For too many children in and around Las Vegas, getting a great education has been a losing bet. As their Clark County School District exploded to become the country’s fifth-largest district, poor and minority students found themselves shut out of its top schools and concentrated in the county’s lowest-performing district and public charter schools.
And what happens in Vegas doesn’t stay in Vegas: Beyond the consequences for each individual, that poor education hits the wider economy hard. Research suggests that cutting the number of high school dropouts by even a quarter could contribute more than $12 million to the economy for each graduating class—and as much as $5 million more if those students go on to college.
But Clark County has an opportunity to stop gambling on its students’ futures, as we write in a new report for Opportunity 180, The New Frontier: Public Charter Schools as a Tool to Transform Education in Clark County.
With recent state legislation focused on supporting the expansion of high-quality public charter schools, Clark County can overcome the problem it now faces with its charter schools: either they produce poor outcomes or they serve few high-needs students.
Opportunity 180, the state’s new charter school “harbormaster” under 2015 legislation, needed to figure out how to recruit more successful charter operators, and commissioned Public Impact to assess the community’s challenges. After analyzing school data and recent education policy and legislative changes, we partnered with Opportunity 180 to develop The New Frontier. The report assesses Clark County’s education landscape, identifies the barriers to adding more high-quality charters, and recommends actions that everyone involved in education—the state and district, policymakers, advocates, and funders—must take to ensure a better education system.
The scale of the problem:
More than 80,000 Clark County students attend low-performing district and charter public schools—that’s equivalent to every student in Boston or Seattle plus 25,000 more. And more than half of the county’s students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch—but only 10 percent of low-income students attend a top-rated school.
The barriers to growing a strong charter sector:
Lack of competitive per-pupil funding, low access to free or low-cost facilities, and a short supply of excellent teachers and school leaders.
1. Make funding levels more competitive by increasing state per-pupil funding for all students, supplementing state charter funding to compensate for the local funding that charters cannot access (approximately $500 per pupil), and/or sharing local levy dollars with charter schools.
2. Recruit within your means by targeting charter networks that already successfully operate in states with funding levels similar to Nevada.
3. Grow your own charter operators built to survive (and thrive) on available funding by creating a charter school incubator, identifying and training promising school leaders, or identifying successful local charters and supporting their expansion.
4. Provide facilities funding, either through a new funding stream or by requiring that school districts set aside a proportionate share of new bond proceeds for charters.
5. Include charters in the siting process for new district buildings, giving them access to low-cost facilities.
6. Give teachers an opportunity to grow and reward them for it by creating career pathways that recognize their skills, enable professional development and advancement, and offer the chance to have a greater impact for more pay.
7. Invest in strategies that fully use existing talent by offering education entrepreneurs opportunities, such as paid fellowships, to develop new, groundbreaking school models that allow the best teachers to reach more students.