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News from Carson City

Moratorium on New Charter Schools Proposed

AB 462, sponsored by the Assembly Committee on Education, would “prohibit the approval of an application to operate a charter school or the execution of a charter contract with the governing body of a new charter school,” by any of Nevada’s charter school authorizers, until 2021.

Charter schools are tuition-free public schools, open to any student, granted certain operating and hiring autonomy in exchange for demonstrating satisfactory student outcomes. More than half of Nevada charter schools earned a 4- or 5- star rating, the highest scores on Nevada’s school performance framework. Nearly 75 percent earned at least a 3- star rating.

Today, more than 50,000 Nevada elementary and secondary students attend charter schools located across the state. These schools are operated under the oversight and supervision of the State Public Charter School Authority, the Achievement School District (Clark County only), or individual school districts.

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Proposed Opportunity Scholarship Funding Cut

AB 458, also proposed by the Assembly Education Committee and referred to the Committee on Taxation, seeks to cut current funding to the Opportunity Scholarship Program by eliminating the ten percent annual escalator increase in present law.

Current law would provide $6,655,000 in available tax credits for Scholarship Grant Organizations to raise to fund scholarships for the 2018-19 school year, and $7,320,500 for 2019-20, with funding for future years to increase by ten percent annually.  This proposal would limit available tax credits to fund the program at the 2018-19 level and strip out the annual increase.

Meanwhile, proposed SB 351, sponsored by Senator Heidi Seevers Gansert and 7 Republican colleagues, proposes to authorize up to $10 million in tax credits for each fiscal year, along with other changes.  Neither of the two bills has been scheduled a hearing as of this writing.

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Quote of the Week: “I want to emphasize that the focus here is on teacher retention. If we could retain our teachers, we wouldn’t need to work so hard to recruit.” Assemblywoman (and CCSD middle school teacher) Brittney Miller

Would PreK Expansion Program Include Schools of Choice?

AB 253, sponsored by Assemblywomen Connie Munk and Daniele Monroe-Moreno, proposes to support increased program-level capacity for early childhood education.  The bill as originally drafted had allowed all schools – traditional public, public charter, and private – to apply for resources to create or expand prekindergarten education programs.

But at Thursday’s Assembly Education meeting, the bill’s sponsors announced that they had amended the proposal at the last minute to exclude private schools from eligibility (although public charter schools would still be able to apply for grants).

Testimony in opposition of the plan by the United Way of Southern Nevada and others argued that the exclusion of private providers would compromise the proposed plan’s effectiveness to serve lower-income communities in Las Vegas. Chairman Tyrone Thompson observed that in his own experience, private, faith-based providers has much to offer underserved communities.  Stay tuned.

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Gansert Proposal Would Preserve Opportunity Scholarship Program

A new bill introduced this week, SB 351 sponsored by Senator Heidi Seevers Gansert and seven others, would preserve and enhance the Opportunity Scholarship program’s ability to serve income-eligible students by:

  • Restoring funding for the program to 2017 levels;
  • Extending eligible tax credits for scholarships to include the insurance premium tax (making it easier for scholarship organization to raise dollars for scholarships);
  • Establishing that students diagnosed with certain disabilities are eligible to receive Opportunity Scholarships regardless of household income level;
  • Stipulating an external evaluation of academic progress by students in the program based on norm-referenced assessments currently used, conducted by an NSHE institution.

Last month the program’s official evaluation report issued by the Nevada Department of Education concluded that 68.4 percent of students participating in the program for all three of its years showed positive academic gains on assessments; 65.7 percent of students in the program for two consecutive students also posted outcomes deemed positive by the NDE analysts.


Achievement School District Plans?

SB 321, sponsored by education chairs Denis and Thompson, along with Senators Dondero Loop, Woodhouse, Brooks and Parks. Under the language in the proposal, the ASD’s currently-operating charter schools would have their contracts transferred immediately to the State Public Charter School Authority, and be required to seek approval from one of the state’s other charter school sponsors by July, 2020, or be closed.

