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Report: Clark County’s charter schools fastest-growing in country

Updated Thursday, Nov. 15, 2012 | 11:41 a.m.

Study Findings

    Other major findings of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools' seventh annual report on charter school enrollment:

    • The New Orleans Public School System, which serves 42,965 students, had 76 percent of its students enrolled in charter schools. Washington, D.C., and Detroit are tied for second in charter school market share.

    • The Los Angeles Unified School District, the nation's third-largest district serving 661,301 students, had the highest number of charter school students with 98,576 students. L.A. was followed by New York, Detroit, Philadelphia and Chicago.

    • The top five fastest growing public charter school regions are: Clark County, Nev.; Hillsborough County, Fla.; Dallas and Phoenix (tied); Gilbert, Ariz.; and Atlanta.

The number of Clark County students enrolled in public charter schools grew by 64 percent from the 2010-11 to 2011-12 school years, according to a national report released Wednesday.

In fact, the Las Vegas Valley posted the highest growth in charter school enrollments of any metropolitan area in the country, according to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools.

Nationally, enrollment in charter schools increased by 200,000 students, topping 2 million. Charter schools, which began two decades ago, now represent the fastest-growing sector in public education, said alliance President and CEO Nina Rees.

"Parents are demanding school choice, and that demand will keep rising," Rees said Wednesday in a conference call with reporters. "Charter schools are a lifeline out of failing (traditional public) schools."

Charter schools 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. Studies show charter schools have a mixed record when it comes to raising student achievement, however.

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 regular public schools, charter schools do not receive public money for facilities.

Since 1997 — when charter schools first were allowed in Nevada — the state has been slow to adopt these controversial schools. Wednesday's report showed Nevada's reluctance toward charter schools may be changing.

Currently, Nevada has just 32 charter schools, the fewest of any Southwestern state. The majority of the state's charter schools — 24 — are in Clark County.

Despite their small numbers, Nevada's charter schools saw their enrollment more than double in the past three school years.

The majority of this growth can be attributed to simple mathematics, however, said Steve Canavero, director of the Nevada Public Charter School Authority.

Last school year, Clark County charter schools served 7,271 students, just about 2 percent of the 311,000 students enrolled in the nation's fifth-largest school district. (For comparison, Miami-Dade, Fla. — the nation's fourth-largest school district with 353,000 students — has 41,767 charter school students.)

Because the charter school population in Clark County is so small, each student enrolled in local charter schools automatically pushes the growth percentile higher and higher.

"We have such a small market share," Canavero said. "As these charter schools are added to the portfolio, each school brings a significant percentage increase."

However, some of the growth in Clark County charter schools can be attributed to the state Public Charter School Authority. Enacted by the Legislature in 2011, this new state agency wrested oversight of charter schools from the state education department. The agency is also seemingly tasked with increasing the number of quality charter schools in Nevada, a vision shared by state education leaders such as Gov. Brian Sandoval and new state Superintendent Jim Guthrie.

Last school year, the Nevada charter school authority opened five new charter schools across the state, enrolling 2,055 students. New charter schools constituted the majority of the 2,383 charter student growth in Clark County cited by the alliance report.

Four of the new charter schools were in Clark County, although one of those schools – Renaissance – closed in March. This year the charter school authority received 14 applications. As of last month, three applications were approved and the remaining were denied, although three schools were encouraged to revise their applications and resubmit, Canavero said.

For now, this increase in charter schools hasn't garnered much backlash from critics, who argue charter schools siphon dwindling state education funding away from traditional public schools. The Clark County School District — which oversees seven of the 24 charter schools in the county — issued a moratorium on new charters since the recession because of a concern about funding its current schools.

The lack of public outcry over charter schools — which has gripped Washington, D.C., and Los Angeles, both of which have high numbers of charter schools — is probably because student enrollment in the Clark County School District has remained stable the past few years.

In fact, the School District's student enrollment increased to a record 311,000 students this school year.

That sustained enrollment number means Clark County's traditional public schools have only suffered from austerity measures in the wake of the recession — not from a flight of students and per-pupil funding to charter schools, said Dan Tafoya, director of the district's charter school office.

"There's not a mass exodus of students by any stretch of the imagination," Tafoya said. "This school district is not averse to charter schools at all. We've been very supportive of charter schools. We look at them as incubators of innovation and pioneers in education."

Critics have pointed to research that shows the majority of charters perform as well if not worse than traditional public schools. About a third of charter schools perform better than traditional public schools, Tafoya said. (Nevada has closed five charter schools since 2003 for failing to meet standards.)

Despite the mixed record of charter schools, parents have been flocking to them. The School District’s seven charter schools saw an average of 5 percent enrollment growth this year from last year.

While some have argued the popularity of charter schools is a result of the School District's lagging education rankings, Tafoya said that's not necessarily the case.

Some of the growth in charter school enrollment may come from an immigration of students from California, Utah and Arizona, all of which have a high number of charter school students. These Las Vegas transplants tend to converge toward charter schools because they are familiar with them, Tafoya said.

For other families, charter schools represent not necessarily a better alternative to the School District but perhaps a better fit for some students. These students include home-schooled children who are transitioning to a more mainstream school and special education students craving a less structured learning environment, Tafoya said.

"If charter school is an education venue that works for them, that's great," Tafoya said. "This is about kids and having them 'Ready By Exit.' At the end of the day, whether they're in public schools, charter schools or private schools, we want students to be 'Ready By Exit.'"

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