Most Nevada charter school students administered by one Florida company

‘This is a big business that’s doing this work,’ lawmaker observes during presentation

By: - February 18, 2022 5:50 am
Academica

Academica is the largest for-profit education management organization in the country. Academica Nevada, whose building is pictured here, is the biggest EMO in the state. (Photo: Hugh Jackson)

More than half of Nevada’s approximately 55,000 charter school students are enrolled at schools contracted with the same private education management company, state data indicates.

Lawmakers on the interim legislative committee on education received an informational presentation on Wednesday about “education management organizations,” or EMOs — the private companies that receive millions of dollars in public funds each year but often go unscrutinized by the public and legislators alike.

EMOs provide to charter schools bundled services that would typically be handled by a centralized office within a school district. This can include things like payroll, human resources, special education, curriculum and teacher recruitment, but specifics can vary dramatically by contract.

Five EMOs are currently operating in Nevada, according to Charter School Authority presentation materials. But the industry has one clear leader.

Academica Nevada is contracted with the Doral, Mater, Pinecrest and Somerset academies, as well CIVICA and Sports Leadership and Management Academy (SLAM). Altogether these Academica Nevada schools enroll 30,737 students, or 55% of the total charter school population, according to 2021 enrollment data from the Nevada Department of Education.

Academica Nevada is a branch of Florida-based Academica, the largest for-profit educational management organization in the country.

The second largest EMO operating in Nevada is Vertex Education, which is contracted with Legacy Traditional Schools. Legacy enrolls 4,270 students.

One other EMO is tied to a brick-and-mortar school: Charter One, contracted by Signature Preparatory.

Two online charter schools in Nevada are also contracted with EMOs: Pearson Online & Blended Learning is the EMO for Nevada Connections Academy and Stride (formerly K12) is the EMO for Nevada Virtual Academy.

Additionally, five “charter management organizations” also operate in the state. The primary difference between CMOs and EMOs is their tax status. CMOs are non-profits, while EMOs are for-profit.

The five CMOs operating in Nevada are:

  • Democracy Prep, contracted by Democracy Prep at the Agassi Campus
  • Explore Learning Network, contracted by Explore Academy
  • GALS, Inc., contracted by Girls Athletic Leadership School (GALS)
  • TEACH, Inc., contracted by TEACH Las Vegas
  • Imagine Schools, contracted by Imagine Schools at Mountain View

Charter School Authority Executive Director Rebecca Feiden said that EMO and CMO fees typically range from 10 to 15% of the per-pupil allotment given to the charter school by the state. She noted that industry leader Academica Nevada charges $450 per student, which works out to about 6% of the school’s guaranteed per-pupil dollars.

With more than 30,500 students enrolled in Academia Nevada schools during this current school year, that would mean an estimated $13.8 million is going to the EMO annually.

At least 20 charter schools within Nevada don’t contract with any EMO or CMO, according to the Charter School Authority. The majority of those still contract with third-party vendors for individual services. Those 20 charters represent 14,088 students, or about a quarter of the total charter school population.

Feiden told lawmakers that reviewing the scope of services to be provided by an EMO is part of the authorizing process considered by the Charter School Authority and its Charter School Board.

Feiden also noted that automatic renewals for contracts between charter schools and EMOs are prohibited, so the boards overseeing individual schools are supposed to evaluate them regularly.

Charter schools breaking away from their private management company is not unheard of, though it can become a messy affair. Feiden told lawmakers there were three instances of EMO relationships ending in the past three years.

In 2020, American Preparatory Academy Las Vegas filed a lawsuit against its Utah-based EMO, with its chair telling the Charter School Board that over the past year it had paid $1.6 million in public dollars “for essentially nothing.” That charter school rebranded its two campuses as Amplus and now operates without an EMO. In 2018, an American Leadership Academy in North Las Vegas broke away from its eponymous, embattered Arizona-based EMO. The charter now operates without an EMO as Freedom Classical Academy.

Democrats in recent years have passed bills focused on diversifying enrollment within charter schools and strengthening accountability of the industry, which now accounts for 11% of all K-12 students within the state. Charter schools are collectively whiter and more affluent than the public school districts they siphon students from.

During the 2021 session, lawmakers passed a bill requiring all charter school authorizers to collect and compile into a report the amount individual schools paid their contracted EMOs during the current and immediately preceding fiscal year. The bill received bipartisan support.

The first of those reports is due to the Legislature by Nov. 1 in 2022, and then all future even-numbered years.

Democratic Assemblywoman Brittney Miller, who is a middle school teacher in the Clark County School District, said EMO and CMO rates in Nevada are within the national average but said “preemptive concern” was warranted given issues in other states.

“I don’t want to imply that it has actually been an issue here in Nevada,” she added. “(We’re) being proactive to ensure that it doesn’t happen. … The number one concern is always, when it comes to our public taxpayer dollars: Where is it going? How is it being used? Is it effective? And how much of it is actually going into the students in the classroom?”

Democratic state Sen. Marilyn Dondero Loop, a retired CCSD teacher, said there are a lot of important questions that need to be asked about EMOs and charter schools within the state.

“This is a big business that’s doing this work,” she said. “This is not a private school that’s spending dollars. This is a public school that’s spending dollars. I think that’s where everybody’s trying to go with this. They aren’t required to have all certificated teachers. We heard that bill last session. So if they’re not going to have certificated teachers, then they’re really not matching all the mandates that we have. I think those things are important when we talk about specifics.”

Editor’s Note: This article has been corrected to reflect the tax classification of Imagine Schools. It is a non-profit charter management organization (CMO), not a for-profit educational management organization (EMO). Imagine Schools was previously classified as a EMO but converted to a nonprofit in 2015.

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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.

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