Nevada’s education vanguard

Ricci Rodriguez-Elkins

It's time to bring public charter schools to the forefront of Nevada education. Battle-worn and born of hardy pioneering stock, many of Nevada's chartered public schools are emerging as successful, avant-garde educational models.

The growing popularity of charter schools in Nevada and nationwide is testimony to parents' desire for quality education options for their children. Four thousand charter schools serve more than 1 million students across 40 states and the District of Columbia. The Nevada charter vanguard is now 22 schools strong, serving over 7,000 students. Most have waiting lists.

Despite this increasing popularity, the Nevada State Board of Education recently voted to "temporarily suspend" the acceptance of new charter applications until resources are available for the adequate processing and monitoring of charter schools. This "time-out" hurts not only Nevada families who want education options, but also Nevada's overcrowded, underperforming traditional public school system. At a time of tight state coffers and school districts seeking hundreds of millions of dollars for new facilities, it makes economic sense to alleviate some of the congestion with new, more efficient options.

Charter schools are independently operated public schools designed and run by educators, parents, community leaders, businesses and educational entrepreneurs. Although laws vary from state to state, charter schools are given flexibility and freedom from most regulations in exchange for student achievement and public accountability. This arrangement provides the autonomy needed to most effectively serve students.

To ensure public funds are expended appropriately, a principal requirement of charter school law is oversight. Charter schools are "sponsored" by legislatively approved bodies (authorizers) who accept the responsibility of monitoring school performance, compliance with state and federal laws, and adherence to the school's stated mission and instructional design.

Charter schools operate under a performance contract (charter) with their authorizer in return for a commitment to meet higher accountability standards. Authorizers are as varied as the schools themselves. State laws determine the types of bodies that can authorize charter schools, including state and local boards of education, universities and colleges, charter school boards, municipalities and nonprofits.

Chartered public schools are also small businesses operating independently, without the economies of scale resources – and bureaucratic inefficiencies – of large school districts. Nevada charter schools' basic operations are financed with pupil allocations and tax revenues, just as district schools are.

Unlike district schools, charter schools lack the authority to issue bonds for facilities, and in Nevada are not allocated additional funds to support facility acquisition, construction/renovation, maintenance or overhead. Facilities are acquired with great difficulty and only with aid from businesses, investors and philanthropists who support public education by providing for unique and comparatively inexpensive facilities for charter schools to lease or purchase using their basic student revenue.

To be financially sustainable, charter schools must be frugal. Like any small business, the early years are typically a day-to-day financial struggle. Necessarily, most charter school administrators become efficient business managers. They are economy-minded and forward looking; they understand balance sheets, cost-effective operating strategies, and how to leverage community resources.

Nevada's charter school movement has had 10 years of steady progress, overcoming obstacles to close the achievement gap between advantaged and disadvantaged students. Though some have distorted their records, most charters have performed admirably – financially and educationally. Indeed, Nevada's charter schools have favorably impacted the public school system by creating more effective models for learning and teaching that district schools now emulate.

Quality charter schools are the result of the efforts of dedicated individuals, practical laws, effective policies and prudent operational practices. At a time when Nevada's troubled public school system is making headlines for failing to make AYP and for high dropout rates, those who unconditionally embrace charter schools for their potential to improve student achievement and provide relief to a distressed traditional public school system will be the true vanguards of public education. Hopefully, the state Board of Education will resolve its concerns quickly and again assume that role.

Ricci Rodriguez-Elkins is the founder and executive director of the Center For Charter School Development and a policy fellow of the Nevada Policy Research Institute. This commentary was first published in the February 2008 issue of the Nevada Business Journal.