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Potential schools file for charters

By Maya Shimizu Harris
Casper Star-Tribune
Via- Wyoming News Exchange

CASPER — Three potential Wyoming schools have applied for charters now.

Prairie View Community School in Chugwater, Wyoming Classical Academy Charter School in Mills and Cheyenne Classical Academy Charter School have applied for charters, according to an update from State Superintendent of Public Instruction Brian Schroeder.

If their charters are approved, the schools will likely open their doors in fall 2023.

Charter schools are public schools, so they’re funded with state money. They don’t charge tuition and they’re still accountable to state performance standards like traditional public schools.

But they’re nonprofit organizations, and they’re subject to fewer regulations compared to traditional public schools; their governing boards are separate from district school boards, and they can choose their own curriculum, for example.

In the past, it’s been pretty hard for charter schools in Wyoming to get off the ground.

But a charter school bill sponsored by Sen. Ogden Driskill, R-Devils Tower, that the Legislature passed last year could make it a little easier. The bill gives the State Loan and Investment Board authority to approve charters. Before, charter schools could only do that through school districts.

Having the State Loan and Investment Board as a separate authorizer could be a step toward creating an entirely new statewide charter approval board, a co-sponsor of the 2021 bill, Sen. Affie Ellis, R-Cheyenne, explained.

This year is meant to be a pilot for the approval process, and the number of charters that the State Loan and Investment Board can grant is limited to just three, Ellis said. Charter school proponents say such schools provide more learning options to fit individual kids and their communities.

Charter school opponents say they can siphon funds away from traditional public schools and have standards that are too lax.

“At the end of the day, with the limited resources that each district has, when you start to divide up those resources and draw students away from the public schools, you start to screw up the funding model,” said Sen. Chris Rothfuss, D-Laramie, who opposed the charter school bill.

But others think that this competition could be healthy for school ecosystems.

“When it comes to people feeling threatened by charter schools, I think that’s just a fundamental difference of opinion,” Ellis said. “I think it’ll improve education.”

Rothfuss is also concerned the new legislation took away important vetting steps for charter schools to get approved.

“We were always very careful not to throw the doors wide open, to adhere to the Wyoming Constitution as the first priority, where it’s the state’s responsibility to provide public education, and to ensure that that education is secular,” he said. “We did so by requiring that any charter school work with the district for the charter school, and I believe that that system has been very selective and very successful.”

Right now, there are only five charter schools in Wyoming: two in Cheyenne, two in Laramie and one in Riverton.

The two proposed charter schools in Mills and Cheyenne are based on a “classical” model of education that was developed by Hillsdale College, a conservative private liberal arts college in Hillsdale, Michigan.

The college’s Barney Charter School Initiative has opened charter schools across the country, including three in neighboring Colorado.

Rothfuss said he’s concerned about Hillsdale College’s involvement in these two potential charter schools. Hillsdale College has recently run into criticism in Tennessee, which had invited the college earlier this year to start 50 schools in the state.

Late last month, NewsChannel 5 Investigates obtained video footage of Hillsdale College President Larry Arnn onstage at a private event. Arnn said in the video that teachers are trained “in the dumbest parts of the dumbest colleges in the country.”

Following the story, one Tennessee charter school decided to part ways with Hillsdale College, and several of the state’s colleges and universities also condemned Arnn’s statements, the Tennessean reported.

“From my perspective, I believe it to be well known that it was Hillsdale College-supported legislation,” Rothfuss said of Wyoming’s 2021 charter school bill.

But the Wyoming charter school legislation opens the door for a variety of potential charter schools in the state.

The other proposed schools — the Prairie View Community School in Chugwater — emphasizes individualized and project-based learning centered on students’ interests. It also focuses on place-based education, or education that immerses students in “local heritage, cultures, landscapes, opportunities and experiences,” according to the proposed school’s website.

Ellis said she thinks there isn’t going to be one kind of charter school that’s right for every community.

“I think that a lot of these have to be driven by parents and students in the community themselves to be successful,” she said. “You go to places that have been working with charter schools and have more experience in working with charter schools, they’ll talk about programs that start and fail, and if they’re not meeting the families and the students’ needs, they should fail.”

The Wyoming Department of Education is reviewing the three applications.

After that, they’ll go to the State Loan and Investment Board. The State Loan and Investment Board will have a public meeting and do applicant interviews for final approval.

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