Nevada Lifts Charter School Moratorium

Published November 1, 2008

The end of an eight-month moratorium on new charter schools in Nevada may expand the state’s increasingly popular independent public schools of choice, supporters say.

The Nevada Board of Education has ended a freeze unanimously approved on November 30, 2007, agreeing to consider charter school applications once again. The moratorium was prompted by complaints the state education department lacked sufficient staff and resources to process 11 incoming applications and monitor the state’s existing 22 charter schools.

Andy Matthews, spokesman for the Nevada Policy Research Institute, a free-market think tank in the state, said it was ridiculous for Nevada education officials to try to halt an increasingly popular educational option.

“What’s most absurd is when you have increased public demand for a service, in the real world you respond to it by meeting that demand,” Matthews said. “There’s a disconnect in how government deals with that demand.”

Hardly ‘Overwhelmed’

Ricci Rodriguez-Elkins, president of the Center for Charter School Development Nevada, said the state education department has one full-time and one part-time staff member to review applications, aided by other employees on a limited basis. A smaller team of three to five state employees is charged with site visits and ensuring compliance.

In the Nevada Policy Research Institute’s May 2008 report Quality and Quantity, Matthew Ladner noted neighboring Arizona successfully oversees 482 charter schools with a staff of eight—a much larger ratio than supposedly “overwhelmed” Nevada state staffers. In addition, Nevada law provides the state 2 percent of charter school per-pupil funding for oversight, while Arizona’s state education department receives no such fee.

“If Arizona’s statute provided for a 2 percent oversight fee, the Arizona State Board could have a budget of over $13 million—easily exceeding the point of diminishing marginal returns,” Ladner writes.

Ladner says Nevada’s moratorium was on shaky legal ground, as state law mandates a State Board of Education subcommittee “shall hold a meeting to consider” a charter school appeal. But he also cites 2005 legislation that said the board “may approve,” rather than “shall approve,” satisfactory applications.

“It’s not clear whether [the State Board is] obligated” to approve charter applications, Matthews agreed.

Frozen Out

The state’s moratorium followed the lead of Nevada’s two largest school districts—Washoe County and Clark County—which had decided to stop approving new charter schools in 2006 and 2007, respectively. Applicants denied by the local school district had recourse to appeal to the State Board before the board enacted its own freeze.

“We could never understand why the school districts and State Board of Education were crying wolf and not wanting to deal with the charter schools,” said state Sen. Barbara Cegavske (R-Las Vegas). “Charter schools felt like they weren’t getting much help, because it seemed officials didn’t want them to be successful.”

Since the moratorium was lifted by the August 9 Board of Education decision, three new Nevada charter schools have opened for the 2008-09 school year, bringing the statewide total to 25.

“We’re pleased that it’s been resolved,” said Rodriguez-Elkins. “But on the other hand, I’m disappointed it didn’t happen sooner, because our options are dramatically limited.” She said the eight-month freeze hurt revenues.

The state sought not to aid charter schools in pursuing federal grant money, including up to 5 percent of which could have been used to bolster administrative staffing. As a result, schools were left to compete on their own for a smaller pot of money.

Creating New Interest

Rodriguez-Elkins noted a public backlash has generated positive momentum for charter schools in the state, with backing from Republicans and Democrats.

“What came out of this moratorium was a huge public outcry and a surge of support from legislators who didn’t give us support before,” Rodriguez-Elkins said.

In its August resolution, the State Board decided to use administrative fees to hire additional staff and agreed to institute more objective criteria for determining charter school approval.

In addition, an interim legislative committee approved a bill for consideration in Nevada’s 2009 session to create an independent charter authorizer. Modeled after similar institutions in Colorado and Utah, the proposed “charter school institute” would essentially serve as Nevada’s 18th school district. Applicants would have the opportunity to bypass local school districts and appeals to the State Board in the approval process.

Rodriguez-Elkins said the governor’s office is working on a similar proposal that may be brought into conference with the interim committee’s bill in 2009.

Enthusiastic Support for Charters

Cegavske said she believes the idea of a new authorizer “will be embraced” by her fellow legislators and would be a boon for the growing numbers of her constituents who have opted for the charter public education alternative.

“They love the schools, the opportunities to interview staff, to choose school sites, to decide where they want their kids to go, and to learn about different instructional programs,” Cegavske said. “I just really want charter schools to be successful, and this institute will be a way to help them do that.”

Ben DeGrow ([email protected]) is a policy analyst for the Independence Institute, a free-market think tank in Golden, Colorado.

For more information …

Quality and Quantity: Nevada’s Educational Challenges, by Matthew Ladner, Ph.D., Nevada Policy Research Institute, May 7, 2008:–quantity