The State Public Charter School Authority’s own proposal, AB78, proposes to shift the Achievement School District to within the Authority, while retaining its current statutory functions and systems.

Currently, over 90 percent of students attending current Achievement School District Schools are black or Hispanic and qualify for Free or Reduced-Priced Lunches under federal guidelines. Democracy Prep Agassi Campus, one of these schools, is home to the only four or five star middle school within five miles (the other three ASD schools have not yet received star ratings).

Achievement School District Director Rebecca Feiden is one of three finalists for the current vacancy for Executive Director of the State Public Charter School Authority.

Throughout the near-daily meetings held by Nevada’s legislative education committees this session, it has resonated clearly that our lawmakers are not satisfied with the current state of Nevada’s K-12 education system.

This feeling comes well-grounded for solid reasons.

Overall, less than one-third of Nevada’s fourth-grade students are performing at grade-level proficiency in reading, an established indicator for future success. At least as alarming is the reality that two out of five of these students’ classmates show reading skills considered “below basic.” On another crucial indicator, eighth-grade math, students scored at very similar rates in both categories.

These findings came on the 2017 National Assessment of Educational Progress, the program known as “The Nation’s Report Card.”

Nevadans share this dissatisfaction, according to a new poll about how they feel about education and school choice. They want their public schools to improve. And, across a wide range of groups — including ethnic, racial and political party identification — they strongly support school choice programs and want opportunities for their own children to attend schools of choice.

The new poll, published by Nevada Action for School Options and EdChoice and based on scientific polling of 1,200 Nevada adults, offers a number of important insights on how Nevadans feel about their current schooling options.

■ Forty-eight percent of Nevada Hispanics and 34 percent of African-Americans said that if financial cost and transportation were of no concern, they would select private schooling to obtain the best education for their child. This compares with 28 percent who would prefer a regular public school and 22 percent who would prefer a charter school. These rates far exceed the supply of available seats in schools of choice, as only 4 percent of Nevada K-12 students are enrolled in private school today and 10 percent are enrolled in charter schools.

■ More than two-thirds of Nevada’s Hispanics (70 percent), and African-Americans (69 percent) support Nevada’s Opportunity Scholarship program. Support is even higher among parents of school-aged children within these groups.

■ Among parents of school-aged children, 80 percent agree that educational choice initiatives such as the currently unfunded Education Savings Account program, should be available to all families, regardless of their level of household income.

■ Support for Nevada’s public charter schools was also strong, favored by 73 percent of Hispanics and 66 percent of African-Americans.While the poll offered many indications that Nevadans are dissatisfied with the quality of options available to them from their traditional public schools, the answers from respondents reflected an urgency for better options for their children while our system of public education works to improve.

Projections from the Census Bureau suggest that the rapid growth of our state’s school-aged population will continue, and even escalate, over the coming decade.

Our public school systems, and especially Clark County schools, are already showing signs of strain, as evidenced by the many teachers who regularly testify to the Legislature about class sizes bordering on unmanageable. Our schools of choice are one solution that represents a bargain for taxpayers on many levels. This makes their role in Nevada’s education ecosystems an important one, especially given their strong popularity with families.

As Nevada’s public schools persistently rank near the bottom of national studies, one finding from this latest poll offers a bright sign of hope. Nevadans frequently make real sacrifices to support their children’s schooling: The poll found that one-third of Nevadans have moved closer to a desirable school, while three out of 10 have taken an additional job to support their children’s educations.  This stands as an indication that Nevadans care a great deal about school quality.

As our decision-makers deliberate competing budget priorities, new funding formulas and other important factors, they should be mindful that their constituents feel strongly about having diverse school choices to meet their children’s needs.

This article originally appeared in the Las Vegas Review-Journal.

Don Soifer is president of Nevada Action for School Options, a nonprofit organization committed to supporting the growth of diverse educational opportunities for all Nevada students.