Below the surface of the debate surrounding charter-school legislation lies the fact that there is still no agreement over what the ultimate purpose and place of charter schools should be in the traditional school system. This debate has resulted in very different charter-school laws across the country. Arizona and Nevada are examples of two states on opposite ends of a continuum. Nevada’s law represents the view that charter schools are just another option on a school district’s menu, assuming that wonderful innovations and discoveries will miraculously be transferred over to the district schools. On the other hand, Arizona’s law reflects the idea that charter schools represent the introduction of true choice and competition in the arena of public education, even if it means a radical overhaul of the current system. Arizona has wholeheartedly embraced reform, while Nevada has merely nodded in the direction of reform.
Before the Silver State raises its taxes to spend more on its government schools, perhaps it’s time for legislators and the public to consider how to enhance Nevada’s charter schools law. For direction, it would be wise to turn to the Silver State’s neighbor to the southeast.
The Center for Education Reform defines a strong charter school law as “one that fosters the development of numerous, genuinely independent charter schools.” Out of the 37 states recently ranked by the center, Arizona ranked first as having the strongest law in the country. Nevada ranked only 26th.
Each state has put in place different provisions that will inevitably encourage or constrain charter school growth. Skeptics consider Arizona’s law to be permissive and have labeled the state as “the Wild West,” but the independent nature of Arizona is something all other states should aspire to achieve.
As syndicated columnist Jim Glassman found when he toured a number of the state’s charter schools, “The key to Arizona’s success is that charters for new schools can be bestowed not just by local school boards—which aren’t eager to engender competition—but by a state board for charter schools or by the state board of education, headed by Lisa Graham Keegan, the elected superintendent of public instruction. By contrast, in most states, only local school boards—or county boards, on appeal—can charter a school.” The District of Columbia has the only other charter school law that enabled the formation of such an entity.
Barriers to Entry
Nevada’s law has made it extremely difficult for a charter school to get started in the Silver State. The only schools that can convert to charter status are public vocational and technical schools, which are also very expensive schools to operate. Brand new schools can open, but securing financing from the private sector is challenging because the length of the charters is for only six years, with a possibility of renewal after three years. Furthermore, Nevada only allows local school boards to sponsor schools, which limits the chances even further that many schools will be created because local school boards have little incentive to introduce competition into their own domain.
Nationwide, there are many characteristics of charter-school laws that make them strong, but Arizona’s law has the most unique combination. Arizona is one of the few states that permits direct ownership of assets by charter holders. Arizona also provides for 15-year charters, authorizes the conversion of private schools and allows charter schools to be operated by for-profit entities.
Across the country, individual state laws are being designed with different goals. An examination of the 37 state charter school laws reveals that while 25 states have listed “Improving student achievement” as a goal, 23 states have also listed “Creating opportunities for teachers” and “Being incubators of innovation” as legislated goals. Clearly articulated goals are an important component of a good charter school law.
The purpose of Arizona charter schools is clearly articulated in statute and is simply to improve pupil achievement and provide additional academic choices for families. While Nevada charter schools are supposed to do the very same things, they are also supposed to create new professional opportunities for teachers and other educational personnel, provide a new system of accountability and encourage the use of different and innovative teaching methods.
In Nevada, there are only five charter schools. But there are 360 currently operating in Arizona, which translates into one out of every five public schools being a charter school. These numbers are revealing because school choice is only meaningful if a significant amount of parents are given the opportunity to choose.
Furthermore, these numbers make it clear which state is really serious about education reform through parent choice. Hint: It’s not Nevada. As the Silver State struggles to improve its education system, it would be helpful to model reform of its charter-school law on the success of Arizona’s experiment.
The Center for Education Reform Grades
States’ Charter Schools Legislation
- A: Arizona, California, Delaware, Florida, Massachusetts. Michigan, Minnesota, Texas, and the District of Columbia
- B: Colorado, Missouri, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Wisconsin
- C: Alaska, Connecticut, Georgia Illinois, Louisiana, Nevada, New Hampshire, Ohio, Utah
- D: Arkansas, Hawaii, Kansas, New Mexico, Rhode Island, Virginia, Wyoming
- F: Mississippi
Karla Phillips is a research associate with the Goldwater Institute and an adjunct policy analyst with the Nevada Policy Research Institute.