Charter schools positioned to offer needed competition

Monday, July 16, 2018

You’ve probably heard the advertisements touting public schools in Nebraska, and we do have something of which to be proud.

Nebraska students consistently score high in standardized tests, and our per-pupil costs are reasonable, especially when the challenges of geography and population are taken into account.

But public education stakeholders do have something to fear when it comes to the possibility that the charter school movement could take a bite out of the funding pie.

Charter schools are privately-run schools created with specific missions and receiving public funding, but generally at a lower level than traditional public schools and supplemented by philanthropists.

Seen as a compromise between public and private schools, they are generally opposed by teachers unions but promoted as a way to give disadvantaged students a leg up.

Major supporters include Microsoft founder Bill Gates, who has contributed $25 million to keep charter schools open in Washington state, where a charter school law was struck down.

Other major players include Walton Family Foundation, founders of Walmart, which has contributed $144 million to 27 groups advocating charter schools. Some 15 groups have received $425 million from philanthropy since 2006, according to an Associated Press analysis of tax filings and Foundation Center data.

Nebraska has no charter school law, but Joe Ricketts, founder of Omaha’s TD Ameritrade and father of Gov. Pete Ricketts, helped found the NGL Academy (Next Generation Learning) in Bellevue last fall. That school and another in California will strive to teach students to become self-educators rather than learning by lectures. Teacher serve more of a mentoring role than as traditional teachers.

There certainly is reason to be alarmed when billionaires exercise increasing influence on society, despite charter schools officially being prohibited from participating in political activities.

But with the largest share of local property taxes going toward public education, there is room for competition to determine where taxpayers might be able to get the best bang for their buck.

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