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‘We Must Draw a Line in the Sand’: Inside Nevada’s New Campaign to Rescue Failing Schools

By Carolyn Phenicie | February 21, 2017

In 2015, frustrated by years of low achievement that left Nevada children at the bottom nationally by nearly all academic measures, the Republican-majority legislature passed a package of laws that aimed to throw seemingly every reform ever tried at the problem.
They adopted laws reconfiguring the state’s school districts, changing the state funding formula, expanding all-day kindergarten, and providing better supports for English-language learners and low-income students.
(The 74: Desperate Times Call for Urgent School Reforms in Nevada)
Now, a year and a half later, two of the largest-scale and most contentious of those reforms are on pause.
A universal education savings account that would give parents control of about $5,000 in state funds for private school tuition, tutoring, or other education programs stalled after the state Supreme Court said the savings accounts were legal but legislators couldn’t use regular public schools funds to pay for them. Democrats, now the majority in both houses of the legislature, have said they’re in no rush to find a new funding source.
(The 74: Nevada’s Looming Political Showdown Over America’s Largest Education Savings Account Program)
While the ESAs gave families options outside the traditional public schools, the next most-debated reform, the Achievement School District, was focused on district schools, specifically converting the worst-performing to charter schools under the state’s supervision.
Set to begin this fall, the Achievement School District is also now facing serious challenges — from regulatory hurdles to a federal investigation of the charter operator chosen to take over the failing district schools. Meanwhile, Democrats in the state legislature are back in session as of this month and have introduced bills to totally overturn it.
To supporters of the ASD, these setbacks mean further delays in bringing better educational options to Nevada’s struggling students, while to critics, it means more time for traditional district schools to show they can engineer their own turnaround.
Back of the pack
“We must acknowledge that far too many of our schools are persistently failing … Many have been failing for more than a decade. We must draw a line in the sand and say ‘no more,’” Gov. Brian Sandoval said when he proposed the Achievement School District in his 2015 State of the State address.
Nevada had long been at the back of the pack nationally: High school graduation rates were routinely among the lowest in the nation, as were scores on national benchmark NAEP tests of reading and math, as well as the ACT college admissions test.
The bill setting up the Achievement School District allows the state to take over up to six underperforming district schools per year. Elementary and middle schools in the bottom 5 percent statewide would be eligible, as would high schools with graduation rates less than 60 percent. It passed with no Democratic support just before the end of the legislature’s 2015 session.
Officials began implementation, setting criteria for evaluating which schools would be eligible for takeover and selecting a charter management organization, Celerity, which operates schools in California and Louisiana, to run them. By mid-December, the state Board of Education had picked the final five schools that would be eligible for charter conversion: four elementary and one middle, all in sprawling Clark County, whose epicenter is Las Vegas.
Nevada rates its schools on a five-star scale, and about 83,000 of the 320,000 students in Clark County, the country’s fifth-largest school district, attend schools rated one or two stars, explained Allison Serafin, founder and executive director of the group Opportunity 180, which aims to bring more high-quality options to the district. The group won the “harbormaster” contract to recruit a charter operator to take over schools deemed eligible for the ASD.
Charter school options largely track with district-run schools, Serafin said. Students in wealthier areas can choose high-quality district schools at the elementary, middle, and high school levels, or top-performing charter options. Children in lower-income areas, though, have only poorly performing district or charter schools nearby.
Clark County has a moratorium on new charter schools, so the only way to introduce high-performing options to the most disadvantaged students there would be through state-led efforts.
“This is why the work of the ASD is so integral, because we obviously need to ensure that the neighborhood public school is delivering a great education for all kids, and yet families all need choice,” Serafin said.
Monica Love’s daughter Erin is a first-grader at West Prep Academy, a K-12 school. Test scores at the elementary school were high, and the high school class of 2014’s graduation rate was 95 percent. But the middle school’s performance is so low that it was eligible for inclusion in the ASD.
Love liked the idea of Erin having ties to one school for her whole childhood and through high school, which in the case of West Prep Academy requires an application and gives priority to students who attended the middle school.
But Love isn’t sure about Erin, who does well in school and is already receiving extra enrichment, attending a middle school where so many of her peers are behind.
“I’m worried that if she goes to a school where everyone is not at grade level, she’s going to get frustrated with school,” Love said. “Unless they start making progress, I’d look to send her somewhere else.”
She likes the idea of the Achievement School District, and something new and different isn’t necessarily bad, she said.
“If the companies ASD was getting in have proven track records, then fine, what harm can come of it?” Love said. “It’s not like Nevada can get any worse.”
Not everyone in the West Prep community is so taken with the idea, though.
One high school student cried while pleading with an ASD official not to include West Prep among the charter conversions, the Las Vegas Review-Journal reported.
Similar scenes have been playing out across the district for months; the idea of a state entity coming in and taking over is never popular.
