- Associated Press - Wednesday, April 13, 2016

LAS VEGAS (AP) - Nevada officials approved a $10 million, three-year contract this week with an organization that will help recruit high-quality charter school operators to expand into the state’s neediest neighborhoods.

The Nevada Board of Examiners finalized the deal Tuesday with Opportunity 180, a “charter school harbormaster” that aims to develop high-performing urban schools for 25,000 students by 2025. The group is run by former state school board vice chairwoman Allison Serafin, who resigned the board in December, saying she wanted to avoid a conflict of interest as her organization pursued the state contract.

Nevada legislators authorized the charter school harbormaster program and the $10 million allocation last year. The nonprofit works similar to an economic development agency, wooing charter school operators who have successfully turned around schools in other parts of the country by offering grants for facilities and initial operating costs.

Charter school experts say there’s stiff competition among states to land the most skilled charter school operators. State Superintendent Steve Canavero said Tuesday that conversations with some of those organizations have become more serious now that Nevada has allocated money to developing its charter school sector.

Charter schools receive public funding and don’t charge tuition but operate more independently than public schools. Proponents say the model is effective in improving persistently failing schools because administrators have more freedom to make drastic changes than they would under the traditional public school model.

Proponents also say charter schools offer more options for families, since students can attend charter schools of their choice and aren’t limited to attending a nearby public school.

Supporters of the harbormaster idea noted that existing Nevada charter schools are concentrated in more affluent, suburban areas of the state. Patrick Gavin of Nevada’s State Public Charter School Authority testified to lawmakers last year that it would be immoral and politically untenable for the state’s charter school sector not to represent a more diverse group of students.

Charter schools receive state per-pupil funding like their traditional school counterparts, but don’t get a building included and often struggle to stretch their operational budget to pay for facilities. Grants from the harbormaster could help schools with those up-front costs, and Opportunity 180 says it will also work directly with real estate agents to help schools identify appropriate sites.

Opportunity 180 is charged with raising $5 million in each of the next two years from private philanthropy. They’d raised $4.1 million as of January and must collect the balance of the first year’s $5 million match by the end of June, according to spokesman Greg Bortolin of the Nevada Department of Education.

Republican Gov. Brian Sandoval initially proposed putting $20 million in state funds toward the harbormaster program, but lawmakers approved half that amount. Critics included Democrats who said they didn’t want to subsidize the charter school industry and would rather use the money to improve existing, low-performing charter schools than try to attract new ones.

The harbormaster was one of many education initiatives the Republican-controlled Legislature approved last year and funded with new and extended taxes. Others investments targeted English language learners, public schools in the state’s poorest ZIP codes and elementary school literacy.

Another new program authorized last year, Education Savings Accounts, would allow parents to claim most of their child’s state education spending allotment and apply it to private school tuition. That program faced legal challenges before it started disbursing money, and the state is now appealing a court-imposed hold to the Nevada Supreme Court.

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