Las Vegas Sun

October 31, 2014

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Power of school choice

With students across Nevada returning to school this month, it’s important to make sure that they are getting the best education possible, tailored to their needs and interests. Families in other states are able to choose schools based off their child’s unique skills and needs, but in Nevada, the government uses ZIP codes to determine where and how children are educated.

The need to reform Nevada’s education system is clear. Gov. Brian Sandoval took a crucial first step by enacting an initial round of reforms. However, the 2011 education reforms, though necessary, focused on the adults in the system, addressing teacher pay and tenure. The governor’s recent selection of Dale Erquiaga as superintendent of public instruction is an opportunity for a fresh start on education reform — beginning and ending with the children in mind.

Unfortunately, Nevada law allows parents to make decisions on everything except education. They are free to choose what doctors their children see, what sports they play and what summer camp they attend, but not where they learn the essential skills of life. Parents are the most qualified people to make these decisions because they know their children — their skills, personalities and needs — better than anyone else ever could.

Yet when it comes to education, that decision-making power vanishes. Government bureaucrats use arbitrary lines to decide whose children go to which school, and there’s nothing parents can do if the assigned public school doesn’t fit their child’s needs as well as a school in a nearby district does.

The system isn’t just unfair to parents; it has left Nevada near the bottom of national education rankings. Nevada ranks 48th in graduation rate, with barely 3 in 5 students finishing high school in four years. At the elementary level, fewer than 5 percent of students test at the advanced level in reading and math, languishing at 46th in the country. By defending the failed status quo, politicians send a demoralizing message that they, and not parents, know what’s best for our children.

Reforms focusing on school choice, which have been broadly embraced by states such as Indiana and Louisiana, would turn these tables and put parents back in the driver’s seat. The tax money that each family pays into the school system would be returned to parents in the form of a scholarship that could be used at any accredited Nevada school — not simply the one that is closest geographically. Many families would likely use this scholarship to send their children to the local public school. Others may choose a public school in another town; a charter, private or parochial school; or even a virtual classroom. But every family would be able to use this scholarship to pick the best place for their child to grow and learn.

To his credit, Gov. Sandoval attempted to enact school choice-based reforms earlier in his term, but the Legislature refused to even consider his bill — despite the fact that an overwhelming 69 percent of mothers with school-age children support school choice. These politicians sent a demoralizing message that they, and not parents, know what’s best for our children.

School choice wouldn’t just empower parents. It would make more academic and extracurricular options available to children. Under the current system, a budding violinist at a school with an underfunded music department would be out of luck, but opportunity scholarships would allow that child’s parents to send him or her to a nearby school with a thriving music program. The same would apply for students interested in math, science, theater or athletics.

With states spending about a quarter of their budgets on K-12 education, school choice can also help alleviate deficits. The per-student cost of education is frequently higher at public schools than private schools, so when parents use their tax credit to send their child to a private school, the government saves thousands of dollars. Choice has also been shown to boost test scores at traditional public schools by alleviating overcrowding, which gives teachers more time to tend to the needs of each student.

Education is the ultimate gateway to upward mobility, and reforms focusing on school choice can help rescue children from schools that deprive them of opportunities. When families in failing school districts are given priority for these tax credits, parents who can’t afford private-school tuition are thrown a lifeline. And, by giving every Nevada child the opportunity to attend a properly performing school, we would open up a world of possibility to those children currently trapped in overcrowded, underfunded schools.

Let’s hope that the governor and new superintendent can inspire the Legislature to push forward on efforts that put Nevada’s children first.

Erik Telford is vice president for strategic initiatives and outreach at the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity.

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