Quality & Quantity

Nevada's Educational Challenges

By Matthew Ladner
  • Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Introduction

School enrollment nationwide has exceeded the all-time high of 49 million, a figure the baby boomers set in 1970. In 2005, over 49 million students enrolled in public elementary, middle and high schools. Fast-growing Nevada has set the pace, experiencing rapid growth in its student population.

Looking further into the future, the US Census Bureau estimates that the number of Nevada children under the age of 18 will almost double between the years 2000 and 2030. To accommodate this dramatic growth in the school-age population, Nevada will have to build new schools and renovate existing ones, while attempting to avoid increasing its taxes and public debt. Data from the National Center for Education Statistics projects a 26 percent increase in the Nevada public school population by 2016. The U.S. Department of Education reported that population at 412,395 in 2005-06.

Significantly, Nevada faces not just a growth problem but also a severe problem with education quality. Consider the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), which tests representative samples of students in all 50 states. Also known as "the Nation's Report Card," NAEP provides the most highly respected source of cross-state academic comparison data.

The NAEP data shows that Nevada's public schools face serious problems in terms of academic achievement. Nevada's fourth graders rank 46th in the nation in reading skills, and its eighth graders rank 47th.

The NAEP results tell a mixed, but mostly negative story. To begin with the positive, Nevada's fourth graders showed some progress on the 2007 exam. On the negative side, however, an alarming 43 percent of Nevada fourth graders scored below the basic level on reading even on the 2007 exam. Only 25 percent of Nevada fourth graders scored at the Proficient and Advanced levels.

Children who fail to obtain basic literacy skills in the early grades face a grim academic future. Such students commonly fall further and further behind grade level with each passing year. Lacking an ability to read at grade level, they struggle with course work and begin dropping out in large numbers in the late middle-school years.

Furthermore, the improvement seen among Nevada fourth graders has been matched by a decline in achievement among eighth graders. Thirty-seven percent scored below basic in reading, while only 22 percent scored at the Proficient and Advanced levels. Rather than moving in the right direction, eighth grade reading scores in Nevada have declined since the late 1990s.

Those inclined to make apologies for the shortcomings of the public education system often call for increased funding for public schools. However, Nevada taxpayers have been pursuing such a policy for decades. Inflation-adjusted, per-pupil figures from the National Center for Education Statistics demonstrate that Nevada lawmakers have more than doubled real Nevada public school spending per pupil since the early 1960s.

Nevada's quality and quantity problems are interrelated. The need to construct new public school facilities ultimately draws educational funds out of the classroom. 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. Likewise, the percent of per-pupil funding going to service school debt was over 60 percent higher in the Silver State than the national average.

Given Nevada's rapid growth, increased facility costs are largely unavoidable. However, a comparison between Nevada and its neighbor, Arizona, is instructive. Like Nevada, Arizona faces a surging population that has required a large increase in its number of schools. Nevada and Arizona have taken turns ranking first and second in measures of state population growth. Between 1995 and 2005, Arizona's K-12 student population expanded by approximately 351,000 students. During the same period, Nevada's K-12 population increased by just over 147,000 students. As a percentage of original student population, these increases were comparable – a 47 percent increase in Arizona and a 55 percent increase in Nevada.

Nevada spent almost twice as much per student on capital costs as did Arizona in 2003. Like any debt, borrowing for new school facilities must ultimately be repaid in the form of lower classroom spending or higher taxes.

Nevada taxpayers paid almost twice as much per student in debt service as did Arizona residents. The need for new school facilities did not end in 2003. Each year, Nevada public school districts continue to take on millions in new debt in an attempt to keep up with rising enrollment.

School choice not only can improve public school performance and reduce the need for new public school debt, but it also can reduce the operational spending burden on state taxpayers. School choice programs place students in private schools for less than the cost to educate the student in the public system and thus result in savings to the taxpayer.

A clear example of this comes from Florida's corporate scholarship tax credit program, Step Up for Students. It gives a dollar-for-dollar tax credit to corporations that assist nonprofits to provide private school scholarships. The nonpartisan but left-of-center Collins Center for Public Policy concluded in 2002 the credit would save the state $3,844 for each student using a scholarship credit voucher.

The Center estimated the credit would save Florida taxpayers more than $55 million per year, and more than $600 million over 10 years. In 2007, the Center updated its reporting on the program and found its 2002 estimates of taxpayer savings had been confirmed.

Providing low-income students a better education of their own choosing at a substantially lower cost to the taxpayer is a win-win scenario for children and taxpayers.

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