As Charter School Enrollment Rises in Nevada, Need for More Funding Becomes Apparent

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Thirty-eight schools across Nevada celebrated National Charter School Week this week, and among them were the four new charter schools that have opened since 2014. More and more charter schools are expected to open across the state in coming years, thanks to a push from Governor Brian Sandoval to make the 2015 78th Legislative session “the education session.” However, a potential problem with funding could prevent charter schools from reaching the students in Nevada who need them most.

Charter schools in Nevada have experienced tremendous growth in student enrollment – almost 10 percent over the period 2011-2015. At the beginning of the 2015-2016 school year, there were 28,022 students enrolled in charter schools. The combined enrollment of students in charter schools is slightly less than the combined total student enrollment in the Silver State’s 13 smallest districts.

According to the National Alliance for Charter Schools, what separates a charter school from a traditional public school is that school leaders are given more flexibility in how they meet the needs of students. For example, the curriculum at Coral Academy of Science in Las Vegas focuses on STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) education. Equipo Academy in East Las Vegas aims to provide students of color and English Language Learners with a rigorous college prep curriculum designed to prepare them for acceptance into four-year colleges.

And a growing body of research finds that the charter school model has had a positive impact on student academic outcomes, according to a 2015 study from Stanford University’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes. Two of the most significant positive learning impacts of charter schools the study found were:

  1. Urban charter schools in the aggregate provide significantly higher levels of annual growth in both math and reading scores compared to their traditional public school peers.
  2. Learning gains for charter school students are larger by significant amounts for African American, Latino, low-income, and special education students in both math and reading.

These findings underscore the potential impact of charter schools in Nevada. More than 90 percent of the state’s population lives in urban areas, 37.9 percent of the population identifies as persons of color, and 23.1 percent are under the age of 18, according to the most recent U.S. Census data.

However, a key problem that could hinder charter schools from growing in the state is a lack of funding – specifically facilities funding. The Guinn Center’s February 2016 report, “Nevada School Facilities Construction and Maintenance,” states that Nevada’s charter schools have historically received less state and federal funds than traditional public schools.

First, charter schools are not eligible to receive funding from the Class Size Reduction fund, the largest state categorical program at $306.3 million. This fund aims to reduce student-teacher ratios in the classroom. This is troubling given that some research finds that a lower ratio is linked to improved student achievement.

In addition, charter schools do not have access to facilities funds, which are generated by property taxes. The average capital revenue source in 2015 was $1,288 per pupil in school districts. Charter schools did not receive these funds. Consequently, charter schools must use their operations funding to meet their facilities needs. Our recent report found that site-based charter schools use roughly 10-15 percent of their operational funds for facilities needs. Subsequently, this reduces the available funds charters have to recruit and retain highly effective teachers and school leaders.

Additionally, insufficient facilities funding can inadvertently cause charter schools to not reach the populations who have been shown to benefit most from them: low-income students and students of color. As we note, “Insufficient funding for school cafeterias can lead to undercounting of Free and Reduced Lunch (FRL) students and can limit eligibility for State and Federal funding targeted at those students. A lack of a school lunch program can also discourage low-income students from attending charter schools.”

Despite these funding challenges, the momentum for charter schools continues, especially with the two bills specifically targeting the growth and expansion of charter schools passed during 2015 Legislative session. AB448 creates a statewide Achievement School District to address chronically underperforming schools. Up to six schools per year will designated as Achievement Schools and will ultimately be converted to charter schools.

SB491 allocates $10 million grant to a nonprofit to recruit high-quality charter school operators to Nevada. Last month, Opportunity 180, a nonprofit run by Alison Serafin, former Vice-President of the State Board of Education, received a unanimous vote from the State Board of Examiners for the contract.

Policy solutions

Nevada’s lawmakers should consider addressing the growing need for sufficient facilities funding for charter schools. In a testimony before the SAGE (Spending and Government Efficiency) Commission, the Guinn Center recommended the Commission explore new facility funding options for charter schools. Some possible policies that could address this need are:

  • The Legislature should consider providing Class Size Reduction funds to charter schools.
  • A new state school facility fund or revolving loan fund could be made available to both charter schools and small school districts. The State could use state facility funds (as well as other funds like Classroom Size Reduction) as an incentive to reward those charter schools that are working with under-resourced children or located in low-income neighborhoods. Texas has implemented a similar policy whereby they have provided facility funds to charters that locate in certain neighborhoods or who serve under-resourced students.
  • The Legislature could increase the appropriation for the Account of Charter Schools revolving loan fund (funded in 2003 with $750,000) and consider offering a matching grant program. A long-term solution, however, would provide charter schools with a proportionate share of school facilities revenue.
  • Since the primary capital funding source is bond proceeds property taxes, the Legislature may want to consider requiring that the school districts set aside a proportionate share of any new bond proceeds for charter schools located within the district, regardless of whether the school is sponsored by the district. This, of course, would require increased levels of overall education funding that take into account the cost of providing an adequate education.
  • Since the primary facilities cost for many charter schools is lease costs, any future facility program for charter schools should make lease costs an allowable use of funds. The Legislature should consider allowing facilities funds to be used for leasing costs at charter schools.

Additional Resources:

  • The Guinn Center’s full report, “Nevada’s School Facilities Construction and Maintenance” can be found here.
  • Information Stanford University’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes, which published the report, “Urban Charter School Study: Report on 41 Regions,” is available on their website.