Next Up Blog

With today’s publication of school ratings under Nevada’s School Performance Framework, families have a crucial new tool to help them fully understand how their public schools rate comparatively.

Scoring is based on a range of academic indicators tied to the state’s student performance standards. Academic achievement and the academic growth of individual students over time on different assessments, and measures of student engagement each factor into school ratings, all contribute to school ratings.

On the Five-Star evaluation system designed by the Nevada Department of Education, roughly 15 percent of all schools scored at five stars (highest rating), while about the same number posted a one star rating (lowest).

The ratings were not evenly distributed across the state, as can be expected. Schools in some neighborhoods performed consistently higher, some lower. Schools located in Nevada’s poorest neighborhoods frequently posted the lowest scores, even though the state framework weights student growth more than it does straight measures of subject-matter proficiency. Schools serving students who have performed below their grade level in the past have a strong opportunity to score well based on these students’ learning gains.

Families living in the 89122 zip code on the eastern side of Las Vegas’ Whitney neighborhood face this problem in dramatic fashion. Of the 4,400 children in 89122 attending public elementary and middle schools, 3,200 attend a school earning only one star on the state framework (Cynthia Cunningman, Hal Smith, Sister Robert Joseph Bailey and Whitney Elementary Schools) . The remaining 1,200 students attend a two-star school (Francis Cortney Jr. High).

There are no schools in the 89122 zip code that earned more then two stars on the five star system.

There are also no schools of choice, either public charter schools or private schools, available for families to select rather than the choices assigned them according to the neighborhood in which they live.

Median household income was $45,000 in the 89122 on the 2010 Census, a full step below the Clark County average of $52,600.   This makes moving to a different neighborhood served by higher-performing schools, the preferred method of choosing for families that can afford it, a much more challenging proposition.

While Nevada does offer choice options like public charter schools, demand exceeds supply and families must navigate long waitlists. With no charter schools located in their zip code, families likely need to make significant commutes to take advantage, even when they overcome these waitlists. And for families eligible to receive private school tuition under the state’s only funded private school choice program, they too must benefit from the luck to overcome demands far exceeding available supply.

Nevada’s official education goals call for our schools becoming the fastest-improving state in the country. For the residents of 89122, this can’t happen quickly enough, based on the latest evaluation of the public schools in their neighborhood.

Public support for school choice programs is showing substantial gains nationally, especially among communities of color, according to the newly-published 2018 EducationNext poll.

In each school choice category, support was strongest among Hispanic respondents, also strong among blacks surveyed, with support among white respondents still positive, but the weakest among racial and ethic groups.

Prominent among the latest findings, 54 percent of all people surveyed indicated support for school choice models for all families, where government funds provide help paying for private school tuition (31 percent were opposed).  Among Hispanics surveyed, 67 percent supported and 20 percent opposed.

When the question was narrowed to ask about limiting participation in such programs to only include low-income families, 62 percent of Hispanics expressed support.  Curiously among white respondents only, limiting program participation to just low-income families caused support to fall to 43 percent (44 opposed), when the same question as applied to all families was favored by 53 percent of the same white respondents (31 opposed).

This latest national poll reflects similar results to those found in Nevada by an April, 2018 poll by the Nevada Independent, particularly among Hispanic voters.  In that survey, 67 percent of Hispanic voters declared Nevada’s Education Savings Account program.

In the national poll, 68 percent of Hispanics expressed support for programs where tax credits are offered to pay for scholarships to help children from low-income households attend private school, with 57 percent of all respondents supporting this question.  Nevada’s current Educational Choice Scholarship program is such a program.

Support for charter schools also polled strongly in the new national poll, with white, black and Hispanic respondents all registering a majority in support.  Support for charters was strongest among Hispanic voters (49 percent support/33 opposed), followed by black (46/26) and white respondents (42 to 37).

According to EducationNext, the national education policy journal responsible for the annual poll, support for both universal school choice models and charter schools grew significantly in the twelve months since their last survey.  Support for school choice models targeted for low-income households held at the same levels as last year.

In the final hour of Nevada’s Interim Legislative Education Committee’s concluding 10-hour meeting on August 9, members unanimously approved a Bill Draft Request (BDR) seeking to establish a new regulatory oversight framework for the state’s full-time, virtual charter schools.

Each of these schools in Nevada operates under the supervision of the State Public Charter School Authority.  The two largest of these are Nevada Virtual Academy, serving just over 2,000 students statewide, and Nevada Connections Academy, which enrolls just over 3,000 students.  These schools are affiliated with Virginia-based company K12 and Connections Education, a Maryland company acquired by international education giant Pearson in 2011.

Earlier this year, Nevada Virtual Academy entered a legal agreement with the Authority by which it must demonstrate performance tied to improved student outcomes, determining the school’s ability to continue, increase enrollment levels, or potentially shut down operations at underperforming grade levels.  Last November, Nevada Connections Academy agreed to a similar agreement. In each case, the Authority had undertaken proceedings which might have closed either school as the result of persistent, low levels of student performance outcomes.

