Opinions divided on charter schools in Nebraska

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March 16th, 2012

Omaha, NE – Charter schools are open in 41 states, but none exist in Nebraska. In this week’s KVNO in the Community report, Angel Martin looks at the argument for and against charter schools in the state, and how Nebraska has created its own model to close the educational achievement gap.

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“My favorite sport is softball, and I love reptiles,” said Alexx Lewis, a fifth grade student at Omaha Public School’s Wilson Focus School. She was reading an “about me” brochure displayed on a wall in a classroom where gifted and talented students work. As she walked the hallway, she pointed out student artwork on the wall, as her classmates passed by, with laptops tucked under their arms.

Wilson Focus School students work on their archery. (Photo courtesy Wilson Focus School)

Wilson is the only focus school operating in its own building in Nebraska. Bret Anderson, the principal at Wilson, said his school has small class sizes and focuses on leadership, technology and communication. While Wilson is part of the eleven districts in the learning community of Douglas and Sarpy Counties, Anderson said it accepts children from across the city, based on space, through a lottery process.

“Our population is extremely diverse,” Anderson said. “That’s kind of the idea behind the concept too is trying to mirror the learning community, or the idea of what you want in every city, and also that you can succeed with whatever population you have.”

Sen. Greg Adams opposes allowing charter schools in Nebraska, arguing the model has insufficient accountability. (Photo courtesy Nebraska Legislature)

Around this time last year, Wilson Focus School, formerly known as Underwood, was scheduled to close, after Elkhorn’s public school district pulled funding. Elkhorn was one of a group of collaborating school districts that came together to form the experimental school. But thanks to a monetary donation from an unnamed philanthropic source, the school moved to a new location and is still open.

“(We) didn’t think anything constructive like this could actually happen,” Anderson said. “I commend them (the school districts) for making it possible for collaborations to exist now, and for kind of seeing that there is a benefit in having… focus schools and focus programs, and it could be an offshoot for other things too.”

Anderson said his school is almost like a charter, with similar teaching styles and focused areas of study. But it differs in that there is no independent school authority. Wilson is still governed under a public school model.

Sen. LeRoy Louden supports charter schools in Nebraska, saying they would help rural areas where schools have been forced to close. (Photo courtesy Nebraska Legislature)

Forty one states allow independent charter schools, but Nebraska does not. State Senator Leroy Louden of Ellsworth in western Nebraska said charter schools would be helpful in rural areas, where many schools have closed, forcing students to travel to surrounding towns.

“It’s getting to be so that you have a long distance to bring these students in,” Louden said. “And you’re starting to treat students more as a commodity rather than a person.”

Louden said the state aid education formula would have to be realigned if the state allowed charter schools, and that’s where some of the resistance comes from. “There’s people at some of these metropolitan schools who are making out like Chinese bandits,” Louden said, “because their cost of administration is part of (their) needs, and some of these schools that receive state aid have, to me, way too high-priced cost of administration.”

Senator Greg Adams, chair of the Legislature’s education committee, said national data shows charter schools are successful in limited, unique circumstances, but he said it is difficult to track education tax dollars when charter school are in the mix.

“If it’s a true charter school, money flows from the state and from the property tax directly into the school,” Adams said. “And the people running the school are not elected officials, and they’re not accountable to the citizens. They just get the money and run the school.”

According to the state of the schools report released last year by the Nebraska Department of Education, there are significant disparities in educational achievement between white and minority students. In fact, over all grades tested, white students out-scored black students by 40 percent in math and 32 percent in reading. Some supporters of charter schools believe they would be better able to target those disparities and close the achievement gap. But Adams said it’s difficult to assess the real achievement gap because test scores don’t show the whole picture.

Adams introduced a bill during this legislative session that looks beyond test scores and includes graduation rates and growth models to evaluate the overall performance of school districts.

“The next thing we have to do,” Adams said, “once we have identified persistently low performing schools — what we call high priority schools — then we have to decide what we’re going to do, and that decision may involve resources, it may involve a change in leadership, it may involve an adjustment of curriculum, it may involve a lot of things, but what I don’t like to do is immediately put money first.”

Adams said any of the 249 districts in the state can implement curricula similar to charter schools, using the focus school model, where students have a longer calendar year, extended hours in school and are taught through a variety of teaching styles.

Back at Wilson, several students are practicing hitting targets in an archery lesson, while the other students in the class sit quietly on the gym floor reading magazines and books. For now, Wilson will remain Nebraska’s closest step to a charter school. There have been no recent efforts to allow charters in the Legislature.

But Principal Anderson said he hopes Wilson can be an example of one way to improve education in Nebraska. “I think we’re well on our way,” Anderson said. “And we still will continue to work on improving the school.”

“We still have a school improvement plan. We’re still working on things that we can do better. We’re constantly kind of evolving and changing just like everybody.”

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