COLUMBUS — Betsy DeVos, a longtime proponent of charter schools, was confirmed as secretary of education last week and a bill that would allow charter schools to open in Nebraska was introduced this session by Sen. Tyson Larson of O'Neill.
As some lawmakers push for charter schools, others in Nebraska are wondering why they're necessary.
Larson introduced similar bills in previous years that failed to advance through the Legislature.
Sen. Paul Schumacher of Columbus said charter schools can serve a purpose in the right environment.
“Charters provide competition with rotten schools and put pressure on rotten schools,” he said. “That’s in large metro areas where you have that kind of educational disparity.”
He doesn’t think Nebraska fits that scenario.
“Bottom line is we have a really good public school system and it’s augmented by an excellent parochial school system in some communities,” he said. “Even if we wanted to, could we sustain two public school systems — a charter system and public schools?”
Schumacher isn't a member of the Education Committee, but he doesn’t see the bill getting much traction this legislative session.
“It is small in comparison to a billion-dollar shortfall and a huge clamoring for income tax cuts and property tax cuts,” he said.
Jeanette Jackson is president of the Columbus Area Retired School Personnel and was an educator for 40 years. She said the state needs to rework its school funding formula before adding charters to the mix.
“Nebraska has so many issues related to state funding for education. I think charter schools would just make a bigger mess than we already have,” she said. “There are schools that don’t get any state funding at all, it’s all property tax. We have schools that get more federal funds than state funds.”
Nebraska already offers school choice since students can transfer between schools with district approval, and Jackson doesn't see any advantages charters could provide to students here.
“It’s a solution looking for a problem,” said Jackson, who noted that charter school outcomes are mixed.
“Some charter schools are successful and some are not,” she said.
Jackson said the impact they have on a community depends on how they are regulated. While some states require charter schools to match the district’s demographics, others aren't even required to accommodate special-needs children.
“It is going to take tax dollars, which are limited already, away from schools that serve all kids,” Jackson said.
Schuyler Community Schools Superintendent Dan Hoesing said he’s not outright opposed to charter schools, but their track record in diverse, low-income communities concerns him.
“Where they are now they skim off the top kids and then the education opportunities for the poor kids is worse,” he said. “For me, being in a higher-poverty, more diverse district, I’m very sensitive to that.”
Hoesing said Schuyler Community Schools encourages parents and community members to give feedback so they can meet students' needs.
“There isn’t a lot that limits us from doing what they want for their kids,” he said. “In a way, we act more like charter schools than we think.”
The charter school model works best in large, metropolitan cities, so the ideal locations in Nebraska would be Omaha, Lincoln and possibly Grand Island.
But Lakeview Community Schools Superintendent Aaron Plas said he’ll advocate for public education across the state.
“We have to look out for public education,” he said. “These bills are trying to fix a problem that doesn’t exist in Nebraska. I don’t want to see us change for the sake of change.”