Charter school moratorium axed; debate over online schools rages on

By: - April 16, 2019 5:36 am
Pinecrest school choice

Nevada charter school students participating in National School Choice Week in 2019. (Photo: Pinecrest Academy)

A proposed moratorium got the moratorium part amended out. But changes to the oversight of charter schools are still under consideration at the Nevada Legislature.

AB 462 originally called for a moratorium on the approval or opening of new charter schools until 2021, but after an icy reception from legislators in the Assembly Education Committee and an onslaught of vocal opposition from charter school parents and students, the moratorium was amended out totally. In its place are a series of amendments that require the state’s primary authorizer of charter schools, the Nevada State Public Charter School Authority, to better communicate its plans with both legislators and the traditional school districts whose students they siphon.

The amended bill passed out of its originating committee on Friday, which was the legislative deadline to do so.

One requirement is for the charter school authority to prepare a “five-year growth management plan” reviewed by legislators biennially. An additional amendment attempts to set a June 30, 2020 deadline for the completion of initial site evaluation visits, which the authority has repeatedly admitted it is behind on. Another amendment, however, authorizes the Board of Education to approve an extension request for that deadline.

Pat Hickey of the Charter School Association of Nevada says his members were against the moratorium but supportive of the amendments. He added that many of the elements are already being done by the authority or in the process of being done.

The watered down moratorium bill only begins to scratch the surface of the issues critics of charter schools hoped lawmakers would address this session. Those arguments include: that the perceived success of charters is a result of admitting students who are easiest to teach, and that charter schools send millions of dollars of public money annually out of state to their so-called “education management organizations.” One such organization, Academica, accounts for approximately half of all students enrolled in Nevada charter schools.

Assembly Education Committee Chair Tyrone Thompson, who presented the committee-sponsored bill during its hearing, could not be reached by the Nevada Current for comment.

Better received by the Legislature this session has been SB 441 Reflecting an ongoing spat within the charter industry nationally between brick and mortar operations like Academica and large online charter corporations, the bill would allow state charter authorizers to create specific requirements that apply only to online charter schools. Such requirements could focus on things like attendance, participation and “teacher contact hours” — all of which would have to be defined for the virtual learning environment.

Leaders of online charter schools have opposed such proposals, arguing they should not be held to a higher standard than physical charters or traditional district schools. Supporters of the bill, which locally include the Charter School Association of Nevada, point to data showing that online charter schools vastly underperform compared to both physical charter schools and the state at large. They argue the nature of the virtual environment necessitates different standards and that online charters should be treated more like magnet programs.

Another possible change to the charter approval process is alive in SB 451. That bill, which passed the Senate Education Committee on April 8, would allow charter school authorizers to approve contracts that range from three to 10 years. Currently, authorizers like the charter school authority are only allowed to approve six-year contracts, which board members have found problematic when faced with the re-approval of struggling 1-, 2- and 3-star charter schools.

Meanwhile, AB 321, a bill to abolish the Achievement School District, is also still alive after an amended version passed the Senate Education Committee on committee deadline day. The Achievement School District was designed to take underperforming district schools and convert them into charter schools overseen directly by the state education department. The amended bill would still abolish the district as a whole but would allow any charter approved by July 1 to join the Achievement School District to continue with the transition to becoming a charter school. The school would simply fall under the oversight of the state charter authority rather than the Achievement District.

Currently, there are only four schools in the Achievement School District.

Finally, AB 213, a proposed bill that would have allowed 14-year-olds to drive themselves to charter schools in urban counties is officially dead.

The 2019 Legislature is halfway through its session. Hickey, a former legislator, says he has been “pleasantly surprised” at the overall reception charter schools have received.

He added: “Especially freshman lawmakers, from both sides, but particularly Democrats. I think new lawmakers are not falling into the traditional camps, so to speak.”

Charter schools came to fruition under bipartisan support but have become increasingly polarized over time as large-scale education management organizations became the norm. During Nevada’s most recent election cycle, Republican candidates like Adam Laxalt and Michael Roberson warned voters that charter schools and other “school choice” policies were at risk if Democrats were elected to Carson City.

Democrats were elected up and down the ticket, but no call for sweeping reform of charters has occurred in Nevada the way it has in states like California. New Mexico saw a charter school moratorium bill introduced into its state legislature this year but that effort died. Similarly, lawmakers in Arizona attempted to bring more accountability to their large charter school system but failed.

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April Corbin Girnus
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. 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, three children and one mutt.