Clark County School District officials heightened anxieties when they warned parents that up to 90 district schools could be eligible and started a “school review process” last fall. Leaders of the local teachers union said parents should be able to vote on whether or not a school is included in the state takeover. Students and parents protested at eligible schools, events that made the local news.
“Every chance we get, we come together to try to make change,” Jamel Jones, the parent of students at Matt Kelly Elementary, one of the schools eligible for takeover, said at a state legislative commission meeting. “For us to be put in a situation where we have to be redirected [into the Achievement School District] from our mission, is, I don’t know how to put it. I’m just asking and wanted to voice my petition on moving forward, giving us a chance.”
“ASD 2.0”
Smaller-scale improvement efforts also continued at the ASD. An existing charter, Andre Agassi College Preparatory Academy, had requested through the ASD to partner with a new operator, Democracy Prep. The New York–based network has a longer school day and focuses on civic engagement. Leaders have successfully taken over schools in New York, Washington, D.C., and Camden, N.J.  
Another charter, Futuro Academy, would open under the supervision of the ASD, providing a fresh option for children in a neighborhood where the district school is underperforming.
Administrative regulations that would create a “parent trigger” allowing for avenues to opt into the ASD, either for full charter conversion or more-modest interventions overseen by the state, were also on track. The state’s Legislative Commission, a small group of legislators from both parties who must approve executive branch regulations, was set to hear a revised version of the parent-trigger regulations in late January after asking for changes to the one presented last year.  
The idea behind the additional options, state officials said, was to create an “ASD 2.0” that would spur improvements beyond what could be accomplished in six charter conversions a year.
“As the law was drafted, six schools a year doesn’t make the type of change that we know we need to see for our kids,” Brett Barley, Nevada’s deputy superintendent for student achievement, told The 74.
The parent-trigger component was key because parent investment is vital for real school transformation, said Jana Wilcox-Lavin, superintendent of the Achievement School District.
“It puts parents in the driver’s seat to fight for something,” to develop a plan and rally behind it, rather than organize against a plan, the usual method of parental involvement, she said.
Lindsey Dalley is a dentist and member of a local education advisory group in Moapa Valley. The town of about 8,000 is some 60 miles from Las Vegas but still within Clark County. Residents planned to use the parent trigger regulations.
In short, Moapa Valley has different needs than metro Las Vegas. The programs and edicts that make sense for the district writ large, with 16.5 percent English-language learners and 56.8 percent eligible for free or reduced-price lunch, a measure of poverty, don’t make sense in Moapa Valley, where less than 2 percent of students are English-language learners and 27.5 percent are eligible for reduced lunch.
Moapa’s graduation rate is high, about 90 percent, but it could be — and has been — higher, Dalley said. Students in Moapa don’t have access to the college classes or magnet schools available in Las Vegas, but past efforts to get more autonomy over things like scheduling and course offerings have been denied by stifling district bureaucracy, Dalley said.
“There is just a lot of things that we can do that don’t cost more money but we can’t do it because it’s, quote, against district policy,” he said.
A state-mandated reorganization of the Clark County district didn’t provide the autonomy Moapa Valley residents wanted, Dalley said, and he and others in the area planned to use the parent trigger regulations to fight for charter schools.
“What we are looking for will help all schools and all students, if the parents and the communities want to use it. If they don’t want to use it, they can stay exactly where we are … which is last in the nation,” he said. “We’re not willing to settle for that.”
Delays mount
Then, on January 25, just a week before officials were set to announce which schools would be converted to charters run by Celerity, that leg of the reform abruptly ended.
Agents of seven federal agencies raided Celerity’s Los Angeles offices after local officials had investigated the firm for alleged fraud, fiscal mismanagement and misuse of public money.
(LA School Report: Why Did the Feds Raid Celerity Charter, and What’s Next?)
Nevada officials immediately dropped Celerity, effectively ending the state takeover of any district schools for the 2017–18 school year. The search is on for a new charter operator for the 2018–19 school year.
Clark County school district officials said they were relieved that no schools would be converted this year, but the district “continues to have ongoing concerns about the Achievement School District, such as the lack of proper research to support the underlying premise that converting a school to a charter school will actually improve educational outcomes for students.”
A 2015 study by the Stanford University–based Center for Research on Education Outcomes found that urban charter schools on average add 40 additional days of learning in math and 28 additional days in reading over their district school counterparts. In Las Vegas, though, researchers found that charter schools “provide their students, already achieving below the state average, with lower levels of academic growth in math and reading each year relative to local [traditional schools].”
Clark County touts its own district-led efforts at turning around several of the schools slated for inclusion in the ASD.
“We look forward to seeing the outcomes we can achieve when parents, staff, and students work together toward student success,” Michelle Booth, communications director for the district, told The 74.  
