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Nevada students in charter schools shortchanged on learning time, study shows

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Christopher DeVargas

Kindergartners at Explore Knowledge Academy use Apple iPads during class to enhance their learning experience. Thursday Feb. 16, 2012.

Charter schools

Charter schools are public schools that operate under a contract from either the state or the local school district and use innovative techniques and curricula to teach students.

As taxpayer-funded schools, charter schools do not charge tuition and are open to any student in a school district.

Charter schools receive the same per-pupil funding as traditional public schools. However, unlike traditional public schools, charter schools do not receive public money for facilities.

Nevada currently has 31 charter schools sponsored by the state and local school districts. The Clark County School District, which oversees seven charter schools, has the fastest-growing charter school enrollment in the country.

The average school rating for Nevada charter schools is three stars.

Since the last CREDO report in 2009, charter school enrollment grew by 80 percent to 2.3 million students nationally.

There are more than 6,000 charter schools in 42 states and Washington, D.C. Charter schools now serve about 4 percent of the nation's public school students.

In response to this growth and interest in charter schools, many states are beefing up their charter school laws. Some are turning to charters as school "turnaround" solutions, closing failing public schools in New Orleans and Memphis and reopening them as charters.

Nevada's charter school students lose between six and seven months of learning each year compared with their traditional public school counterparts, according to a Stanford University study released Tuesday.

The National Charter School Study, published by Stanford's Center for Research on Education Outcomes, looked at the academic performance of charter school students in New York City, Washington, D.C., and 25 states — including Nevada.

Charter schools in Nevada had the lowest test scores among the 5,000 charter schools surveyed nationally.

Nevada charter school students are losing a whopping 115 days of learning in reading and 137 days of learning in math each school year, according to the CREDO report. The average school year has 180 days.

This means that Nevada's charter school students are falling behind six to seven months each year, according to the report. “States like Nevada show that charter schools are not a guaranteed solution to educational challenges,” the report stated.

"We clearly have work to do," said Steve Canavero, director of the Nevada Public Charter School Authority.

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In its first national charter school report released in 2009, CREDO found that charter school students were falling behind their traditional public school peers.

CREDO's 2013 study, which is an update and expansion of its landmark 2009 report, found slight improvements in the overall performance of charter schools, although results varied widely from state to state.

"We found there has been a slow and steady progress since 2009," said CREDO Director Margaret Raymond in a conference call with reporters on Monday.

Nationally, charter school students gained seven days of learning in reading over their traditional public school counterparts. In math, charter schools improved to the point where there was no difference in test scores.

Furthermore, CREDO found that more charter schools were doing better than regular public schools when it came to standardized test scores, particularly for students from minority and impoverished backgrounds.

Nearly a third — 29 percent — of charter schools do better than regular public schools on standardized tests. A little less than a third — 31 percent — do significantly worse and 40 percent of charter schools showed no difference.

Black students, students in poverty and English-language learners benefit the most from attending charter schools, according to the CREDO study.

Black students from low-income families gained an extra month of learning in math and reading while Hispanic, English-language learners gained 50 additional days of learning in both subjects.

(White and Asian students, however, do not benefit from attending charter schools, and in some cases actually lose days of learning, according to the CREDO report.)

John Hawk, president of the Charter School Association of Nevada, said the majority of students enrolled in the state's charter schools come from historically underserved backgrounds.

"Charter schools offer a more intimate and hands-on learning that benefits (minority) students," Hawk said.

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These gains, however, were not evident in all states. CREDO's charter school results varied drastically from state to state.

Charter schools in states such as Louisiana, Michigan, Rhode Island and Tennessee made steady improvements, according to the CREDO study.

However, charter schools in states such as Arkansas, Arizona, Nevada, New Mexico, Texas and Utah were not performing well, according to the report.

While researchers could not explain why there were wide differences in performance from state to state (which requires more research), they said some states have adopted policies that demand higher-performing charter schools.

"With the right policies and the right political will, you can see improvement in a very short period of time," Raymond said.

Since the 2011 legislative session, Nevada has beefed up its charter school laws, said Daniel Tafoya, the director of the Clark County School District's Office of Charter Schools.

"The Nevada Legislature has defined a charter school framework that is based on national standards," Tafoya said. "We are improving when it comes to the law."

This past legislative session, Nevada adopted new policies that will enable more charter schools to be formed and to hold these schools more accountable, Canavero said.

Under Gov. Brian Sandoval's urging, the Legislature approved $750,000 in funding for a revolving loan account, which fledgling charter schools may use as start-up money for facilities, textbooks and supplies. State lawmakers also approved allowing businesses to help charter schools issue bonds for school facilities.

Assembly Bill 205 established a performance-based contract for charter schools, which proponents argue will help keep these schools accountable for their academic performance.

In previous years, contracts for charter schools could only be revoked if school officials were found to have mismanaged the school financially or in the reporting of school data.

However, with the passage of AB205, charter schools will be held accountable for their academic performance, in addition to their financial, organizational and mission-specific goals.

Charters will automatically be revoked if schools are "persistently underperforming." Charter schools with three consecutive years of one-star rating on the Nevada school ranking system will be forced to automatically close.

In the wake of the CREDO report, charter school officials acknowledged that the state will need to improve. The new policies will help, Hawk said.

"We're gaining ground when it comes to our policies," he said. "But we still have a long way to go."

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