Charter school authority talks diversity: ‘We have to get better’

PSAT exam
Students at Coral Academy of Science, Sandy Ridge Campus prepare to take the PSAT examination in 2017. (Photo By: Coral Academy)

Students at state-sponsored charter schools performed better on standardized testing than students within traditional school districts in all demographic categories except one: low-income students.

That data point emerged Friday amid a discussion on diversity by the appointed board that authorizes the majority of the state’s charter schools. It underscores growing criticism of charter schools from opponents who argue the perceived success of charters is largely due to their avoidance (however intentional or unintentional) of the students who are least likely to succeed academically.

SPCSA proficiency
From an SPCSA presentation. Click to enlarge.

When broken down by race and ethnicity, students at state-sponsored charter schools performed better than statewide average in all demographic categories. For example, 61.8 percent of white students at state-sponsored charter schools were proficient on the state’s standardized assessment for reading, compared to 30.3 percent of white students statewide. Meanwhile, 36.9 percent of black students at state-sponsored charter schools were proficient in math, compared to 29.1 percent of black students statewide.

When it comes to English Language Learners (ELL) and special-education students with Individualized Education Plans (IEP), state-sponsored charter schools similarly showed better numbers. For example, 38.9 percent of ELL students were proficient on the reading assessment, compared to 15.2 percent of ELL students statewide. On the math assessment, 18.6 percent of special-education students at state-sponsored charter schools were proficient, compared to 10.5 percent statewide.

But that charter advantage reverses itself when it comes to students who qualify for free or reduced lunch (FRL). On the reading assessment, 23.6 percent of FRL students were proficient. Statewide, 37.8 percent of FRL students were. On the math assessment, 19.6 percent of FRL students were proficient. Statewide, 27.5 percent of FRL students were.

Members of the charter school authority praised the charter industry for excelling in nine of the 10 statistical categories. The question they didn’t tackle: How much does that 10th category affect the nine others?

Following publication of an analysis by the Current showing state-sponsored charter schools are not serving low-income students, the chair of the Nevada State Public Charter School Authority promised a discussion on the issue of diversity. What was delivered was a presentation of the most recent enrollment demographic data available from the state. The presentation covered both student demographic data as well as the aforementioned academic performance data.

Their staff analysis of enrollment data compiled in October suggests state-sponsored charter schools are racially and ethnically diverse but lag when it comes to representation of ELL, special education and low-income students.

SPCSA demographics
From SPCSA presentation

Most noticeable: 60.5 percent of students statewide are eligible for free or reduced lunch. At state-sponsored charter schools, only 33.5 percent are. Similarly, 14.7 percent of students statewide are classified as English Language Learners, opposed to only 6.5 percent of state-sponsored charter school students.

“We have to get better,” said Education Programs Supervisor Selcuk Ozdemir, who gave the presentation to the board. “We have to work on this.”

While nobody outright disputed the general concept of doing better, several members brought up the possibility of underreporting of certain demographics and doubled down on the idea that charter schools can help all students regardless of socioeconomic status.

“It seems low,” said Chair Jason Guinasso of the special populations. “I wish there were a way we could get an accurate number to show the good work we’re doing. It seems kind of difficult for us to tell this part of this story because of the way these numbers are arrived at.”

Vice Chair Melissa Mackedon brought up the issue of self-reporting, which until the current academic year charter schools relied on. During the 2017-18 school year, data suggested 21.9 percent of charter students qualified for free or reduced lunch. This year’s increase to 33.5 percent is likely due to more accurate reporting rather than a true increase.

“Certainly, there’s work to do on FRL,” she added, “but there’s lots of good here.”

Staff told the board they are working on ways to incentivize growth of special populations, including FRL-eligible students. One way would be to do a weighted lottery that favors low-income families. Guinasso mentioned the authority could also incentivize it through its performance framework, which is currently in the process of being revised.

The presentation and discussion did not address demographic disparities between top-performing charter schools and low-performing ones, which the Current analyzed in October. The Current found that top-rated state-sponsored charter schools were less diverse than top-rated traditional public schools and that charter schools received state performance rankings similar to the traditional public schools located nearest them. The analysis backs up the idea pushed forth by community-focused groups that academic success may hinge on factors that exist outside of the classroom, such as a family’s food and financial security.

Questions regarding which students are benefitting from charter schools have increased as the industry has grown astronomically.

During the 2008-09 academic year, there were only 3,543 students enrolled in schools sponsored by the Nevada State Public Charter School Authority. A decade later, 42,333 students are currently enrolled in state-sponsored charter schools, which are considered public because they are tuition-free and receive public funds but are typically managed by national for-profit companies. The charter school authority has set a goal to have 60,000 students enrolled by 2020.

For comparison, Washoe County School District — the state’s second largest — currently has approximately 64,000 students. Clark County School District — the fifth largest district in the nation — has more than 320,000.

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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