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August 22, 2014

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Clark County’s charter schools continue to chart strong growth

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Christopher DeVargas

Kindergartners at Explore Knowledge Academy use Apple iPads during class to enhance their learning experience. Thursday Feb. 16, 2012.

Clark County charter schools have among the fastest enrollment growth in the country, according to a national report released Tuesday.

What are charter schools?

Charter schools are public schools that operate independently from local school districts and often use innovative techniques and curricula to teach students. Studies show charter schools have a mixed record when it comes to raising student achievement, however.

As taxpayer-funded schools, charter schools do not charge tuition and are open to any student in a school district. Charter schools receive the same per-pupil funding as traditional public schools. However, unlike regular public schools, charter schools do not receive public money for facilities.

Nevada currently has 31 charter schools sponsored by the state and local school districts. The average school rating for Nevada charter schools is three stars.

For the past eight years, the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools — a nonprofit charter school advocacy group — has issued an annual report looking at student enrollment in charter schools across the country.

Study findings

Other major findings from the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools’ 2013 report on charter school enrollment:

• The New Orleans Public School System, which serves 45,540 students, has 79 percent of its students enrolled in charter schools -- the highest percentage of any school system in the country. Detroit Public schools has 51 percent of its 100,255 students in charter schools and District of Columbia Public Schools has 43 percent of its 80,231 students in charter schools.

• The Los Angeles Unified School District, the nation’s third-largest district serving 655,569 students, had the highest number of charter school students in the country with 120,958, an increase of 23 percent from last year. Los Angeles was followed by New York City (58,353 charter school students), Philadelphia (55,031), Detroit (51,083) and Chicago (49,187).

• The top eight fastest growing public charter school regions are: Hall County, Ga. (58 percent growth in student enrollment); San Diego, Calif. (35 percent); Duval County, Fla. (29 percent); Newark, N.J. (27 percent); Hillsborough County, Fla. (25 percent); Clark County, Nev. (24 percent); Los Angeles (23 percent); Boston (22 percent).

In its 2012 report, the alliance found that Clark County had the highest growth in charter school enrollment of any metropolitan region in the country. However, this year’s report found that although student enrollment in local charter schools increased by 24 percent, other cities’ charter school enrollment outpaced that of Las Vegas.

Clark County fell five spots, posting the sixth-highest enrollment growth in the country, behind San Diego and Newark, N.J., public schools, according to the 2013 charter school alliance report.

Nevada’s charter school proponents, such as Steve Canavero, weren’t surprised about the slip in the enrollment rankings, however. The director of the Nevada public charter school authority, who was recently named the state’s deputy superintendent, said last year’s No. 1 ranking was inflated by Nevada’s relatively low number of charter schools.

Currently, Nevada has 31 charter schools, the fewest of any Southwestern state. The majority of these schools are located in Clark County, where about 3 percent of all public school students — or 11,237 students — attend charter schools.

While that might seem like a lot of students, consider other major urban school districts have many times the number of charter school students than Clark County.

Los Angeles, the nation’s third largest school district, has the largest share of charter school students: 120,958. That’s nearly 11 times the number of charter school students in Clark County, the nation’s fifth largest school system.

With fewer charter schools in Las Vegas, each new school adds hundreds of students to Clark County’s relatively small charter student population — thereby inflating its percent growth, Canavero said.

To illustrate his point, Canavero refers to the incredible growth of charter school students that his charter authority has overseen in the past decade. In 2005, state-sponsored charter schools had just 366 students. By 2013, eight years later, state-sponsored charter schools enrolled 16,085 students, a nearly 4,400 percent increase.

“It’s because we had lower numbers and we expanded,” Canavero said in explaining the ranking drop. “As we got much larger, the percent growth began to slow down.”

Still, Clark County’s charter school enrollment growth is nothing to sneeze at, Canevaro said. About 2,200 more Clark County students attended charter schools last school year than the previous year, according to the alliance report.

Nationally, student enrollment in charter schools increased by 225,000 students last school year, topping 2.3 million. Charter schools represent the fastest-growing movement in public education, with the number of charter school students growing by 80 percent in the past five years.

The percentage of students attending charter schools varied widely. Although just 3 percent of Clark County students are in charter schools, 79 percent of New Orleans students and a little more than half of Detroit students attend charter schools.

Although the alliance report looks at charter school enrollment, it doesn’t look at the quality of the charter schools these students are attending, according to alliance President and CEO Nina Rees.

A recent Stanford study found that 29 percent of charter schools do better, 31 percent do worse, and 40 percent perform about the same as regular public schools. However, that same research found that Nevada charter school students lose between six and seven months of learning each year compared with their traditional public school counterparts.

“There’s growing evidence that charter schools are doing a particularly good job teaching students in poverty, English-language learners and minority students,” Rees said. “But we haven’t been able to connect the dots between that research and our report.”

Nevada’s charter school authority has been charged with expanding the number of high quality charter schools in the state. During the past two legislative sessions, lawmakers approved new provisions that will help encourage more charter schools to be formed in the Silver State.

These new provisions include allowing charter school operators to become a nonprofit and allow them to issue bonds for school facilities. State legislators also approved $750,000 in funding for a revolving loan account, which fledgling charter schools are able to use as start-up money for facilities, textbooks and supplies.

Local governments have also begun supporting education efforts that attract charter schools, such as Teach For America. The program, which received funding from the city of Las Vegas and the Clark County School District earlier this year, creates a pipeline of teachers that often entice charter schools to relocate, Canavero said.

Despite these new laws and provisions that have created a better climate for charter schools, Nevada has yet to entice a “best-in-class” charter school operator like KIPP, which has 141 charter schools in 20 states and has seen success with students in poverty, Canavero said.

That’s likely because while Nevada has made it easier to get seed money for new charter school facilities, Nevada’s low per-pupil funding may make the state less attractive to high-performing charter schools, Canavero said.

“There will always be a challenge with our low per-pupil funding,” Canvero said. “(Per-pupil funding is) something that’s always hard-baked into the calculus to open new charter schools in new markets. But that’s always what we struggle with.”

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