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Nevada’s charter school ‘deserts’ strand low-income kids

Charter schools are often championed as a way to improve the educational outcomes of underprivileged students, but many of their parents never get to find out if that’s true. That’s because many poor communities — including six in Nevada — are “charter school deserts” that have no access to the publicly funded independent schools being created elsewhere.

That is the finding of a study published Thursday by the pro-charter Thomas B. Fordham Institute. The authors are hoping officials in Nevada and other states will use the new data to prioritize such areas for new charter schools.

Nevada’s deserts — defined as three contiguous census tract areas with more than 20 percent poverty and no charter schools — are evenly split between the Las Vegas and Reno metro areas, according to the study.

“When we look at the evidence, in most places, at least, we see charter schools have been quite effective at raising achievement for low-income kids,” Fordham Institute President Michael Petrilli said. “We were curious if there were places in America where there were pockets of poverty that do not have charter schools as an option.”

Three areas in Clark County

In Clark County, a large swath of North Las Vegas and areas in northwest Las Vegas and near Paradise are identified as charter school deserts.

Historically, charters tended to locate in urban areas, Petrilli said, either because of specific state or city laws dictating where charters could open or to serve high-needs populations, which tended to be centralized in urban areas.

But as populations have shifted, poverty has escaped the inner-cities, and charter school operators and regulators have not kept up, Petrilli said.

New mapping produced for the report provides another layer of context for local operators and municipalities, said Jana Wilcox-Lavin, executive director of Opportunity 180, a Clark County nonprofit that supports improving education in the area, including through charters.

From a quick look at the map, Wilcox-Lavin said, charters are spread throughout different municipalities in the county, meaning operators looking to open a charter are working with different governments that might have different policies.

“This is a real opportunity to look at what the potential local barriers are to schools to come in and to fill some of the gaps in those deserts. What are the policies of the local government and what are the opportunities we have to potentially work in collaboration with them,” she said.

Charter performance

Despite lower-than-average graduation rates, Nevada’s charters outperform traditional public schools in other measures, including the recently released National Assessment of Educational Progress scores.

Released every other year, NAEP measures students in reading and math in fourth and eighth grade. Taken as a whole, Nevada’s charters outperformed Clark County schools and the state in every category. The charters outperformed the nation in both fourth-grade categories, tied the nation in eighth-grade reading and trailed the national average in eighth-grade math by 2 percentage points.

Contact Meghin Delaney at 702-383-0281 or mdelaney@reviewjournal.com. Follow @MeghinDelaney on Twitter.

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