What is a Charter School?

By Erica Olsen, Managing Editor

Discussions of education reform often include the term "charter schools," but misconceptions and misunderstandings accompany this term. Simply put, a charter school is a publicly-funded entity operating free from many of the regulations under which traditional public schools operate. Specifically, they are legally and fiscally autonomous educational entities operating within the public school system under charters or contracts. The concept is aimed at producing increased responsiveness to the demands of parents, students and teachers, and greater opportunities for innovation in school management and education. Twenty-six states as well as Washington, D.C. have passed varying types of charter school legislation. Nevada Senate Bill 220 reintroduces charter school legislation for our state.

The following is a list of how S.B. 220 meets the main components of an ideal charter school model.

The actors permitted to organize a charter school. Anyone from a group of teachers to community leaders may start a charter school. The Nevada bill allows teachers, parents, other citizens, non-profit organizations and businesses to be operators, also called the governing body.

The sponsoring body. The model specifies that more than one type of public authority should be eligible to sponsor a charter school. The Nevada bill allows district school boards or the University Board of Regents to be sponsoring bodies.

The legal status. Charter schools are non-sectarian public schools that exist independent of a school district and are free to make their own decisions regarding school operations, including matters such as curriculum, personnel and contracting for services. The Nevada bill allows state funding, if approved, to go directly to the charter school and bypass the district, allowing the governing body to control finances. However, if the school receives state money, the governing body is required to do an annual fiscal audit for the Department of Education and the legislature. Also, the bill only requires charter schools to adhere to core curriculum set by the State Board of Education.

Regulations. Charter schools receive waivers from most state and local school regulations. Exceptions are regulations regarding health and safety, civil rights, fiscal accountability, performance requirements and other restrictions specified in the charter. The Nevada bill exempts these schools from state and local regulations except those related to "health, safety, discrimination, civil rights and the Public Employee’s Retirement System."

Accountability arrangements. The authority for decision making and accountability is in the hands of the school itself rather than the school district. Failure to attract sufficient students and teachers, or failure to meet the provisions of the charter result in the revocation of the charter. The Nevada bill states the "governing body of the charter school shall make annual progress reports to its sponsor, the State Board of Education, the Superintendent of Public Instruction, the Majority Leader of the Senate and the Speaker of the Assembly."

Admissions rules. Charter schools may not charge tuition and their admission policies must be nondiscriminatory. They are also schools of choice and students are not required to attend such schools. The Nevada bill encompasses these guidelines and allows the school to give priority enrollment to students residing in the geographic area, a sibling of a pupil already enrolled or children of a charter school employee. The Nevada bill also requires that enrollment must reflect at least 10 percent of the makeup of the population surrounding the school’s geographic area.

Funding specifications. A charter school is to receive the full public funding allotment associated with its student enrollment and should be able to apply for federal and state grants to help with start up costs. The Nevada bill states "100 percent of the per-pupil funding automatically follows students enrolled in charter schools."

Teachers. Teachers may work as employees or they may also serve as managers of the school. The Nevada bill allows teacher benefit retention if the governing body of the charter school agrees to the contract. The bill does require teachers to be licensed by the state and allows employees to have the option to bargain collectively, as part of the existing district unit or as a separate unit.

Number of charter schools. The model designates that a substantial number of schools be permitted within a state. The Nevada bill allows 25 charter schools, with no more than 12 in any one district. After four years, the number will be unlimited.

S.B. 220 also includes a provision requiring documented support from a majority of teachers in a school wishing to convert to a charter school.

S.B. 220 as amended is quite similar to the ideal model as outlined above, which was derived from the works of school reform researchers Ted Kolderie, Joe Nathan, Louann Bierlein and Lori Mulholland. If the bill is passed, charter schools in Nevada will be able to achieve their fullest potential and function the way the model was intends.

 

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