State Superintendent Steve Canavero told state legislators in late January that the ASD isn’t a “referendum on the Clark County School District” and that district leaders’ actions, like releasing a list of 90 potentially eligible schools, “excit[ed] a level of fear and confusion that was entirely unnecessary but … beneficial to undermining efforts of the Achievement School District.”
The Celerity fallout left just the pending parent-trigger regulations and two charter schools as the remaining legs of the Achievement School District.
The parent-trigger regulations would allow parents or charter operators, both current and prospective, to start a petition either to force charter conversion under the ASD’s supervision or to request a “performance compact” designed to “rapidly improve pupil achievement and school performance.” The performance compact could include designations that would give new funds in exchange for tougher accountability standards or new leadership. The schools also could adopt “evidence-based strategies” or enter into partnerships with nonprofit organizations.
The parent-trigger regulations “provide the necessary protections and clarity for us to move forward with the Achievement School District, not as an it, but as a piece of a much larger puzzle to improve the state’s performance and to provide children with the opportunities they deserve in life,” Canavero told the state commission January 27.
Democrats on the commission argued that the parent-trigger options weren’t part of the original legislation and that if more regulations or clarification were needed, they should come from the legislature, which started its biennial legislative session February 6.
“It’s disheartening to almost put us in a position where we are being asked to make a very critical decision knowing that we can make a really good decision in the upcoming legislative session. We’re not going anywhere. We have time. We should give this the careful attention it deserves,” Assemblyman Nelson Araujo said.
Republicans, meanwhile, said the rules would give parents a greater say in their children’s school — something legislators are always urging them to do.
“We hear time and time and time again that parents aren’t involved with the education of their children. This is the exact opposite. We should give these folks the opportunity to work through this process,” said Assemblyman James Oscarson, a Republican who represents Moapa Valley.
And Sen. Michael Roberson, chair of the Legislative Commission, said it would be in legislators’ interests to vote in favor of the regulations, because the new version addresses concerns state lawmakers had raised, and the ASD will begin anyway. Blocking the regulations just prevents those concerns from being answered, he said.
In the end, the commission split 6-6, meaning the regulations won’t be implemented.
“I felt like dog meat. It would’ve given us that great opportunity, and once again, politics trumps what’s best for kids,” Dalley, the Moapa Valley advocate said.
The future
State takeover districts are in something of a slump nationally.
Georgia voters in November rejected a ballot proposal to create one. A Vanderbilt University study of Tennessee’s program found better results in locally led intervention schools than ones taken over by the state. North Carolina seems to be having trouble finding a candidate to lead efforts there, and the final call on that issue is part of an ongoing battle for control between the state Board of Education and the state superintendent.
There isn’t a good body of evidence showing strong positive or negative effects of state takeover districts, simply because there are relatively few and they’re all designed differently, said Ashley Jochim, a research analyst at the Center on Reinventing Public Education who has studied state takeover districts.
“States are assuming a big responsibility when they get involved in these turnaround efforts, because they’re so political and they’re really hard to do. There’s no guarantee of success in this work,” she said, adding that she often encourages state leaders to adopt an ASD as one part of a larger reform strategy.
One overlooked benefit of state takeovers is the push for states to institute reforms locally, as happened in Tennessee, Jochim said.
State takeovers shouldn’t ever be seen as long-term strategies, because the ethos in the United States tends toward local control of schools. The pioneer, Louisiana’s Recovery School District in post–Hurricane Katrina New Orleans, is being dissolved with control returning to parish officials. On the other side, there is concern that the return to local control could undo the remarkable gains made over a decade by NOLA students after almost every school in their deeply dysfunctional district was turned into a charter.
Nevada’s effort is at somewhat of a standstill for now. With the administrative regulations stalled and no charter operator for this year, that leaves the Achievement School District with just two schools — Agassi Prep, now partnered with Democracy, and the new Futuro Academy. It could have had at least another five under charter conversion, and possibly more through the parent petition process.
Serafin, whose group is in charge of finding a replacement for Celerity for takeovers in the 2018–19 school year, said recruitment has started.
“The work must go on. As disappointing as that news was and is … we must focus on children in Clark County,” she said.
The parent trigger laws are on hold. Under Nevada law, the state education department could implement the regulations on an “emergency” basis, with the blessing of Gov. Sandoval, the Republican who championed the 2015 school reforms. They would only last for 120 days.
A bill has been introduced in the Assembly to overturn the ASD, and one is on the way in the Senate as well.
Sandoval in a visit to the Agassi campus last week said he was confident efforts to repeal the ASD wouldn’t succeed and that the Agassi–Democracy Prep partnership would set an example for parents across the state, the Las Vegas Review-Journal reported.
The governor’s office did not respond to questions about whether he would approve implementation of the parent-trigger regulations on an emergency basis, or if he would veto the bills overturning the ASD.
The Nevada legislature will adjourn June 5.
Disclosure: The Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation provides funding to Opportunity 180 and to The 74.
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