Photo by Nebraska News Service
Schools that need improvement. (click on image to enlarge)
The debate over charter schools continues in Nebraska.A charter school bill has been introduced every year for at least the last three years. All died after the committee hearing. Nebraska is one of seven that do not allow charter schools.
This year’s bill is LB 630, introduced by Sen. Tyson Larson of O'Neill. The bill was heard by the Education Committee on Tuesday to an overflowing room of testifiers from both sides. The bill would legalize charter schools, also called independent public schools.
Larson said, "One failing school is too many.”
The Independent Public Schools Act would allow charter schools to open in districts that contain a school categorized as "needing improvement” -- the lowest ranking given by the Nebraska Department of Education.
There are currently 87 public schools in that category.
Although there are charter schools in rural areas in other states, during the hearing, Omaha was discussed as the most likely site for a charter school, because the Omaha Public Schools system has 28 schools that need improvement.
Under Nebraska's opt-in rules, any student could apply to attend a charter school. If more applicants applied than the number of seats, a lottery system would determine who would go to the school.
Since a charter school would be a public school, a student would not pay to attend. Funding would come from the general school aid fund, equal to the basic state average funds per student.
One issue in the debate is about choice. Proponents argue for more parental choice.
"There should always be more choice," Larson said.
Opponents point out Nebraska already has school choice among public schools. With the opt-in system, any child can attend any other public school, as long as there are seats open. Some districts have more kids wishing to attend than spots available.
Another issue is whether to improve existing schools or create new schools.
Proponents argue that creating a new charter school would improve education outcomes faster than trying to fix an underperforming school.
"What do you say to a parent that is in a failing school?" asked Clarice Jackson, a North Omaha parent. "How long do we wait?"
Katie Linehan of the charter advocacy organization Educate Nebraska, said independent charters allow for changes in environment and culture. She said it can be difficult to change existing patterns of school success or lack thereof.
Opponents said money should be spent on fixing existing schools. They expressed concern about students who wouldn't attend charters.
Uriel Reyes Vazquez, a senior at Omaha South High, described charters as a "solution for a few, but not all." He said charter schools are avoiding a larger issue.
Another issue is the transparency and the accountability of public tax dollars.
Under the bill, a charter would be governed by an independently selected board of trustees that replace an elected school board.
Yolanda Williams, an Omaha Public Schools board member representing North Omaha, said the school board has listened to the community and created diverse learning options, such as magnet schools, virtual schools and blended learning environments, among other things.
Williams said LB 630 is “a solution in search for a problem.”