By Pat Hickey
Gov. Sisolak —
Nevadans were pleased to hear you say in your 2018 campaign ads that, “For Governor Sandoval, it’s [was] not about Republican or Democrat, it’s about education.” That same sentiment was echoed during your Inaugural Address on the steps of the Capitol on January 6th when you said to Nevadans that you would strive to “find common good, reach consensus, make a difference in people’s lives, and keep the state moving forward.”
In other words, you offered the bipartisan hope that you would continue down the path of education reform and enhanced classroom spending. You even went beyond Gov. Sandoval, promising to not only build a “New Nevada” but also to build a better Nevada.
Public charter schools in Nevada will help you to do just that.
With more than 50,000 K-12 students in public charter schools, they now comprise the third largest school district in the state. Gov. Sandoval saw charters as an important public school option for Nevada families who see a quality education as their best bet for a brighter economic future.
Charter schools are different, and many Nevadans don’t understand them. Some think they are private schools that don’t serve all students. That simply isn’t true. Charters are tuition-free public schools that provide high-quality innovative instruction to meet students’ diverse needs.
According to a 2018 Guinn Center study, “[Statewide] 31 public charter schools earned a 5-Star rating and 18 schools earned a 4-Star rating, accounting for 44 percent of all [Nevada] charter schools. Conversely, only 30 percent of traditional public schools earned either a 4 or 5-Star rating.”
This educational success at charter schools is produced with less public funding. Analysis shows that charters receive, on average, only 70 percent of the funds that district schools receive (SAGE Commission, 2016). At the same time, charter schools are improving their ability to serve minority and special needs populations. According to the Department of Education’s Nevada Report Card, “Charter school student populations have gone from 37 percent minority populations in 2012 to serving 56 percent minority students in 2017-2018. In addition, charter school percentages of Special Education students have nearly doubled in the same time period from 5 percent to over 9 percent.”
Charter schools are serving a diverse population of children because minority families are increasingly becoming aware of this public school option; they are growing in high need areas like West and East Las Vegas and North Las Vegas. Charters also receive no public funding for facilities or transportation. If those barriers were removed, charters would also be able to locate in underserved urban and rural areas where high need students reside.
In your recent wide-ranging IndyTalks conversation with Jon Ralston at The Smith Center, you repeated some commonly held myths about charter schools that I’d like to dispel.
First, regarding the perception that ELL and Special Education are not welcome at charter schools, you said,“It’s easier for them to gain in the rankings because they don’t take kids with specials needs, they don’t take ELL students, they don’t take the more difficult cases because they get to select who they take.” As mentioned in this piece already, recent figures show that black and Hispanic student populations in Nevada’s public charter schools are now over 56 percent. And even though charters receive considerably less in categorical funding for special needs kids, charters are proud to have increased — by 80 percent in the last five years — the number of students with special education needs who are enrolled.
Second, the myth that public charter schools “get to select who they take” is, indeed, a myth. Charters are open to all students, and may not base enrollment on prior achievement or ability. The fact is there are long waiting lists for most charters and students are then only admitted by a random-selection basis or because a sibling already attends that school.
Another of your concerns in the IndyTalks interview was that kids frequently don’t stay in their neighborhood schools in favor of traveling distances (even without transportation funding) in order to attend a charter school. That is true. However, it is also true for Clark County School District’s 40 plus magnet schools, which are also not neighborhood schools — and for which the District has said, “the demand has greatly exceeded the available seats for students.” In fact, students must apply to attend magnet schools and may be rejected due to inadequate GPA or other reasons, while that is not true for charter schools.
The real question is why students and families in Nevada are increasingly selecting less than traditional options to meet their diverse and often personalized-learning needs? You may ask that question of the numerous members of your own administration and of the Legislature who have either attended or have relatives attending a public charter school. Our charter school students, parents, and leaders would be happy to share their answers as well.
We should not abandon our local district schools. We do have a responsibility to address their unique needs, as your call for a “weighted funding formula” will attempt to do. Yet public charter schools are also a cost-effective part of the education solution. Bipartisan legislation passed in 1997 to enable charter schools to experiment in providing a public school option. Now, in 2019, charter schools are a tested and proven approach that should inspire us to explore partnerships, not turf battles, on how to share best practices with underperforming Nevada schools.
I thank you for calling for Democrats and Republicans to work together. I have heard you loud and clear when you have said many times that you want to hear all ideas saying, “I want everyone to be relevant.” Fifty-thousand-plus public charter school students and their parents and families are prepared to join you and the Legislature in being relevant in improving education in our great state.
The public charter school community stands ready, under your leadership, to partner with our district colleagues to ensure students and their families have every chance available to them to succeed in making this not just a “new Nevada,” but a better Nevada.
Pat Hickey is a former Nevada Assembly leader and former State School Board member. He currently serves as the executive director of the Charter School Association of Nevada.