Charter school moratorium rebranded as a ‘pause’

Signature Preparatory Charter School
A promotional image from Signature Preparatory Charter School.

The State Public Charter School Authority’s backlog on school evaluations — and their outdated criteria for evaluations — may be catching up with it.

The authority found itself in hot water with the Interim Finance Committee last year over their failure to complete evaluative site visits on the dozens of schools they oversee. Now, with AB462, the authority is facing the possibility of a freeze on accepting applications for new charter schools until 2021.

Proposed amendments presented to the Assembly Education Committee on Thursday during the bill’s first hearing illuminate bill sponsor Assemblyman Tyrone Thompson’s intent, which he says is to ensure accountability and quality within the charter system before its scale becomes too large.

Nearly 10 percent of Nevada’s K-12 students are enrolled in charters. The state spent more than $325 million on charters during the 2017-18 school year.

“This is not an anti-charter school bill,” Thompson told the committee.

The original text of AB462 reads as a comprehensive moratorium on opening any new charter school. A proposed amendment introduced Thursday would soften that blow by allowing applicants currently going through the multi-step approval process of opening a charter school to continue as scheduled. That would mean new charter schools could potentially open until summer 2020.

Thompson discouraged use of the word “moratorium” and attempted to rebrand the bill as a mere “pause” that allows legislators and administrators to “take a deep breath” and look at the industry overall.

“We can be proactive now or unfortunately be reactive later,” he said. “Many states are being reactive now because they didn’t take the time to have tough conversations and to ensure the charter school community is as viable and performance-based as possible for our youth.”

One of seven proposed amendments for the bill is a requirement that the charter school authority complete evaluations of each campus by 2021. That amendment addresses concerns raised last year by the Interim Finance Committee.

In April 2018, the Interim Finance Committee questioned why the charter school board was authorizing new schools when it was not conducting evaluative site visits, which are required by state law. Patrick Gavin, the authority’s executive director at the time, responded that the board couldn’t legally deny an application on the basis of not having the resources to conduct evaluative site visits on existing schools.

Months later, in October, a charter authority staffer told the Interim Finance Committee the authority had still not begun conducting evaluative site visits and had no anticipated date for beginning them because it first needed to rewrite the criteria for evaluation, which was several years old and considered outdated. The authority had, however, “completely eliminated” its backlog of applications for new charter schools.

The charter school board has since attempted to distance itself from those comments and interactions by characterizing Gavin, who had since resigned, as dishonest. The board has already promised to have new performance frameworks in place by the beginning of the 2019-2020 school year and evaluative site visits have begun.

Still, legislators on the Interim Finance Committee as recently as December expressed concerns about the authority and its board. As Assemblywoman Maggie Carlton put it at the time: “I’m concerned there’s not real clarity on what you are supposed to be doing as a regulator.”

The amendments to the not-a-moratorium moratorium bill suggest those concerns have lingered, at least in some legislators’ minds.

Another amendment seeks to expand the scope of the acceptance of applications to consider things like “the academic needs of pupils, the needs of the school district and the needs of the community in geographic areas served.”

Added Thompson: “We need to pause because we need a viable plan. Growth without a plan is just going to be detrimental.”

The call for a moratorium in Nevada is an echo of national tensions over the growth and effect of charter schools on traditional district schools. In some states, particularly California, those tensions have boiled over into protests and strikes. Twenty-one states cap growth and enrollment at charter schools. A handful don’t allow them at all.

Thompson said he wanted to avoid the narrative that pits traditional public schools versus charter schools, saying instead that he wants to focus on the charter school system and holding it accountable. But Thompson’s hoped-for refocus was a tall task for both legislators and the dozens of people who submitted testimony in response to the bill.

More than 100 people attended the Education Committee hearing either in Carson City or Las Vegas. More than 70 of them signed up to speak — the vast majority in opposition. However, Assemblyman Edgar Flores, the vice chair of the committee, opted to limit support, opposition and neutral testimony to 30 minutes each.

Nevada State Education Association and Washoe Education Association spoke in support of the bill.

Clark County School District and the superintendents of Nevada’s 17 public school districts through a shared representative expressed their neutral position on the bill. The Clark County Education Association also weighed in as officially neutral on the bill, though its president has been critical of the charter school industry.

Opponents who made it to the microphone to speak included representatives from the Charter School Association of Nevada and Las Vegas Metro Chamber of Commerce, as well as charter school students and their parents and principals. A member of the State Board of Education and two board members of the State Public Charter School Authority also spoke in opposition.

“It’s hard not to take this type of proposal personally,” said Jason Guinasso, state charter school board chair. “This punishes the efforts we have collectively made to achieve the results we have achieved.”

Guinasso pointed toward data from the Nevada School Performance Framework (NSPF) showing that charter schools have a higher percentage of rated 4- or 5-star schools than traditional public school districts. Charter advocates have interpreted this to mean charters are outperforming traditional public schools.

Critics, including NSEA representatives during their testimony Thursday, argue the data is misleading and that when controlling for factors like race and class, charters do not outperform traditional public school districts.

An analysis of demographic data by the Current last year found that students enrolled at the state’s top-rated state-sponsored charter schools are far more likely to come from financially secure families than students enrolled within traditional public school districts. The student bodies at top-rated charter schools are also disproportionately whiter and more Asian (and disproportionately less black and Hispanic) than both the traditional public school district overall and the individual public schools located nearest them.

While the same can be said of top-rated schools within CCSD, the demographic gaps between the district’s top-rated schools and its overall student population are significantly smaller than those found at charter schools.

April Corbin Girnus
April Corbin Girnus is an award-winning journalist with a decade of media experience. She has been a beat writer at Las Vegas Sun, a staff writer at LEO Weekly, web editor of Las Vegas Weekly and a blogger documenting North American 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 the 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 currently serves on the board of the Society of Professional Journalists Las Vegas pro chapter. 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 with her husband, two children and three mutts.

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