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Moving forward with charter schools in Nevada

The final presidential debate revealed both candidates agreeing on something: charter schools as a solution for public education in America. Nationally, more than 4,000 charter schools are fostering competition and providing public school choice to families.

Such national affinity toward charter schools — independently operated, largely autonomous public schools that receive taxpayer funding — has cut across state and party lines. Much of the popularity can be attributed to the “shut your doors” accountability standard; Nevada has exercised it three times since the inception of the Nevada charter school law in 1997.

Nevada’s public school district accountability standards pale in comparison. For example, what happens when a Nevada school district doesn’t meet class-size reduction ratios, provides dated textbooks, fails facility inspections or lacks teacher certifications? Districts submit waivers, file for exemptions or petition for variances.

On the other hand, by law, charter schools have 90 days to correct the deficiencies. Otherwise, these charter schools shut their doors.

Administrators of Nevada’s 25 charter schools find themselves wearing a variety of hats, including superintendent, director, principal, assistant principal, dean, teacher and counselor. A parallel of responsibilities can be drawn to rural school administrators, but that skews when it comes to school funding.

Nevada is built on an equity-funding allocation model which suggests, in very simple terms, an indirect relationship between numbers of students in a school district and funding per student. The revenue stream in Nevada has similarly sized school districts being funded better than charter schools.

For example, the Eureka County School District, with approximately 230 students, gets funding of nearly $30,400 per student, whereas Nevada State High School (a charter school), with approximately 230 students, gets almost $6,500 per student.

Charter schools are charged with the duty of doing more with less, and many school-choice critics suggest that is what charter school operators willingly and knowingly agree upon with their sponsors (the agency that underwrites the charter school). Clearly, one size does not fit all when it comes to funding models for Nevada.

The state must start by considering a no-cost equity funding model that adequately and fairly distributes money to all schools. Second, charter schools must be given access to facility funding after proving to be a successful operation.

In school districts, construction/bond money is separate from the general fund revenues that fund public schools. Charter schools have no access to bond money. Hence, charter schools report outspending school districts by more than 13 cents on every state dollar for facilities and equipment. In comparing other operating expenditures, the gap grows even wider.

To make the division worse, charter schools are forced to kick back a 1 to 2 percent sponsorship fee for technical assistance.

Among all charter schools in Nevada, these sponsorship fees total more than $600,000 and are traditionally used by sponsors for consultants and to conduct audits. Individual school district schools rarely see this kind of oversight from the state or their respective school district central offices.

On Oct. 7, the Legislative Committee on Education voted to help make strides with technical assistance to charter schools in sponsoring a Bill Draft Request (BDR 297) for the 2009 session to create a separate charter school district.

To ensure the success of a charter school district and hold individual charter schools to the ultimate accountability standards, Nevada legislators must insist on the following: continuing to allow charter school governing bodies local control over decision making; promoting the better use of sponsorship fees for more productive and meaningful technical assistance; and creating equal access to funding.

Local decision-making in charter schools has restored confidence in education with parents and the public alike. Clearly, the public is supporting the high accountability standards of charter schools, and both major-party presidential candidates agree that charter schools are part of the solution for education in America.

John Hawk, a former member of the Nevada State Board of Education, is executive director of Nevada State High School, a Henderson charter school that emphasizes courses for college credit.

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