Report calls for charter schools

With a pro-charter-school administration in Washington, the time is right for Nebraska to allow charter schools, according to a report being released today by a conservative Nebraska think tank.

Charter schools, unencumbered by a bloated education bureaucracy, can deliver quality education at lower cost than traditional public schools, and the competition would improve public schools, the report says.

Nebraska’s public education system is “not serving anyone particularly well,” said the author, Vicki Murray, associate director of education studies with the conservative Pacific Research Institute in Sacramento, Calif.

Her report, “Race to the Top: Can We Compete, Nebraska’s Charter Schools Initiative,” was commissioned by the Platte Institute for Economic Research.

John McCollister, the institute’s executive director, said he hopes the report will spur state lawmakers to pass charter school legislation, although on Tuesday he did not yet have a bill sponsor.

State Sen. Greg Adams, chairman of the Legislature’s Education Committee, said a bill authorizing charter schools “certainly won’t come from me.” He said he’s not opposed to “charter-style schools” that take innovative approaches, but he said he’s not impressed by the success rate of charter schools.

Adams said Nebraska has among the most liberal and flexible school choice laws, giving parents a wide range of choices from home schooling to parochial schools.

The 52-page report paints an unflattering picture of Nebraska’s public schools.

Murray described as “startling” that only 60 percent of Nebraska high school students achieve proficiency in reading and 49 percent in math on the ACT college exam, particularly since the test is voluntarily taken by college-bound students.

The report says the state’s lack of a charter law also puts it at a competitive disadvantage for federal grants from the Obama administration, which favors charter schools.

State Sen. Brad Ashford of Omaha, a member of the Education Committee, said the innovation and competition offered by charter schools is already available in Douglas and Sarpy Counties through the one-year-old learning community.

“They have the tools and, my goodness, they have the money,” Ashford said.

The learning community, an 11-district educational cooperative, is unique in the nation, and it is transforming the traditional public school system serving metropolitan Omaha, he said.

The learning community law allows for focus schools, which offer special academic programs and innovative teaching strategies to draw children from anywhere in the learning community, he said.

Like charter schools, focus schools will introduce competition between schools, and poor-performing schools will have to improve or risk losing students and money, Ashford said.

“It’s healthy competition, where state aid follows the kid,” he said.

Open enrollment, which starts next year in the learning community, also gives students the choice to attend any school, if there’s room.

Ashford said the only difference between charter schools and focus schools is who owns them — the former are typically privately run, and the latter state run.

Charter schools are public schools founded by teachers, parents or community organizations that operate under a written contract with a state, school district or other entity.

They abide by the same state and federal regulations as traditional public schools, but are managed locally and operate with more autonomy and flexibility than traditional schools.

Nebraska is one of a few states without a law authorizing them. In Iowa, schools obtain charters only with the approval and oversight of their local school district. Iowa has seven charter schools.

According to Murray, charter schools boost achievement in surrounding public schools.

In the Phoenix metropolitan area, competition from charter schools for students raised traditional public school performance in fourth-grade reading and math, she said. In fact, poor performing schools improved the most when faced with charter competition, she said.

“The annual improvement gains are so strong,” Murray writes, “it is estimated that achievement gaps between urban students and their peers in the more affluent suburbs could be closed within a decade.”

Yet in Nebraska, Murray writes, state officials focus their efforts on changes within the school system, such as consolidating schools and setting up the learning community and magnet schools.

“Such lack of vision is symptomatic of the one-size-fits-all kind of thinking plaguing public education and leaving Nebraska students prepared for, at best, a bygone era,” she writes.

She estimates that no-frills charter schools could operate in Nebraska for about $5,800 a year per student, while the annual cost in public schools is more than $9,500.

If charter schools perform badly, they face immediate consequences, Murray said. Parents pull kids out and the schools close. In contrast, poorly performing public schools usually get more money and time to turn things around, she said.

Nothing contained in this blog is to be construed as necessarily reflecting the views of the Pacific Research Institute or as an attempt to thwart or aid the passage of any legislation.

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