Charter schools grow, but fall short of diversity targets set by Legislature

Pinecrest students
Pinecrest Academy Cadence in December 2019. (Photo: U.S. Department of Education, CC BY 2.0)

Charter schools essentially make up the third largest school district in Nevada and they are steadily gaining ground toward being the second largest.

According to the Nevada Department of Education’s official enrollment count for 2020, the Nevada State Public Charter School Authority currently enrolls 10.9 percent of all K-12 students in Nevada. Washoe County School District enrolls 13.3 percent of students statewide.

Both are significantly behind Clark County School District, which enrolls 319,293 students — or 65.6 percent of statewide enrollment. CCSD is the fifth largest school district in the country.

While charter school expansion in Nevada slowed compared to previous years, it still significantly outpaced growth within the state’s larger urban districts.

The Charter School Authority saw 7.7 percent growth in 2020 compared to 2019 while WCSD grew by 1.3 percent. WCSD enrollment grew by 830 students and now sits at 64,988. Charter schools expanded by 3,803 students, bringing its overall enrollment to 53,223. That’s a difference of 11,765 students.

CCSD has seen a decline in enrollment over the past few years.

Enrollment at state-sponsored charter schools grew by 20.9 percent, 14.4 percent and 16.7 percent in 2017, 2018 and 2019, respectively. That growth has come from the opening of new charter schools and the expansion of existing schools to include additional grade levels. It has also included the absorption of the state’s short-lived Achievement School District, which attempted to better underperforming CCSD schools by having them taken over by or compete with a charter school.

Changes made by the 2019 Legislature, as well as the coronavirus pandemic, have both chilled efforts to open new charter schools. Still, overall enrollment is poised to trend upward in coming years.

As its enrollment has grown over the past decade, charter schools have faced increased criticism over their lack of diversity. A 2018 analysis by the Current found that charter schools, especially top-ranked ones, were whiter and more affluent than their nearby district schools and the state as a whole.

The newest data, which was presented to the Charter School Board on Friday, shows that still holds true today, but incremental gains have been made over the past three years.

As of this year:

  • 72.5 percent of students statewide are considered economically disadvantaged. Within charter schools, 39.4 percent are. Economically disadvantaged is defined by local education agencies as qualifying for free or reduced lunch (FRL) due to their family income.
  • 13.3 percent of students statewide are considered English language learners. Within charter schools, only 7.7 percent are.
  • 12.4 percent of students statewide have individualized education plans. Within charter schools, only 9.5 percent of students do. Having an IEP means a student has some level of disability or need for specialized accommodation.

As for racial and ethnic subgroups:

  • 29.8 percent of students statewide identify as white. Within charter schools, 34.6 percent do.
  • 43.5 percent of students statewide identify as Hispanic. Within charter schools, 34.9 percent do.
  • 11.8 percent of students statewide identify as Black. Within charter schools, 11.9 percent do.
  • 5.5 percent of students statewide identify as Asian. Within charter schools, 7.6 percent do.

Some of the disparities are even larger when broken down to the county level. For example, if you look at economically disadvantaged students, the 33.1 percentage point gap that exists among charter schools statewide grows to a 46.4 percent gap in Clark County.

After quickly backing away from a proposed moratorium on charter school growth, the Democratic-controlled Nevada State Legislature in 2019 passed a bill requiring the Charter School Authority to create and use an “Academic and Demographic Needs Assessment” when approving new charter schools. More specifically, new charter schools are supposed to address at least one of three target areas: pupil demographics (meaning enrolling ELL, IEP and FRL students), academic needs (meaning targeting neighborhoods with low-performing schools) or at-risk pupils (meaning credit deficient or behind students).

Enrollment at the cadre of schools that have opened since that legislation was enacted does reflect racial and ethnic diversity, according to data presented by the Charter School Authority.

Among students at newly opened charter schools:

  • 31.2 percent are white (compared to 29.8 percent statewide)
  • 42.1 percent are Hispanic (compared to 43.5 percent statewide)
  • 12.3 percent are Black (compared to 11.8 percent statewide)
  • 6.4 percent are Asian (compared to 5.4 percent statewide)

However, significant disparities still exist when it comes to family income and academic disabilities.

Among students at new charter schools:

  • 55.2 percent are economically disadvantaged (compared to 72.5 percent statewide)
  • 8.3 percent have individualized education plans (compared to 12.4 percent statewide)
  • 19.2 percent are English language learners (compared to 13.3 percent statewide)

Newly opened charter schools include Amplus Academy Rainbow, Explore Academy, Girls Athletic Leadership School, Mater East, Nevada State High School Downtown Henderson, Nevada State High School Northwest and Pinecrest Academy of Northern Nevada.

As for existing charter schools, there have been some efforts to diversify.

The Charter School Authority changed its evaluation process to incentivize schools to improve their diversity. Staff highlighted several schools that have reported gains. For example, Legacy Traditional School’s South West campus went from 18.6 percent FRL to 45.2 percent, Mater Northern Nevada went from 10.9 percent IEP to 15 percent, and Amplus Durango went from 1.4 percent ELL to 3.7 percent.

Charter School Board chair Melissa Mackedon, who founded and serves as chief executive officer of Oasis Academy in Fallon, applauded the gains made but cautioned that many existing schools will need time to diversify. She added that at her charter school, vacated seats are quickly filled by the siblings of enrolled students, who are prioritized in enrollment policies as a way of keeping families together.

“It’s hard to move the needle when you have very little turnover,” she said.

Charter School Board members applauded the gains to diversify but did request additional information. Member Don Soifer said he’d like to see how the demographic data at individual charter schools compares to their nearby schools.

Member Mallory Cyr requested the board agendize at their January meeting a deeper look at Pinecrest Academy of Northern Nevada. That school was conditionally approved in December 2019 with the expectation that its student body reflect socioeconomic diversity — a task enrollment data shows it hasn’t met.

The 2021 Legislature is set to convene in seven weeks. Democrats, who passed the legislation requiring charter schools address targeted academic needs of the state, retained control of both chambers. Details on what charter school legislation might be introduced during the session are scant, but Charter School Board members acknowledged the new data on enrollment and performance may impact what comes next.

“What will legislators think?” member Sheila Moulton asked rhetorically, noting that legislators made it clear diversity needed to be a priority. “We all want to do this — every staff, every board member. But I’m asking myself — in a very reflective way — what will legislators think?”

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.