COMMENTARY: Nevada Achievement School District plan should be repealed

During the 2015 legislative session, we passed many important and historic education reforms that will increase both funding and accountability in our public school system. Many of those reforms are beginning to show good results, and we have opportunities to improve on them during the 2017 session.

It is now clear, however, that one reform has had negative consequences that need to be addressed. That’s why I am introducing legislation to repeal the Achievement School District program that passed last session.

The idea behind an Achievement School District sounds simple: take failing or underperforming public schools and convert them into charter schools in the hopes that they will see dramatic improvement in academic performance.

But the devil is in the details. And the unfolding details demonstrate that this policy is causing more problems than it is ever likely to solve. There is little to no evidence that making these conversions actually improves educational outcomes, and many parents are outraged at the changes.

First, this is a matter of parental choice and control. As the Review-Journal and other media outlets have reported extensively, large numbers of parents at the schools that are slated for conversion are vocally opposed to the plan. They do not want to lose control of their neighborhood schools to unaccountable charter operators that may not have any ties to Nevada.

Further, the Clark County School District is currently undergoing a reform process that will give more decision-making power to principals and parents in individual public schools. This will result in more localized decisions about how schools are managed and how their budgets are allocated. Parents whose children attend schools that are converted to “achievement” status will lose this new right to have a greater say in how their kids’ schools are run.

As a result, parents have organized, held rallies and attended community meetings to voice their opposition to a state takeover of their neighborhood schools. At a time when parents are clamoring for more choice, control and accountability within the public school system, we should be wary of letting the state take that power away from them.

Second, a Vanderbilt University study of Tennessee’s program found that achievement schools performed no better than local public schools and actually performed worse than intervention programs run by local districts themselves. Of six schools that parents were promised would jump in performance to the top 25 percent within five years, not one school made it out of the bottom 6 percent. Four remain stuck in the bottom 5 percent.

Auditors in Tennessee also uncovered significant financial mismanagement by charter operators involved in that state’s achievement schools program, including possible misuse of federal funds. The investigation uncovered a situation of such financial disarray that the state’s Department of Education was forced to take over all of the Achievement School District’s financial operations.

We have even seen worrying signs of a lack of thorough vetting of charter operators here in Nevada. Just last month, Celerity Educational Group, a California-based operator selected to manage Nevada’s achievement schools, was raided by the FBI. Celerity had previously come under fire for its financial and management practices at schools in Los Angeles.

Nevada’s public schools are far from perfect, but we should be proud of many of the reforms we have made in the past few years. At the same time, we should not be afraid to admit when we have made a mistake and take the necessary steps to correct it.

Rather than force an unaccountable new system on parents and students, we should look to build consensus around investments and reforms that will make improvements within our public school system. We can make positive changes without sacrificing accountability and without ignoring the concerns of parents. That’s the best path forward for our kids.

State Sen. Mo Denis, a Democrat, is the chair of Senate Education Committee and represents District 2 in Las Vegas.

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