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August 1, 2015

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EDUCATION:

Charter schools, vouchers on education leaders’ wish list

Sun coverage

Nevada's education leaders called for the expansion of charter schools and vouchers during a panel discussion highlighting School Choice Week.

School Choice Week celebrates a national movement that supports nontraditional education choices such as homeschooling and private, virtual, magnet and charter schools. Special events are taking place across the country between Jan. 27 and Feb. 3 to raise awareness about school choice.

Proponents of school choice argue too many of the nation's children are zoned to failing public schools, effectively trapping them into a lifetime of poverty. Many see alternative schools, parental empowerment and vouchers as a way out for these students.

However, staunch public education advocates argue school choice diverts much-needed tax dollars away from struggling public schools, weakening their ability to educate students. Nationally, this contentious issue has pitted different parent, teacher and community factions against each other, spawning fierce debates in cities like Philadelphia, New Orleans, Los Angeles and Chicago.

Nevada has been largely shielded from this divisive debate. The Silver State has a relatively low number of charter schools, and Las Vegas Valley parents have enjoyed open enrollment to a bevy of nontraditional schools.

However, this simmering issue may likely boil over in the coming years as state and local leaders push for more school choice. When the Legislature convenes Monday — just as School Choice Week ends — legislators will debate several bills calling for a new "parent trigger" law, school vouchers for low-income students and facility/capital support for charter schools.

State Superintendent Jim Guthrie, Public Charter School Authority Director Steve Canavero and state Sen. Barbara Cegavske hinted at these upcoming school choice discussions during a roundtable discussion Tuesday.

The RISE Education Resource Center, an academic support center for home-schooled children, and the Nevada Policy Research Institute, a libertarian think tank, co-sponsored the event, which was attended by about 50 people representing the Clark County School District, home-school networks, charter and private schools.

Here are some of the proposed school choice bills:

Charter Schools: Guthrie argued for more charter schools, which are public schools that operate under a contract from either the state or the local school district to use innovative techniques and curricula to teach students.

Nevada has been slow to adopt charter schools since they were first allowed in 1997. Nevada has just 32 charter schools, the fewest of any Southwestern state. About 4 percent of Nevada students attend charter schools.

Guthrie argued the Silver State must double or triple its number of charter schools to provide unique learning opportunities for students and to create a competitive environment to improve public schools. Proponents of school choice argue that the presence of quality charter schools compels low-performing traditional public schools to improve, or else risk losing per-pupil funding.

"Right now, there's not enough (charter schools) to make a difference (in public education)," Guthrie said. "We need a critical mass of choice."

Last legislative session, Nevada became the seventh state in the nation to adopt an independent chartering board, which has been tasked with approving more high-quality charter schools. Over the past two years, the state's Public Charter School Authority has received 14 new charter school applications and approved five.

The authority now oversees 16 charter schools enrolling 14,000 students. This effectively made the authority the third largest school district in the state, Canavero said.

However, charter schools face a huge financial and bureaucracy hurdle when starting out. Although charter schools receive state per-pupil funding, they do not get any capital money for facilities. New operators also must compile a charter school application that is often hundreds of pages long.

Over the next four months, legislators may deliberate several bills to help charter schools find adequate campus facilities and simplify the application process.

The Clark County School District is sponsoring Senate Bill 59, which would allow charter schools to use district facilities during the school day — currently prohibited under state law.

In addition, the charter school authority hopes to sponsor a bill that would create a $750,000 revolving loan account, which would be used by qualified charter schools to lease classroom space and purchase chairs, desks and computers. The authority also is looking at shortening the application and replacing the current charters with a performance-based business contract.

"We're trying to build an environment that is predictive and anchored in best practices," Canavero said. "Nevada has come a long way. Charter schools are here and very much a part of the equation."

Parent empowerment: There are four proposed bills aimed at empowering parents to take control of their local schools. The so-called "parent trigger" bills would allow families to petition local school boards to turn over traditional public schools into myriad alternative options, such as charter schools.

Similar laws have sparked much controversy in neighboring California. The issue also was highlighted in a recent Hollywood movie, "Won't Back Down," starring Maggie Gyllenhaal and Viola Davis.

Proponents of the parent trigger argue the law will hold schools accountable. If parents have the right to directly change their public schools, schools likely will improve.

"This will give parents the power and opportunity to choose the school that's best for their children," Sen. Cegavske said. "Parents know best what's best for their children."

Vouchers: Gov. Brian Sandoval proposed a new scholarship fund during his State of the State address in January. The Opportunity Scholarship fund would allow low-income families to send their children to the school of their choice.

The fund — which is similar to the McKay Scholarship Program in Florida — may come from a business or individual tax credit, or from state money. It is unclear how much money can be raised for this fund, however.

Cegavske said these vouchers aren't about siphoning money away from public schools, rather it's about ensuring that Nevada's children are educated well.

"Why can't the money follow the student?" Cegavske asked. "Why do we keep funding schools and programs that aren't working?

"Competition is healthy in business and in anything. Education is not any different. Options are good."

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