Charter schools in Nevada need more control

Patrick Gibbons

Nevada's charter school situation is embarrassingly poor. We have about 420,000 students in the public school system and yet fewer than 30 charter schools.

What, exactly, is a charter school? Basically it's a normal public school where tuition is free for all students and virtually whoever applies must be accepted. (Usually, if there are too many applications, a lottery is used.) Unlike traditional public schools, however, charter schools are free from much of the usual bureaucratic red tape. The idea is that they are free to be creative and innovative in the ways they teach students.

Put simply, there are about a million different ways to teach students, and charter schools offer many alternatives to the one-size-fits-all dogmas of the usual government school.

Unfortunately, charter schools in Nevada are hamstrung by the fact that school districts—and unions—don't really want them to exist. Even the Departments of Education at the state's two public universities—the University of Nevada, Las Vegas and the University of Nevada, Reno—don't dare sponsor charters, even though that would give them a chance to put their ideas to a real-world empirical test.

Furthermore, charter schools in Nevada are still regulated by the state's one-size-fits-all central bureaucracy and must also accept the contracts negotiated between the school district and the school-district unions.

Recently the teacher union in Massachusetts, unlike the one in Nevada, decided to put its money where its mouth is. It lobbied to create "pilot schools"—charter schools under union control. Researchers at Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology found that union-controlled pilot schools in Massachusetts (which have special rules that allow them to deny students admission, unlike charter schools) typically perform no better than the traditionally run public schools. But Massachusetts' normal charter schools—which are free to choose how they hire, reward or fire teachers—outperform both the traditional public schools and the union-controlled pilot schools.

Charter schools should be part of the education reform equation in Nevada. Quite simply, they work. To improve Nevada's charter school program, we not only need a regulatory board supervising charter schools that operates independent of the school districts and the Department of Education, but we also need to allow charter school administrators to hire, fire and reward as they see fit.

Evidence continues to mount that charter schools outperform. But if the union disagrees, let's experiment by duplicating both the charter and pilot-schools programs of Massachusetts.

Somehow, we don't expect the unions will want to undergo a real-world test.