The remains of a failed proposal to put a moratorium on new charter schools may still bring notable changes to the number and types of charter schools approved to open in Nevada.
If approved and implemented as intended, the changes have the potential to address equity issues by incentivizing charter school operators to open or expand into underserved areas.
According to a presentation given by Nevada State Public Charter School Authority Executive Director Rebecca Feiden to the charter school board last month, the authority is in the process of conducting an “Academic and Demographic Needs Assessment” that will evaluate the “demographic information of pupils, the academic needs of pupils, and the needs of any pupils who are at risk of dropping out of school in this state.” Going forward, the charter school authority and its board will be required to consider the assessment whenever approving new schools, with the expectation that proposed schools must address at least one of the three target areas.
The pupil demographics category looks specifically at the number of students who are English language learners (ELL), qualified for free or reduced-price lunch (FRL) or on an individualized education program (IEP). Data shows state-sponsored charter schools, especially those rated highest in state rankings, have disproportionately low enrollment of students in these categories.
The academic needs category focuses on low-performing traditional public schools, meaning those rated 1- or 2-stars according to the Nevada School Performance Framework (NSPF) and the at-risk pupil category focuses on students who are credit deficient, not reading at grade level and other indicators correlated with not graduating high school.
The creation of the needs assessment is mandated by AB 462, a bill that was introduced as an outright moratorium of opening new charter schools but watered down into a series of amendments requiring better communication with existing school districts and the creation of a statewide growth plan.
Feiden described the bill as a “middle ground” that puts “some restraint” on the authority without being “prescriptive.” While the assessment sets the expectation that proposed schools address at least one of the three need areas, it leaves open to interpretation the question of how they address the needs.
A proposal to create a charter school like Beacon Academy, which only accepts credit deficient students and operates on an accelerated schedule that allows students to catch up on credits, would easily clear the new bar set by the assessment and authority. A proposal for a new charter school located in an affluent neighborhood with well-rated traditional public schools would need to present “credible plans” on accommodating students in those persistently underperforming categories. This could mean offering transportation options, participating in the federal free and reduced lunch (FRL) program, or other “creative solutions,” says Feiden.
The bill opens the door for the charter authority to put conditions on the approval of schools. For example, if a charter school is approved because it presents a plan to address the needs of FRL students but enrollment data finds the school has almost no FRL students, the authority could force the school to implement a weighted lottery that ensures those students get into the school.
Board chair Jason Guinasso expressed concern the assessment’s definition of “needs” was “very narrow” but said he would still support the effort because the definition could be adjusted with “trial and error” over time.
Another board member, Nora Luna, praised the assessment.
“I’m glad we’re focusing and narrowing,” she said.
The charter school authority and its board have been criticized as rubber stampers that aren’t critical enough when considering applications. When questioned by legislators last year, authority staff said they were obligated to approve any new proposals that fulfilled the application requirements. Critics have advocated for managed growth of the charter school industry, which currently accounts for around 10 percent of all K-12 students in Nevada.
Last year, the charter school board approved American Leadership Academy – Summerlin, only to have the school come back with an amendment to change their name to Signature Preparatory Academy and open in Henderson instead. Guinasso noted the school came to the board only after they’d already purchased property in Henderson. The relocation altered expansion plans being researched and set by Clark County School District, which expected the new school to be built in Summerlin.
Guinasso characterized the change as the school “asking for forgiveness rather than permission.”
With the forthcoming needs assessment requirement, the process for switching locations would be lengthier and approval might not be assumed. The school would have to present an entirely new plan using updated student demographics relevant to their new location.
The charter school board is expected to vote on the assessment at its meeting on July 26. The bill language sets a July 30 deadline for creating the assessment.