It’s no secret that Nevada’s education system is in trouble: our high school graduation rate of 41.8 percent is the lowest in the nation, and less than one-third of our minority students achieve a diploma on time. And the list of discouraging statistics goes on.
The education crisis has produced a widespread ripple effect of negative consequences, not only for an entire generation of students, but also for the state’s economic development. The teachers’ union (Nevada State Education Association) and its Democrat supporters would have us believe the answer lies in throwing more money at the problem. Let’s face it – that plan has been tried in states all across the country, and report after report have shown it just doesn’t work.
It’s time to try a different approach before it’s too late. Earlier this year, Governor Sandoval gave the Legislature a proposal to create a school voucher program. A voucher is a scholarship or stipend funded by tax dollars, which parents can use to help pay for tuition at the school of their choice, including private or religious schools. The proposal bases eligibility on family income, with the poorest families receiving a voucher worth around $5,000 per student, and more affluent families receiving less.
This is not an untried or “fringe” idea, but one that is rapidly gaining acceptance because it has been shown to work. School vouchers have succeeded in many other states, and 22 programs all across the country are now producing positive results. Not only do studies show that school choice improves educational achievement for students who opt out of the public school system, but it also helps students who stay in the public schools.
It all boils down to a basic principle of capitalism: more choice leads to greater competition, which in turn leads to improvements. If there’s only one store in town, it doesn’t have to worry about economizing, but as soon as another store opens and customers have a choice, both stores need to watch their pricing and make sure they are operating at peak efficiency. The problem with our public school system is that there’s no real competition, because tuition at private schools is above most families’ budget. Vouchers would help break up the monopoly and level the playing field.
Florida’s experience has shown how a state similar to Nevada can make real gains by instituting education reforms, including school vouchers. Although Florida spends below the national average on K-12 education and the majority of its students are now minorities, it has seen impressive gains over the last decade. In 1998, Florida and Nevada students scored the same in a nationally ranked fourth-grade reading exam. Starting in 1999, Florida instituted a series of education reforms, including a school voucher system, a charter school program, and other innovative ideas. Twelve years later, Florida’s minority students had progressed 2 ½ grade levels in the same reading test, and white students improved 1 ½ grade levels. Meanwhile, Nevada was still trying to decide what to do, and test scores remained flat or improved only slightly.
We need a Constitutional amendment to approve the governor’s voucher program because the Nevada Constitution prohibits the expenditure of public finds for “sectarian purposes” such as tuition at faith-based schools. This requires the Legislature to pass the governor’s proposal in two consecutive legislative sessions, and then it must be approved in the next general election, which in this case would bring us to the 2014 election cycle.
At press time, the Legislature hadn’t acted on the school choice proposal. It’s time a bill is drafted and discussed, and hopefully passed, before the session ends in June. That will at least start us down the right path toward a brighter future for our children and our state.
Originally published in Nevada Business Magazine: