Charter school authority under fire for lax oversight

students in library
Students at Pinecrest Academy - Inspirada, one of the charter schools overseen by the Nevada State Public Charter School Authority.

The Nevada State Public Charter School Authority is supposed to conduct evaluative site visits at each of the dozens of schools it oversees.

None have been conducted.

And staff have no immediate plans to start them.

This position was reiterated during an Oct. 24 Interim Finance Committee meeting where legislators asked the charter school authority for an update on how they are using four new staff positions, which were approved by the 2017 legislature in order to address the authority’s backlog of charter school applications and inability to perform required evaluative site visits.

At the meeting, Jennifer Bauer, an administrative services officer at the charter school authority, told legislators that the backlog of applications for new charter schools has been “completely eliminated” but that no evaluative site visits have been conducted because the authority wants to first update its performance framework, which evaluative site visits would be informed by. There are three aspects of the performance framework: academic, organizational and financial.

Bauer said the charter school authority is currently in the process of updating its performance frameworks and has been undergoing “extensive stakeholder engagement” to determine a “legally defensible” protocol for evaluative site visits. She noted the charter schools want to know when they would be visited and what exactly they would be measured.

Evaluative site visits have been described by the charter school authority as “a key component of (its) authorizing function.” However, there is no existing protocol or description of what one actually entails. The charter school authority has stated that evaluative site visits conducted by authorizers in other parts of the country have included “one hour of observation in every classroom, focus groups with parents, students, staff, and members of the governing body, observation of board meetings, review of school-based documentation, and some form of an attempt to determine if the school is following through with its mission, vision, and policies.”

When asked on Oct. 24 for an anticipated start date for evaluative site visits, Bauer’s answer was clear: “At this point we do not have an anticipated date.”

Interim Finance Committee Chair Joyce Woodhouse was not satisfied with the answer.

“I probably better not say what’s on my mind,” the state senator said. “It is unconscionable that this has not moved along more expeditiously. There are ramifications. I am assuming you are aware, and the board is aware, there are ramifications if these evaluative site visits are not done.”

State Assemblywoman Maggie Carlton, who sits on the Interim Finance Committee, expressed concerns the charter school authority may be accepting too much input from the charter schools themselves.

We should decide what they need to be evaluated on,” she said. “They will pick what they’re good at, and we want to know what they’re not good at in order to help them improve. … As the state and as a regulator, you don’t go ask the regulated what they want to be judged on. You need to decide what’s important to the children of this state and decide what that evaluation looks like and then go forward with it so that we can hold them accountable.”

She added, “We know there are problems with charter schools.”

On Oct. 29, the Legislative Counsel Bureau sent a follow-up memo to the charter school authority with formal questions and concerns to be addressed. Among them: What prompted the charter school board to revise the performance framework? How much influence will charter schools have in the revisions? What is the timeline?

Responses are due by Dec. 7.

The charter school board addressed the Interim Finance Committee memo during its own meeting on Friday. Chair Jason Guinasso said the board did not review the budget request that was submitted to the 2017 legislature and was similarly unaware of the semiannual reports that the authority needed to submit to the Interim Finance Committee.

Regardless, he said the board would be “fully accountable” and take “immediate steps” to address legislators’ concerns.

Guinasso said he and board Vice Chair Melissa Mackedon, who is the founder and current chief executive officer of Oasis Academy Charter School in Fallon, would work with staff to draft a response to the Interim Finance Committee. They plan to present a draft response to the charter school board during its next meeting, currently scheduled for Nov. 30.

Guinasso stressed the need for the board and staff to speed up the process of updating its performance frameworks, especially because the 2019 legislative session will soon be underway.

“This needs to be a priority,” he added.

An updated financial performance framework is expected to be presented to the board for consideration in December. Guinasso also indicated the board would discuss diversity issues within their charter schools.

The charter school industry is rapidly growing both nationally and locally. More than 30,000 students are enrolled in one of Nevada’s more than 55 state-sponsored charter schools. That number is expected to rise.

