U.S. Deputy Secretary of Education Mitchell Zais, right, talks with Wyoming Department of Education Chief Academic Officer Shelley Hamel and other local education leaders as he tours the Poder Academy Secondary School Friday, Jan. 24, 2020, in Cheyenne. The tour precedes National School Choice Week, which starts Sunday, January 26. Nadav Soroker/Wyoming Tribune Eagle

CHEYENNE – U.S. Deputy Secretary of Education Mitchell Zais paid a visit to one of Wyoming’s four charter schools Friday.

“While every child is special, every child is different,” said Zais, whose tour of Poder Academy Secondary School came ahead of National School Choice Week. Since 2011, school choice week has celebrated varied K-12 education options including online education, magnet schools, private schools and charter schools like Poder, which are publicly funded, privately operated schools.

Although Wyoming was one of the first states to pass a charter school law in 1995, they are a rare sight in the state.

“The notion of charter schools is still new here. The public is still uncertain as to what charter schools are, and it’s not as easy as it could be to get an application approved by the school board,” said Nick Avila, chief operating officer of Poder. “We operate like a small corporation. We have board members, officers and then the principals run the schools.”

Avila also agreed with Zais, who championed charter school expansion in his previous role as South Carolina’s education chief, that “The biggest challenge to more charter schools in Wyoming is the absence of a state authorizer.”

While many of the 45 states with charter school laws have a state-level body to review and approve applications, Wyoming leaves that decision up to the public school districts.

“When it comes down to charter schools I think it’s really similar to regular schools. You have some good ones and some not so good ones,” Laramie County School District 1 Superintendent Boyd Brown said. “I think our state has done a good job of trying to make sure we have quality charter schools that come in.”

During the 2018-19 school year, Poder students received some of the highest scores in the district on the Wyoming Test of Proficiency and Progress, also known as WY-TOPP.

Marcos Martinez, the chief executive officer and founder of Poder, said it took about three years for the district to approve the schools’ application. “At the time the school district was not allowing charter schools to come in. What I was told was that a lot of applications were coming in, looking to serve middle- and upper-class students,” Martinez said.

Instead, Poder focused on serving students who were falling through the cracks. The school’s mission focuses on college preparation, and offers dual enrollment and advanced placement courses. “If we thought we could open one more school we would,” Martinez said about his visions for the future. “But it’s a very difficult process.”

The majority of charter schools operate in urban areas, so Wyoming’s relatively low population presents another challenge.

“It’s harder to create a school that’s sustainable financially because you’re going to be serving relatively fewer students than you would if you were in a more populous area,” said Todd Ziebarth, senior vice president of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools. “Related to that is finding and retaining high quality staff in rural areas.”

After his visit to Poder, Zais stopped by St. Mary’s Catholic School, a private school in Cheyenne which charges tuition. While Wyoming has no school voucher program – which 14 other states have passed to allow parents to use public funds for private education – Zais said he’d come to advocate for a policy that could open the door to changing that. “The Education Freedom Scholarships and Opportunity Act, would make available $25 million (in scholarships) to the state of Wyoming,” he said.

If the federal act, which Wyoming’s Congresswoman Liz Cheney has co-sponsored, passes, “it would be a local decision on how the dollars could be used,” Zais said. Apprenticeships, homeschooling and online education are all options, but perhaps the most contentious is the possibility that it could potentially fund private, religious education. Several states, including Wyoming have laws against public financing of parochial instruction, like the kind St. Mary’s offers.

But rumblings on the national level are signaling efforts to overturn some of those rules.

Earlier this week the U.S. Supreme Court heard a case which centers around the constitutionality of allowing parents to use public money to pay for private religious school tuition, not unlike St. Mary’s. “If you get a scholarship or grant for a college you can take that to a faith-based institution or a secular institution,” said Zais, who believes it should operate the same for K-12 students.

Zais said he met with Wyoming Gov. Mark Gordon earlier in the day to discuss the legislation, but did not specifically address the possibility of bringing a school voucher program to the state. Cassie Craven, a lobbyist for the libertarian Wyoming Liberty Group, said that the organization “wants to see some kind of voucher program happen,” and foresees drafting some type of legislation after this year’s budget-oriented legislative session.

As of now though, the governor, who would have to sign off on any such legislation, hasn’t developed a clear, statewide policy position on school vouchers.

“Gov. Gordon is supportive of local choice,” said Lachelle Brant, education policy adviser for the governor’s office. “He’s also in favor of a parent’s choice to pick the best education option for their kids.”

Kathryn Palmer is the Wyoming Tribune Eagle’s education reporter. She can be reached at kpalmer@wyomingnews.com or 307-633-3167. Follow her on Twitter at @kathrynbpalmer.

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