The new legislative proposal has not yet been drafted.  This work completing the details of a bill will proceed in the coming months leading up the legislative session.  Committee members discussed a plan under which the virtual charter schools will remain under the supervision of the State Public Charter School Authority, which would be directed to create a new regulatory structure including allowing the schools to adopt new entrance and enrollment criteria and establish specific accountability rules.  The plan will then be introduced and deliberated in the 2019 legislative session.

Full-time, online charter schools operate in more than two dozen states, and have been the focus of numerous research papers in recent years by various education policy organizations.  These reports have noted consistent patterns of lower levels of student outcomes in these schools, while also observing that they represent important educational options for students who have not thrived in other school settings.  

In four states, full-time, online charter schools operate under a performance-based funding system providing partial payments based on students’ successful course completion or other demonstration of content mastery, an approach Nevada might consider.  Some mechanism for reliably measuring family satisfaction with their online schools would be useful to include here, for reasons including minimizing any potential incentive providers might see to water down course rigor to facilitate easier student completion.

One 2017 analysis, by New Mexico’s Legislative Education Study Committee, observed that per-student instructional staff and school facilities expenditures are significantly lower at that state’s online charter schools than at other charter schools, while Connections and K12 received substantial contractual fees for use of online content and “other instructional services.”  The evaluation concluded that, “The large amount spent by virtual charter schools in this category limits the transparency of school expenditures.”

Online charter schools in Nevada clearly represent a preferred educational option that thousands of families prefer to serve their children’s learning needs than other rural, urban and education choices available to them.  As state lawmakers move forward with this new plan, it will be crucial that they remain mindful of the value these schooling options represents to these families, who frequently feel underserved by their other options.

Certainly, online course offerings can vastly exceed choices available at brick-and-mortar school, and good ones support students to advance according to the pace of their own, individual learning.  Should Nevada decisionmakers decide to implement a new framework for the supervision of full-time, online charter schools, it must be hoped that the new system will permit the proliferation of powerful, high-quality new digital learning content being produced around the country to play an important role meeting, and enriching, the diverse learning needs of Nevada’s students.


Nevada, and especially the Las Vegas Valley, is home to the nation’s most dynamic landscape for growth in the demand for K-12 education. Projections by the U.S. Census indicate that the state will need to create some 250,000 new seats in schools during the next decade or so. Over the past 12 months, Clark County’s population growth — 47,000 new residents, a 2.2 percent population increase — ranked second in the United States, continuing a trend that has persisted most of the past three decades.

This means that not only will we need new seats, teachers and educational materials to serve these new students, we will need new schools. And building new schools is an expensive endeavor.

Click here to read the rest of Nevada Action founder Don Soifer’s article in the Las Vegas Review-Journal.

Implementing innovative instructional practices in schools is important work best done deliberately and strategically. This can mean lots of different things.  Particularly, the work should support classroom teachers and encourage them to continually iterate and evolve their practices so that they can ensure what they are doing is the best match for the specific education needs they are seeking to address.  Educators need to be prepared with professional development strategies that best support success.  Often, this work requires shifting pedagogies entirely, in ways that allow teachers to own their goals for progress, and teach students to do the same.  And education decisions need to drive technology decisions, and not the other way around.

And for school districts, this work needs to be scaleable across multiple classrooms and school buildings if it is to realize its potential for raising productivity of teaching and learning.

For school and district leaders, this process begins with identifying the particular educational needs they are looking to solve.  Investments in technology, broadband infrastructure, digital content, and professional development are major ones, and generally require prioritizing within the budgeting process (for more on this, school board trustees should run, not walk, to read The New School Rules by Anthony Kim and Alexis Gonzales Black).  So they need to be made deliberately and strategically, and preferably in consultation with experts who bring experience solving educational needs like those schools are looking to solve.

So how to pay for this work?

This 2018 report by the national nonprofit iNACOL describes strategies being used effectively in other states to fund promising innovative and personalized learning practices in schools.

Another useful publication, aptly called “Learning How to Pay for Personalized Learning,” comes from Education Elements, the Silicon-Valley based consultant behind many of the nation’s most accomplished personalized learning program.

“Even without a formal funding strategy, states can begin planning and working to transform K-12 education with personalized, competency-based education,” the authors describe. An important first step is to create space in state policy for practitioners and educators to redesign learning. Such policy could, for example, provide seat-time flexibility or establish innovation zones. Effectively planning, launching and scaling high-quality, personalized, competency-based learning often requires a focused approach to fund statewide initiatives to build educator capacity for student-centered learning.

In Nevada, a competency-based learning pilot program is already established for school districts looking to innovate beyond traditional seat-time requirements.  While the pilot is unfunded, the Nevada Ready 21 program has already provided crucial resources in way that has enabled some schools around the state to leverage classroom technology in important ways.  The E-Rate program funded through the FCC’s Universal Funds provides significant discounts for technology purchases by schools.  And two of the state’s most recent funding streams targeting resources for our most struggling student population groups, Zoom and Victory Schools, are already enabling promising innovative practices structured to begin to narrow achievement gaps.

Meeting our present and growing educational needs is going to require innovation, and resources.  Nevada Action would be glad to meet to discuss your school’s and district’s plans to spearhead classroom innovation – just let us know.