“If he was in the average school he was in before, he’d be on the street,” testified the father of a 16-year old-boy. “This is what these online schools provide — the comfort to know their kids are not going to become hoodlums, or do drugs… He has a future, a future I didn’t have. Closing the high school would be a disservice to him.”
So spoke hundreds of parents who attended a March meeting of the Board of the Nevada Charter School Authority in Carson City to register their objections to the closing of the Nevada Connections Academy and the Nevada Virtual Academy. NCA, launched in 2008, currently enrolls more than 2,600 students from grades K-12, who take their courses online. Nevada Virtual Academy started in 2007 and serves approximately 2,000 students.
Earlier this year, the Nevada Charter School Authority announced its intention to close these and two other schools, citing graduation rates below 60 percent, which is the minimum mandated by the state. The NCSA, a quasi-independent public agency, was created to oversee public charter schools and ensure that the interests of parents and students are being served. Too often, though, such oversight bodies — which are forming across the country — are coming to resemble the rigid bureaucracy their creation was intended to replace, sitting in judgment over schools and interpreting data on student performance while rarely actually stepping foot in the institutions they rule.
NCSA Director Patrick Gavin, a veteran education reformer, told me prior to the March hearing that schools not doing well should not serve children, which makes sense. But how do we measure their success? It’s true that Nevada Connections Academy’s graduation rates hover around 50%, but unlike most traditional high schools, a majority of the school’s students arrive between 10th and 12th grades, transferring from some of the worst-performing school districts in the country with severe credit deficiencies.
The attorney for the NCA pointed out that it enrolls students as late as 14 days before graduation, as they are open to all students at any point throughout the school year. These students, who obviously don’t graduate on time, count against the overall graduation rate; indeed, federal law actually prohibits including a student in the graduation count who was there for less than half of the year.
But it is not simply that kids are transferring late in the year. Some of NCA’s students are unable to attend other schools because they were bullied; others are disabled and homebound due to a whole host of circumstances regarding individual capacity or family issues. Some live on farms hours from the closest school.
Despite these obstacles, students are showing gains the longer they are enrolled in Nevada Virtual Academy and Nevada Connections Academy. The NVA’s cohort graduation rate increased by 31 percent since 2012, yet, because it falls short of the mandated 60 percent, the school is essentially being punished by the state charter authority for its take-all-comers approach.
Which raises a larger question that’s recently been sparking heated debates in education circles — will we accept inflated graduation rates in traditional schools that pass students on regardless of outcomes while rejecting charter schools like Nevada Virtual Academy whose students want the credits they failed to get at their prior school?
And is a school that doesn’t meet conventional state numerical targets not succeeding, or do we need a different lens based on individual student outcomes?
Some parents seem to think so. John Bittell, a retired Air Force officer and the father of a recent graduate from NVA, says that what the Authority is doing is unconscionable. His son, who played the violin and danced from a young age, was able to “excel in both academics and his artistic pursuits” thanks to the flexibility of the school. He graduated with honors and also appeared on America’s Got Talent.
Tina Zavalza, a mother of three, testified that her son was severely bullied at his previous school — one student even broke his jaw. "It stays with you forever," Zavalza said. "The comfort of having my children at an online academy gives me peace of mind that they're safe, that they're home, and that their learning environment is structured."
Of course, not every charter school will be the best fit for every student — but that’s not really the issue here. Charter schools were supposed to offer parents a myriad of alternatives to their traditional public schools. They were supposed to give families a choice. If one charter school is not working for a child, he or she can attend another one. Schools will close on their own when they have no students. When real choice exists — when the money follows the child — no external authority needs to go around closing schools.
By developing a cookie-cutter mentality to evaluate and monitor schools, not only is the Nevada Authority — and others like it around the country — constraining innovation and opportunity for families, but such actions make the charter school idea indistinguishable from the traditional public system.
The Nevada authority justifies its regulatory overreach by claiming to abide by National Association of Charter Schools Association standards. However NACSA’s principles and standards are just that; standards by which to work, not license to condemn options that may meet the needs of certain kinds of students.
While NACSA does prefer that states ideally adopt “a statewide independent charter board (ICB) established with the sole mission of chartering quality schools,” such an entity inevitably creates its own new bureaucracy, imposing its own new judgment based on superficial data. This discourages not only new applicants but creates confusion about the efficacy of existing schools.
Conversely, the best charter laws endow authorizing in proven entities that already exist and have a track record of education and public accountability. The State University of New York’s charter school institute is one such example. They mine the data provided by schools on a regular basis. And they have intensive relationships with schools from the time of their application. SUNY has closed schools, when the evidence is clear and compelling that students are suffering. But their school portfolio is among the best in the nation for minority and low-income students in particular, thanks to SUNY’s independence from the state bureaucracy, as well as best practices and rigor in research and oversight.
The role of a charter authorizer is not solely one of gatekeeper and evaluator. According to the National Charter School Institute, authorizers should be change agents, market makers, and catalysts for excellence, introducing new innovations and programs that challenge our conventional understanding of education and expose the public to new and richer ideas about what makes a good school. Great authorizers aren’t compliance officers; they are influencers, providing leadership and a vision for what is possible, not what is known and comfortable.
In the end, the testimony of those parents, educators, and board members in Carson City proved compelling enough that the Nevada Authority decided to postpone any decision on closing Nevada Connections Academy and the Nevada Virtual Academy. For parents who champion the school, this is certainly a victory, though it may only be temporary.
But the larger issues surrounding this case — the kneejerk reactions to scores and stats over more thoughtful considerations of parental choices and student populations — should serve as a wake up call for Nevada policymakers and others around the country. The way to greater educational accountability is through providing the opportunity for innovation and choice, not more bureaucracy.