Fear and Loathing in Carson City

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

I authored a study released by the Nevada Policy Research Institute this week on the Silver State’s education system. Nevada’s education system must address two urgent problems: an ever-growing quantity of students and the low average quality of schools. In spite of these problems, Nevada’s State Board of Education has moved to clamp down on a reform which could help with both problems: charter schools.

Between the year 2000 and the year 2005, Nevada’s school age population increased by 21 percent. This decade began with about 340,000 school age children, but will be nearing 550,000 by 2016.

Nevada is struggling to keep up with these demands. Nevada’s public school spending going for capital outlay in 2003 was over 40 percent higher than the national average on a per pupil basis.

Nevada’s school quality issue represents an even more serious problem. According the Nation’s Report Card from 2007, 43 percent of Nevada 4th graders scored “Below Basic” in reading.

Research shows that children who fail learn basic reading skills in the early grades very often fall further and further behind grade level with each passing year. Moving into middle school, they can scarcely read their textbooks. They begin dropping out in larger numbers in 8th grade.

In other words-the Nevada dropout class of 2015 is moving through the pipeline.

Nevada’s quality and quantity problems are interrelated. The need to construct new public school facilities ultimately draws educational funds out of the classroom. Likewise, the percent of per pupil funding going to service school debt was over sixty percent higher in Nevada than the national average.

A comparison between Nevada and its neighbor, Arizona, however proves that there are solutions to both the quantity and quality problems. Like Nevada, Arizona’s surging population has required a large increase in the supply of schools.

Despite similar rates of enrollment growth, Nevadans spent almost twice as much per student on capital costs as Arizonans in 2003-$1,468 compared to only $776 per pupil in Arizona. Arizona’s interest payments per pupil were also about half of what is paid in Nevada.

How has Arizona managed to manage its quantity problem so much more successfully than Nevada?

In 1994, Arizona lawmakers passed legislation creating choice between public schools and districts, and also one of the nation’s most liberal charter school law.

In 2007, Arizona has 482 charter schools educating over 112,000 children. Arizona charter schools have proven to be extremely diverse- focusing on everything from the arts to back to basics academics to the veterinary sciences.

In addition in 1994, Arizona lawmakers passed a very robust open enrollment law which thousands of students use to transfer between district schools and between school districts.

In 1997, Arizona passed the nation’s first scholarship tax credit law. This program gives individual taxpayers a dollar for dollar credit against state income tax for donations to nonprofit groups giving private school scholarships. In 2007, this program raised $54,000,000 and helped almost 25,000 students attend 359 private schools around the state. Arizona lawmakers created three new private choice programs in 2006.

Arizona’s ability to keep capital costs below the national average came about largely because of this embrace of parental choice in education. Choice options have relieved the need for Arizona’s school district to incur debt in the process of absorbing the increase in the student population.

What has parental choice done for school quality in Arizona? Charter schools comprise an amazing nine of the top 10 publicly funded high schools in the greater Phoenix area. The lone non-charter school on the list is a magnet school, also a choice based school.

Nevada, by comparison, has been hesitant in expanding parental options. In the five states surround Nevada (Arizona, California, Idaho, Oregon and Utah) and these states have 482, 710, 30, 81 and 60 charter schools respectively, collectively educating hundreds of thousands of students. With only 22 charter schools, Nevada is the tortoise of the region.

On November 30 of 2007, the Nevada Board of Education voted 8-0 to impose a moratorium on the approval of new charter schools. Board members told the press that the freeze was necessary because the state Education Department is being “overwhelmed” by 11 charter applications.

Arizona’s State Board for Charter Schools oversees 482 Arizona charter schools with a staff of 8. Nevada’s board overseeing cosmetology currently has 14 full time employees.

In addition, the Nevada legislature created a funding stream for charter school oversight of 2% of the per capita funding. Nevada policymakers must come to recognize the dire need for new high quality schools. Currently, even ultra-high quality charter school operators like KIPP are frozen out of opening schools. If those top 10 schools from Phoenix wished to replicate their success in Nevada, they would be shut out, an absurd denial of opportunity for children.

Nevada policymakers should loathe the status quo and fear the future unless they can radically improve learning, especially for the state’s rapidly growing Hispanic population. They shouldn’t fear or loathe charter schools.

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