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Charter Schools: A Public Reform Partner for Nevada Education

Guest Contributor
Guest Contributor

By Pat Hickey

I bet most people don't know that charter schools were first popularized by a teachers union boss.

His name was Albert Shanker, and it was 1988. He was then the President of the American Federation of Teachers. Shanker called for the reform of traditional public schools by establishing "schools of choice." He envisioned a hybrid form of public schools, free from many state laws and district regulations, making them more accountable for student outcomes. In a 2014 New York Times Sunday Review retrospective look at the school reformer, he was said to have "outlined a new kind of public school where teachers could experiment with fresh and innovative ways to reach students." Shanker imagined charter schools as "high performing educational laboratories from which traditional public schools could learn."

Such impassioned reform models followed in the wake of the now classic 1983 Department of Education study, "A Nation at Risk." Thirty-four years later, the U.S. is more challenged than ever on the education front, outshined by both developed and developing nations. And in Nevada, we've been perennially scraping the bottom of state school rankings for far too long. If the Silver State's education system isn't ripe for innovative reforms, then I'll eat my Irish tweed cap. Obviously, Nevada needs to do better. As Superintendent of Education Dr. Steve Canavero recently said, "Nevada's goal is to become the fastest improving state in the U.S." Goals are nice, but it’s imperative that we improve if we want to keep up with the economic development possibilities that have been laid at our desert doorstep.

How does Nevada improve its public school system?

Public charter schools are by no means a panacea for all educational ills. But they have a clear and transformative role to play, as Shanker believed. I say transformative, not merely because they are a public school alternative for parents whose kids are struggling, but also because they can indeed be models for turning around underperforming district schools. Educators agree: Every Nevada student, regardless of zip code, deserves a seat at a high-quality public school. Removing barriers (like facilities and transportation funding) for the operation of charter schools will create opportunity for those innovative approaches to work.

While charters are public schools, they operate independently with site-based school boards in contrast to the "one-size-fits-all" approach of large district schools. Teachers have more say in the curriculums they teach and more flexibility in the methods they use to personalize learning. As such, charter schools can be the laboratory-like instrument Shanker talked about to deliver alternate learning approaches that traditional public schools might emulate.

Cases in point: Small Mariposa Academy of Language and Learning, in the Neil Road area of southeast Reno, was the first Nevada public school to pioneer a dual-language curriculum. Today, numerous schools statewide have followed Mariposa's example. ACE (Academy for Career Education) in Reno, pioneered transforming the standard high school core curriculum with "career-applicable training methods in construction and engineering" that is a model for the kind of Career Technical Education (CTE) Gov. Sandoval has hallmarked as one of the "New Nevada's" principal educational initiatives.

The recently approved reorganization plan to decentralize the Clark County School District's 350 schools also gives greater autonomy through local school governance, including budget decisions to site-based "school organization teams." Comprised of teachers, school staff and parents, this reform model is something former Nevada State Board of Education member Victor Wakefield has said is "pulled straight out of the charter school playbook." Wakefield is right. Some charter schools can be a model, or at least a partner, in what CCSD reformers are trying to accomplish. Now is the ideal time to partner together, not to erect barriers in a political turf war.

You can't change the culture of education in Nevada without the proverbial buck stopping at some educators’ desks. Better it land with local stakeholders in the schools in which they teach and lead. Residents of Nevada must grapple with the uncomfortable truth that generationally underperforming schools are all too often located in the state's most depressed socio-economic areas. Only a no-excuses approach and a belief that every Nevada child deserves the opportunity for equity of access will ever pull us higher on those lists we're all so tired of being on the bottom of.

Standards and accountability

Setting rigorous standards for high quality schools that refuse to reward or overlook failure is something on which charter schools are predicated. The charter school sector has a record of accountability, despite claims to the contrary. The sector has seen the closing of some 200 charter schools each year or about 3 percent of the nation's charters.

Transform or close the worst performing schools and replicate the best -- this is the aim of the national charter movement and the way the Charter School Authority in Nevada is approaching its duties. Currently just two charter schools in Nevada have been put on notice that their charters may be revoked, if improvements aren't quickly made. Others have been disciplined and are in the process of remediating their performance. When was the last time you heard about a failing public school being told that change is necessary in order to continue existing...?

I firmly believe that strategic partnerships are frequently very good for business and the economy. The same can be said for the education system in Nevada. A new, cooperative partnership between school districts and public charter schools would strengthen both systems. More importantly, it would help more Nevada students succeed.

That's something Al Shanker would applaud, even while carrying a picket sign.

Pat Hickey is the Executive Director of the Charter School Association of Nevada. He served in the Nevada Legislature for four terms. As an Assemblyman, Pat served as the Republican Minority Leader for the 2013 Legislative Session. In 2015, he served on the Education, Taxation, and Ways and Means Committees. He also has worked in Nevada as a reporter, newspaper columnist, editor, and college instructor in journalism, and he blogs on various and sundry at Soup to Nuts. He has a Masters in Journalism from the University of Nevada’s Reynolds School of Journalism. He’s a fourth generation Nevadan whose Irish ancestors came to the Carson Valley-Lake Tahoe area in the 1870s.

You can email Pat at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter at @PatHickeyNevada 

Source for feature photo: Wikimedia Commons. Photo by Andrei Niemimäki from Turku, Finland.

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