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Wyoming ranks low on accommodation of charter schools

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by Leah Todd, Star Tribune

Wyoming’s charter school laws are among the most stringent in the United States, a new national report from the Center for Education Reform says.

That may be a reason that only four charter schools exist in the state, said Kari Cline, executive director of the Wyoming Association of Public Charter Schools.

Charter schools are independently run, publicly funded schools that operate under a contract, or charter, which establishes the school’s mission.

Such an agreement can allow charter schools to do things not done in traditional schools, Cline said.

Charter schools have grown steadily since the first charter school law was passed in the U.S. in 1991, said Alison Consoletti Zgainer, executive vice president of the Center for Education Reform and lead author of the report, which was released Monday.

The group advocates for laws that will accelerate the process allowing charter schools to gain approval in each state.

To the Center for Education Reform, strong charter laws allow more than one entity to approve a charter school, place few limits on a charter school’s expansion, fund charter schools equally and allow a charter school autonomy.

Wyoming passed its current charter school law in 1995. Under the law, only a local school board can authorize a new charter school.

Other states allow private organizations, a university or a state charter commission to approve charter schools.

“In order for more charter schools to open or for communities to embrace the possibility, we really have to address multiple authorizing structures,” Cline said.

Entities approving charter schools must be trained in what it takes to start a new school, she said.

“For us, it’s not about changing the law or the landscape to allow the proliferation of charters,” Cline said. “Because Wyoming is never going to be a Colorado, with hundreds of charter schools. Many of our communities don’t have that many students.”

In Colorado, 197 charter schools operate, according to the report. Colorado’s charter laws scored a B on the report, while Wyoming’s scored a D.

In Wyoming, charter school teachers must be certified, just as they must be at any other public school. Students at charter schools are required to take the same statewide tests as other public school children.

Charters in Wyoming are funded through the same school funding model as other public schools, according to the Wyoming Department of Education. The contract between a district and a charter can vary, however, resulting in some variation in charter school funding in the state.

The report scored Wyoming high in several areas, partially because the state does not place a limit on how many charter schools can operate in a district or statewide.

Overall, the organization ranked Wyoming’s charter school laws 40th in the nation.

‘A tough process’

Marcos Martinez spent 2 1/2 years forming PODER Academy, a college-readiness charter school in Cheyenne.

“It was a tough process,” Martinez, the school’s CEO, said. “The application is very detailed, and, you know, the application needs to be that way.”

The school opened in 2012 with 103 students in kindergarten through third grades. Martinez said the rigorous application process made PODER, which is a Spanish word for “to be able,” a better school.

“We took our time with it,” he said. “We had frequent talks with the district. I think that really helped.”

PODER Academy is the only charter school in Laramie County School District 1, a neighborhood district where children must attend the school closest to their residence. Parents support the school, he said. This year, 166 students are enrolled in kindergarten through fourth grades.

The group will soon apply to open a charter high school in Cheyenne, Martinez said.

Martinez said he sees two ways Wyoming can improve its charter school policy: create incentives for an already successful charter school to expand and replicate, and allow more than one entity to approve a charter school.

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