Educators have a taste for charter school reform, but do legislators?

Overhead view of Doral Academy Red Rock
A promotional shot from Doral Academy Red Rock.

Nevada’s two most prominent education associations would love to see sweeping charter school reform but they aren’t holding their breath waiting for it, despite the political conditions being ripe for an overhaul of education policy.

When it comes to legislative priorities, both Clark County Education Association (CCEA) and Nevada State Education Association (NSEA) will push for lawmakers to address the state funding formula. The decades-old formula — known as the Nevada Plan — is widely criticized as outdated and detrimental to the state’s large districts, Clark and Washoe.

Improving the financial condition for public school districts should be their priority; however, one possible unintended consequence of funding formula victories by unions for district schools is that the state’s growing charter school industry would also benefit. Charter schools receive per-pupil dollars the same as district schools.

Advocates for public school districts argue charters siphon off the students who are easiest to teach and leave behind those who require the most resources because of language barriers, disability or the economic struggles of their families. The loss of those per-pupil dollars at the district school can have a negative ripple effect on teachers, staff and academic performance.

If it were considered a district, the Nevada State Public Charter School Authority, which approves and oversees the vast majority of charter schools within the state, would be the third largest in the state. The charter school authority currently enrolls approximately 45,000 students. Clark County has 350,000; Washoe County has 64,000.

The actual third largest school district in Nevada is Elko County School District, which has approximately 9,600 students — less than a quarter of what the authority currently oversees. Most of the rural county school districts have far less than that.

The charter school authority hopes to expand to 60,000 students by 2020.

Nevada does not cap charter school growth.

NSEA President Ruben Murillo says his union is concerned about the growth of charter schools and would welcome a moratorium on new schools. He says the recent Los Angeles teachers strike reflects the devastating effect charters can have on district schools. Nearly a fifth of Los Angeles County’s students are enrolled in charters.

“Their charter school movement is much more aggressive but we’re facing the same challenges,” he says. “There is always concern the charter school movement can become unwieldy.”

John Vellardita, executive director of Clark County Education Association (CCEA), says his union is similarly concerned: “It’s an expanding industry with political clout and dollars. It’s influential. More importantly, it preys on a problem that does exist. You do have (district schools) that are systematically underperforming.”

That selling point, while appealing, is built on the false premise that the private sector will always do things better than the public sector, says Vellardita.

CCEA’s position is that charter school growth should be halted until their standard of accountability is higher than the existing standards for public schools.

“We argue (charters) should be held to a higher level of accountability because the assumption is that they can do better,” says Vellardita. “There has been no significant accountability standard that has been applied to charters.”

Murillo echoes the demand for better accountability.

“They are not being held accountable,” he says. “There are pathways for public schools when they’re not meeting (standards). There does not seem to be the same thing with charter schools.”

Legislators on the Interim Finance Committee recently criticized the charter school authority for failing to conduct required evaluative site visits. The charter school board and authority staff have begun the process of conducting those site visits.

Despite these concerns, neither union head was aware of any proposed legislation to address charter school oversight or accountability as a whole.

“That doesn’t mean they’re not forthcoming,” says Vellardita. “We believe they are forthcoming.”

Still, he expects charter schools to be “secondary” in legislators’ minds.

When Nevada Republicans controlled the Legislature and governorship in 2015, they passed a series of educational policy changes that attempted to move the state toward privatization and quasi-privatization. During the election season, Republicans warned that all these “school choice” efforts could be undone if Democrats controlled Carson City.

The blue wave came. Democrats now control the Legislature and the governorship, and just how much they halt or reverse remains to be seen.

The broad voucher system known as Educational Savings Accounts (ESAs) are now considered dead. That Republican-pushed legislation would have allowed anybody to take state money and put it toward private schools.

Vellardita also believes any calls to expand the Achievement School District, which takes low-performing district schools and converts them into charter schools overseen by the state department of education, is also “dead on arrival.” He calls the Achievement School District the worst piece of legislation that came from the Sandoval administration.

School choice advocates have already begun rallying around Opportunity Scholarships, a voucher program limited to lower income families and funded in part by private donations incentivized by corporate tax credits. Gov. Steve Sisolak’s budget calls for a reduction in funding for the program and students currently receiving the scholarship are now in jeopardy of losing the scholarship and being unable to continue at their current private school.

Meanwhile, State Superintendent Steve Canavero on Friday announced he is resigning from his position, effective Feb. 6. In a press release and subsequent media interviews, the Sandoval appointee stressed that his decision was made for personal reasons and that Sisolak did not ask him to leave. Canavero was the state charter school authority’s first director and sits on the board of a national charter school group.

Sisolak has mostly stayed quiet on the issue of charter schools. When the Current asked about his position earlier this month, Sisolak demurred, noting only that “some of them have been successful and some of them have not been as successful.” A follow-up email to his office seeking additional insight into his position on charter schools was not returned.

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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