Saving the Young AND the Budget

By Steven Miller
  • Monday, November 11, 2002

Wouldn’t it be great if Nevada could make truly major improvements in K-12 education and yet at the same time save hundreds of millions of dollars annually while avoiding destructive new taxes?

Actually, we can. All we need are leaders in Carson City during this coming legislature who are truly fed up with wasting taxpayers’ money and care more about Nevada’s kids than pleasing Nevada’s teacher-union overlords. Of course, that will take political courage—or a massive message from the voters.

For years, solid research around America has shown, again and again, that huge bureaucratic school districts like those sprawling across Clark and Washoe counties don’t educate as well as small school districts. The reason? The latter get the benefit of competition.

“[M]etropolitan areas with maximum interdistrict choice elicit consistently higher test scores than do areas with zero interdistrict choice,” writes Harvard researcher Caroline M. Hoxby. “The 8th grade reading scores of students in highly competitive areas are 3.8 national percentile points higher than those of students in areas with no competition; their 10th grade math scores are 3.1 national percentile points higher; and their 12th grade reading scores are 5.8 national percentile points higher.

“Moreover,” notes Hoxby, “highly competitive districts spend 7.6 percent less than do districts with no competition. In other words, interdistrict competition appears to raise performance while lowering costs.”

Using Hoxby’s proportions as a rule of thumb, we can estimate the average annual savings that would flow from deconsolidating Nevada’s two metastasized school districts.

The Clark County School District’s yearly operating budget now runs around $1.3 billion, and 7.6 percent of that sum would come to around $87.1 million annually. The Washoe County district reported its budget for the 2001-2002 school year at $270.2 million. The same proportion there would be $20.5 million. Thus, between those two districts alone, savings to Silver State taxpayers would be around $107.6 million annually.

But deconsolidation of Nevada’s too-large school districts is not the only way to save hundreds of millions of dollars and at the same time, greatly improve elementary and secondary education.

An even larger fiscal reward would quickly flow from legislation allowing Nevada parents greater control over where their taxes can be spent to educate their children. It is deeply unfair that the State of Nevada takes the taxes of all parents—allegedly for the schooling of their children—but then denies financial equity to parents who would seek better education than that available at the unresponsive one-size-fits-all government schools.

Thousands of Nevada parents care so much about their children’s future that, with just a small allocation back to them of the taxes they pay, they will scrape up the remainder necessary to allow their offspring to attend superior private, charter or faith-related schools.

It is this reality that offers state lawmakers a way out of their current education and fiscal dilemmas. Not only can they introduce an extremely fruitful reform impulse into Nevada education, but also—at the same time—they can protect their constituents from the economic devastation of heavier taxes. A phased-in program in Clark County of tax-credit scholarships—initially set, say, around $2,000 and moving up, over a period of years, to around $5,000—would immediately begin removing hundreds of millions of dollars of unnecessary costs from the state budget.

Such a program of designated tax credits—call them partial scholarships—is actually the only way that rampant parental unhappiness with Nevada public schools can ever be ended. That unhappiness flows directly out of the fact that different parents always want different things from the schools. As David C. Rose, economics professor at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, points out:

Some [parents] want high-octane academics, some want an emphasis on the arts, some subscribe to educating the “whole child,” some are strong believers in using athletics to develop character, some want religion, some don’t. And so on…. The fundamental problem with public education is, and has always been, that we all want different things.

Rose notes that while food, like education, is very important, we don’t think it wise to impose socialized, centralized government food production, funded by “food-tax” dollars confiscated by the state. Yet in the realm of education, that’s exactly the kind of Soviet-style “solution” we’ve backed into. The result, naturally enough, is Soviet-style waste—not only of taxpayer funds but, tragically, of young people’s lives.

The solution for Nevada is choice: Both public and private schools must be allowed to specialize. And parents must be allowed to choose among them.

Steven B. Miller is policy director for the Nevada Policy Research Institute

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