Push for charter schools in Nebraska faces uphill battle

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August 22nd, 2014

Omaha, NE – What do you do when your child attends a school with historically dismal test scores and graduation rates?

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If you have enough money you might consider sending them to an expensive private school where they may get better instruction and have more resources. But if you live in a state where privately run and publically financed charter schools are legal, you could send your child there instead. However, what happens to the kids who are left behind in the lower performing public schools?

“Charter schools are publically funded, public schools, which are permitted to operate with relaxed operating rules,” Raymond said. “But in exchange for the flexibility, they have a stronger and more closely tied accountability requirement. At the end of a contract period, if they are not performing well, the expectation is they will not be renewed and they will not be permitted to continue operations.”

That’s Macke Raymond, the director of the Center for Research on Education Outcomes or CREDO at Stanford University. Raymond said charter schools are not required to live by the minimum day or maximum hours per day restrictions. Raymond said the school year looks a lot different at a charter school and students may go to school during the summer or on Saturdays.

“The upside of charter school is the flexibility allows school operators to be creative and focused in terms of the kind of school program they want to develop and bring to the public,” Raymond said.

Raymond said the flexibility allows schools the possibility of having a themed school, like an arts school or a technology school. She also said charter schools represent a real challenge from a competitive standpoint which a lot of public school districts haven’t faced.

But if you live in Nebraska and the cost of private schooling is simply out of the question for you, you may be out of luck.

Nebraska Commissioner of Education Matt Blomstedt is against charter schools in Nebraska. (Photo Courtesy Southeast Community College)

Nebraska Commissioner of Education Matt Blomstedt is against charter schools in Nebraska. (Photo Courtesy Southeast Community College)

State Sen. Scott Lautenbaugh, who has introduced several charter school bills in the past, introduced LB 972 last legislative session. The bill would have allowed charter schools in Nebraska. The bill failed and because of term limits, Sen. Lautenbaugh’s time as a state senator will end this December. Nebraska State Sen. Jeremy Nordquist said he would like to see the current system of public operated and publically funded schools use some of the same teaching concepts and organizational structure, that charter schools have had success in implementing.

“The charter school concept has merit and some schools around the country certainly outperform public schools,” Sen. Nordquist said. “But the models that the charter school uses can be used for public schooling. My concern with making a big push towards charter schools is we are leaving a lot of kids behind who will be left in school buildings who are still struggling to get results.”

Sen. Nordquist, who represents District 7 in the unicameral, said he would be against approving the establishment of charter schools in Nebraska. However, he said there is a systemic academic achievement issue in Nebraska when it comes to educating children.

“In Nebraska we have one of the largest achievement gaps in middle school testsscored, so we certainly have a lot of work to do,” Sen. Nordquist said.

According to the 2012-2013 State of the Schools Report from the Nebraska Department of Education, overall 77 percent of all Nebraska students score proficient in reading. But that number breaks down to 83 percent proficiency for white students and then drops off dramatically to just 54 percent when looking at only black students and 63 percent when counting only Hispanic students in the state. The numbers are shockingly similar in other areas such as math, writing and science. The report notes that 44 percent of children in the state schools live at or below the poverty line. While these figures have increased over the past few years, Raymond said Omaha is a prime example of a place that she thinks would do better with charter schools. She said Hispanic and Black students seem to benefit more than anyone else does when it comes to charter schools.

Raymond contends that some charter schools intentionally ‘recruit’ students from school districts, which are historically underperforming, to provide them with an alternative academic program that would keep them on track to graduate.

Opponents of the charter schools said districts like the Omaha Public Schools simply needs more time to improve test assessment scores.

Several parents testifying at a February legislative hearing in Omaha said children whose parents can’t afford private schooling should be allowed more opportunities than what their present school district offers. Nebraska Commissioner of Education Matt Blomstedt said he agreed with Sen. Nordquist that the existing schools districts in the state should be allowed more time to make the necessary improvements and restructure their current curriculum and outdated organizational structure.

“(I think) somehow those charter school movements would actually lead to something that would undermine the current system,” Blomstedt said. Instead what we ought to be talking about is how the current system might be improved.”

Blomstedt said he thinks every school district in Nebraska can work together to ‘close the current educational gap’

“That has the basic premises on what I talked about before Blomstedt said. “We really want to build systems that are going to support school districts in their own improvement efforts as well as in their mission to educate every student, every day.”

Sen. Nordquist said as good as the idea of charter schools sound, if they are poorly run, they will fail.

“You have to have some sort of public accountability, Sen Nordquist said. “We’ve seen stories around the country, places like Columbus, Ohio, who in 2013 had 17 charter schools fail, in just that one school district. In Nebraska, we cannot allow our schools to fail.”

Raymond said the reason charter schools have a stigma against them is because of the wide variation in the quality of them. Raymond said over the last six or seven years, states have made the application process for getting a charter school more rigorous. She said this has helped with the success of charter schools going forward.

“The conversation (goes) away from an expectation of lifelong institutions that survive regardless of their performance and it really refocuses the mission, purpose and action of public schooling on ‘are we doing the right thing for kids’,” Raymond said.

While Raymond said Omaha would benefit substantially with charter schools, Sen. Lautenbaugh is leaving the Nebraska Legislature this year. As Lautenbaugh leaves, so too does a strong advocate for charter schools in Nebraska. Attempts to reach out to Sen. Lautenbaugh were unsuccessful.

One Response

  1. Fred Amis says:

    Authorizing Charter Schools does not preclude improving the existing school system. Nebraska would be well served to pursue all feasible avenues to correct our tragic failure to provide an adequate education to our children. Tens of thousands of children are at risk NOW. Waiting is not an option.

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