposes Ruggiero’s proposed amendment because it would conflict with the institute’s responsibilities.

Ruggiero recognizes the State Board’s moratorium infuriated some lawmakers, but the decision was made for “all the right reasons. We were trying to be responsible — managerially, administratively and fiscally,” he said.

It takes Nevada Education Department staff hundreds of hours to process each application. Managing the expected workload would require two additional full-time positions, said Keith Rheault, Nevada’s superintendent of public instruction.

Rather than wanting to abdicate authority, Rheault said he made sure that oversight of charter schools’ fiscal matters and student performance would remain with the Education Department under AB489, rather than moving to the proposed institute.

“We fought hard for that,” Rheault said. “These are still public schools, spending taxpayers’ money.”

Matthew Ladner, a senior fellow at the conservative Goldwater Institute in Phoenix who recently completed a study comparing charter school programs in Arizona and Nevada, said the creation of a separate institute would be “a step in the right direction.” At the very least, a separate entity to handle Nevada’s charter schools would keep the application pipeline open, Ladner said.

But he said the argument that Nevada’s education department was overwhelmed by a few schools and pending applications “is laughable.” Arizona’s charter school institute has a staff of eight overseeing 463 schools, said Ladner, whose study was done in conjunction with the conservative Nevada Policy Research Institute.

The bill, which was awaiting a hearing in the Ways and Means Committee on Friday, would leave unchanged the state’s requirements for charter schools, which are among the nation’s most rigid and which critics say unfairly limit the educational options for the state’s students and families.

“Nevada’s laws almost treat charter schools as something the public needs to be protected against” even though charter schools come with a greater level of accountability and safeguards than traditional public schools, Ladner said. “The barriers are significant.”

If Nevada lawmakers want to encourage more charter schools, the place to start is helping them find facilities, said LeAnn Putney, an associate professor of educational psychology at UNLV and a member of the Innovations International Charter School’s governing board. It took Putney’s group three years to find a suitable location, taking over Temple Beth Shalom’s site on East Oakey Boulevard.

However, Putney and other officials at several locally sponsored charter schools told the Sun they are more than satisfied with the supervision they receive from the Clark County School District and wouldn’t likely turn to the institute for oversight if the bill becomes law.

Innovations’ enrollment is about 700 in grades K-12, with a large waiting list, Principal Connie Malin said. Class sizes are capped at 25. The school has made “adequate yearly progress” for two consecutive years, meeting the state and federal performance requirements of No Child Left Behind. The campus is finding its groove, Malin said, and the district has been instrumental in letting that happen.

“When I call about anything, I get an answer immediately,” Malin said. “At the same time I try to make the deadlines and meet the expectations they have of me, so they know I’m serious about what I’m doing.”

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