On Politics: Charter Schools make the grade in Nevada
Nevadans are painfully aware that the Silver State’s K-12 academic performance is somewhere near the bottom of the tank. Most national education performance rating sources rank us in the same tier as Mississippi, vying for last place in the United States.
Gov. Brian Sandoval ran for office in 2010 promising two major reforms: diversification of Nevada’s economy and significant improvement in K-12 student achievement. As he begins to wind down his final term in office, it’s clear he kept his promises.
His success attracting high-tech businesses has energized the moribund Northern Nevada economy, as well as Las Vegas. He proposed 29 education reform laws and the legislature passed 28, which he signed into law.
Nevada’s education reform measures follow Florida’s successful efforts and will take some time to be effective. But one measure, improving the Silver State’s charter school law, has already produced striking results.
Nevada was Johnny-come-lately to the charter school business. The first law was passed in 1997, but it was very restrictive. It provided that charter school, per-pupil state funding would be the same as for county school districts (called “distributive school account” funds) but no funds were allocated for land and buildings. School districts get local funding for facilities. Charter schools get zip.
Despite this inequity, charters have made an impressive start. Some serve dropouts, thus enabling troubled kids to earn high school degrees. Charters have been formed to serve homeless kids, recovering drug addicts, pregnant teenagers, and so on. Most, however, are organized to provide a rigorous academic environment. But no matter the mission charter schools have had to pay high lease payments for specialized buildings or meet in low rent facilities, such as churches, vacant commercial spaces, gymnasiums, and the like.
One of Sandoval’s major education reforms was to ease the facility cost squeeze on charters. This was done at zero expense to taxpayers by authorizing charter schools to issue tax-exempt bonds to the public, and use the proceeds for facilities. This does not produce new revenue for these schools, but minimizes their costs of capital funds. As it has turned out, charter schools have developed efficiencies such that they are able to pay their operational and administrative expenses plus costs of occupancy out of just distributive school account funding.
I didn’t realize how well this worked until I attended the Charter School Association of Nevada convention this month in Las Vegas. Here’s a real life example: Coral Academy of Science was founded in Reno in 2001 by former University of Nevada, Reno students who were distressed that so many high school graduates were admitted to UNR requiring remedial courses in English and math. They started out in a basement and taught a basic curriculum.
The performance of their graduates was so superior that the academy had to maintain a waiting list and to admit by lottery. That success spawned an expansion to a superior middle school, and then an elementary school all in one dilapidated school site in north Reno.
When the tax-exempt bond financing law passed, they were able to qualify for a triple B rating and issue 30-year bonds to the public at a rate under 5 percent. Bond proceeds were used to acquire new facilities, in which more students could be accommodated which increased revenue. They now have three separate facilities in Reno. Coral Academy’s high school is a former bank headquarters on Neil Road at South Virginia Street.
Here’s the frosting on the cake: Coral Academy of Science has been recognized by USA Today and the Washington Post as one of the top schools in the country. It has a 95 percent graduation rate, superior performance on test scores, and a high percentage of grads going on to college.
Coral Academy is just one example of what’s going on in Nevada. Look out Mississippi, we’re on our way up.
Jim Clark is president of Republican Advocates. He has served on the Washoe County and Nevada GOP Central Committees. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.