From the Superintendent's Desk...
I recently had a reader of this monthly column approach me and ask about a piece of legislation the senators in the Unicameral are considering, which has been introduced by Senator Tyson Larson. The legislative bill in question is LB630. According to its author’s Statement of Intent, “…Legislative Bill 630, which proposes to create the Independent Public School Schools Act, would establish an independent authorizing board, appointed by the Governor and State Board of Education, to approve and oversee independent public schools. The authorizing board could approve applications from a non-profit entity to open and operate schools in any district in the state containing at least one school receiving the lowest performance ratings from the Nebraska Department of Education. Any Nebraska public school district could also approve applications from a non-profit entity to open and operate an independent school in that district. The independent public schools would be governed by this act...”
The schools Senator Larson is proposing be allowed to operate in Nebraska are what are called “charter schools”. Charter schools are sometimes referred to as “public schools of choice.” They are referred to in this way because in states where charter schools exist, families can elect to send their children to these charter schools, rather than to the public school in the school district which the student resides. Parents provided with this choice of sending their students to a charter school generally view the charter school as a better alternative than their child’s current school and elect to send their child to the charter school. The general perception is that charter schools operate free of some of the regulations that are imposed on public school districts; and in turn, that because these schools are free of these regulations they can provide a more dynamic or specialized program of study for students than the public school. Charter schools are duly name “charter” schools because they create a “charter” in which they promise to meet performance expectations in respect to academic achievement, financial management, and organizational stability.
Unlike the parochial schools that have operated in many states very successfully for many years, charter schools do not charge their students to attend. Charter schools are funded using tax dollars. The way in which this funding is distributed to charter schools varies from state to state. States such as Alaska, California, Colorado, Minnesota, and New Jersey all have funding mechanisms in place to allow for the distribution of tax dollars to charter schools operating within their boundaries. Most of these funding models contain a “voucher” component. The “voucher” represents a pre-determined amount of money that “follows” each student to the school that they choose to attend. Essentially, a “voucher system” funded by tax dollars creates the ability for a charter school to gather enough operating capital to run a school, and it provides the parent with the ability to send their student to their school of choice.
Legislation such as LB630 would provide for the operation of charter schools in the State of Nebraska. It would also call for the creation of a funding mechanism, such as a voucher system, to provide for the capital necessary to operate charter schools. Arguably, in larger, more urban school districts across the state, this model might have strong appeal to parents who don’t regard their child’s school as “successful” and wish to have another school option for their children. However, the public should be aware that in many states charter schools have a “checkered” history. Research in some states with charter schools has shown that charter school students don’t perform any better academically than their public school counterparts. Additionally, there have been many instances in other states where taxpayer dollars have been subject to waste, fraud, and abuse by charter schools, due largely to the lack of oversight provided by a locally elected school board.
As the legislature grapples with ways to reduce the property tax burden being placed on our state’s agricultural producers, bills like LB630 only seek to further divert tax dollars from public schools and holds the potential to increase the tax burden being placed on our agricultural producers. Everyone likes to have choices. However, the choices represented by LB630 carry a heavy price tag for agricultural producers and for the public schools across the state, with no real promise of improving education for student across Nebraska.