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September 14, 2014

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Charter schools feel weight of down economy

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Justin M. Bowen

Innovations International Charter School guidance counselor Angela Moore talks with students before classes Tuesday.

In their hope to find the best education for their children, some parents turn to charter schools — campuses that rely on public funding but which, governed by a state-approved charter, operate more independently than mainstream public schools.

The effort can pay off in multiple ways, with the parents wielding more control over the principal, the curriculum, staffing and scheduling — all factors that, the thinking goes, will lead to a higher-achieving campus or at least help avoid the challenges facing many public schools.

In the best of times, finding people willing — and qualified — to start a charter school is a heavy burden. There are facilities to line up, meetings to attend and students to recruit.

The recession appears to be taking its toll on this underrepresented sector of Nevada’s public education system.

The number of charter schools nationally increased to 5,043 last year, from 3,977 in 2006.

But even as the U.S. Education Department offers significant financial aid to encourage the creation of charter schools, the majority of pending applications with the Nevada Education Department appear stalled, and key deadlines have been missed for the 2010-11 academic year. And existing charter schools are, like their regular counterparts, bracing for budget cuts.

Despite being home to the nation’s fastest-growing school district for the better part of a decade, Nevada has just 28 charter schools, including eight in Clark County.

Nevada’s strict requirements and prohibition against for-profit charter schools contributed to the historically slow growth of the alternative programs (Arizona has more than 560 charter schools). And now, the economy appears to be quelling plans for new charter schools in the Silver State.

“Startups need philanthropic support to get their first year going, and obviously a lot of foundations have taken a big hit to their portfolios,” said policy analyst Matt Ladner, who has done extensive research on Nevada’s and Arizona’s charter schools for the Goldwater Institute in Phoenix. “In the short term, that’s going to put a damper on things.”

Further hampering efforts in Southern Nevada is a high transiency rate, which makes it difficult for organizing committees to pull together the required members, which must include local residents and qualified teachers.

Twelve charter school applicants — all but one of which would have served Clark County — petitioned the Nevada State Board of Education for preliminary approval for the 2010-11 academic year. But just one program — a high school expansion by an existing K-8 Montessori school in Washoe County — has met the state’s required deadlines to open in August. The others would have to reapply for the 2011-12 academic year.

One of those applicants says he’s setting aside his plans entirely. John Jasonek, who retired last week as executive director of the Clark County Education Association, had intended to start a career academy to give students preliminary preparation for teaching jobs.

“They’ve made it impossible to try and be successful with the existing funding formula and all the cuts,” Jasonek said. “Quite frankly, I think the state has been pretty hypocritical about encouraging progressive reform, when it makes it this difficult to get going.”

And plans by a private charter school company, Imagine Schools Inc., to open a third campus in Clark County have been at least temporarily stymied because at least four members of the organizing governing board have left the area to seek employment, said Harvey Williams, president of that board. Imagine has drawn stern warnings from Nevada education officials for failing to find enough qualified residents to serve on its board.

Meanwhile, existing charter schools are — like the rest of Nevada’s publicly funded campuses — bracing for a reduction in state support.

At Innovations International Charter School, sponsored by the Clark County School Board, Principal Connie Malin estimated the budget cut at more than $200,000. Innovations serves about 650 students this year and is expecting 700 in August despite a projected overall decline in student enrollment in Clark County.

The school’s board is contemplating many of the same tough choices as the Clark County School District, including increasing class sizes, layoffs and reducing programs and services.

Some of those programs, such as early-morning enrichment sessions, help define the school’s mission, Malin said. Federal grant money remains available to cover costs, she said.

“It’s going to be very tight,” said Malin, who is treasurer of the state’s charter schools association. “But we’re going to regroup and be creative in how we get things done.”

At Explore Knowledge Academy, a K-12 charter school in Las Vegas that emphasizes independent learning, Executive Director Don Houston said the school has cut $97,000 from its operating budget and expects to lose at least another $138,000. Those figures represent 2 percent of the school’s operating budget, but there’s no contingency fund to tap. Houston is looking for less expensive facilities to rent. The school serves about 540 students at three sites — elementary, middle and high school — and consolidating under one roof would be more cost-effective.

“We still have to provide facilities, we still have to pay teachers,” Houston said. “We’re brainstorming with staff to see if there’s anything we can do to save jobs. That’s what education leaders across Nevada and the country are doing right now.”

Tightening belts and scrutinizing funding is what charter schools have always had to do, said Jeanne Allen, president of the Center for Education Reform, a Washington-based activist group and think tank.

“The economy has forced traditional public schools to examine their operations and how they spend our tax dollars,” Allen said. “Charter schools should be a model for them during this time — and that’s a good thing.”

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