With the rapid growth has come an increasingly partisan backlash over their effectiveness and governance. Last month, the Nevada GOP warned its supporters that a Democratic control of the state legislature and governorship could lead to the undoing of many Republican-enacted school choice policies.

On Saturday, a day after the charter school board meeting, the Clark County Education Association hosted a screening of “Backpack Full of Cash” — a documentary critical of charters and other school privatization efforts. CCEA is the collective bargaining agent for Clark County School District teachers. Democratic gubernatorial candidate Steve Sisolak made an appearance.

Last month was not the first time members of the Interim Finance Committee raised concerns over the charter school authority and its failure to perform evaluative site visits. Back in April, a similar follow-up memo of questions was sent to the charter school authority. Among the legislators’ questions then: Why does the charter school authority continue to approve new charter school contracts when it has not fulfilled its obligation to conduct site visits of existing charter schools?

In a response sent April 26, authority Executive Director Patrick Gavin wrote: “State law and regulation do not provide for the withholding of approval of new charter applications that demonstrate the ability to operate a high-quality school, regardless of the (authority’s) capacity to conduct site visits. Existing law precludes a sponsor from using an evaluation of its capacity to serve as a justification for capping charter approvals, denying applications, or denying the expansion of existing charter schools.”

In that same letter, Gavin notes that the authority currently measures organizational performance “in a reactive manner based on verified complaints.”

Balancing autonomy and oversight is a recurring theme with the charter school board. Charter schools are supposed to have more academic and operational freedoms in exchange for receiving fewer public dollars. Like their traditional public school district counterparts, state-sponsored charters receive per-pupil dollars from the state and are eligible for some federal dollars. However, they do not receive public dollars for things like facilities and maintenance.

In addition to discussing the Interim Finance Committee memo, the charter school board on Friday also confirmed that its schools will not be required to fill out a legal compliance questionnaire for their upcoming fiscal year audits. The 19-page legal compliance questionnaire was discussed at length during the board’s September meeting, at which Guinasso recommended it be retooled with input from stakeholders. Several people from the charter school industry spoke about the need for collaboration on the questionnaire.

Gavin was criticized by Guinasso during the meeting last month for not bringing the questionnaire to the board before sending it to schools. Gavin responded by saying the questionnaire was intended to be part of the organizational oversight framework and designed only to ensure compliance with policies already in place.

Guinasso said Friday the decision to not require schools to complete the questionnaire was not reflective of a lack of accountability because the majority of information that would be collected by the questionnaire already exists elsewhere in authority systems. He added that operators had indicated the questionnaire included questions that were “impossible” to answer. The board is expected to revisit the questionnaire at a later date.

By the time it does, the authority will likely have a new executive director. Gavin submitted his letter of resignation to the governor on Friday. He has been in the role of executive director since 2014. He will stay through the end of this year.

April Corbin
Reporter | April Corbin is an award-winning journalist with a decade of media experience. Most recently she covered local government for Las Vegas Sun. She has also been a staff writer at LEO Weekly, web editor of Las Vegas Weekly and a blogger documenting bike share systems’ efforts to increase ridership in underserved communities. An occasional adjunct journalism professor, April steadfastly rejects the notion that journalism is a worthless major. Amid the Great Recession, she earned a B.A. in journalism from the University of Nevada Las Vegas, where she served as editor-in-chief of its student newspaper. She later earned an M.A. in media studies and a graduate certificate in media management from The New School for Public Engagement. April serves as treasurer of the Society of Professional Journalists Las Vegas pro chapter and is an at-large member of the Asian American Journalists Association. A stickler about municipal boundary lines, April enjoys teaching people about unincorporated Clark County. She grew up in Sunrise Manor and currently resides in Paradise. She lives with her boyfriend, his toddler, three mutts and five chickens. In her free time, she enjoys rock climbing, exploring Nevada and defending selfies.

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