A new approach in Nevada education

Patrick Gibbons

For years, the debate over public education in Nevada has been over how much to spend, rather than how to use resources effectively.

Anyone still lucid after the recent special session should recall that spending more money has never produced results. Indeed, adjusting for inflation, Nevada has already increased per-pupil spending 180 percent over the last 50 years.

Spending more money hasn't produced results because public education is structured to focus on complying with government and district regulations and on funding jobs for adults — rather than on what truly works for students. If Nevada wants education that works, we need fundamental change in public education's architecture.

Unfortunately, education is a hotly partisan issue, where the "Party of No" is regularly the Democrats.

Times may be changing, however. President Obama and some national Democrats, including advocacy groups like Democrats for Education Reform, increasingly embrace reforms like alternative teacher certification, teacher evaluations, merit pay, virtual schools and charter schools.

Parental choice — the reform most vehemently opposed by Democrats still in bondage to the teacher unions — is also gaining ground on the research front. In random assignment studies — the "gold standard" of scientific research — nine of 10 find voucher students outperforming their counterparts in traditional public schools. No such study finds public schools outperforming voucher schools.

Studies have also shown that vouchers increase racial diversity, tolerance, civic knowledge and graduation rates. The competition even helps improve traditional public schools.

Groups like the Black Alliance for Education Options and the Hispanic Council for Reform and Educational Options are showing that minority parents, when it comes to their children's future, are willing to exit the Democrat "big tent." Civil rights activists, such as Dr. Howard Fuller of Marquette University, increasingly see vouchers as a civil rights issue and a method of delivering high-quality schools to all students, and most especially those in underserved communities.

In Florida, some state Democrats are breaking ranks to support expansion of the Sunshine State's "Step Up for Students" scholarship program, which helps more than 20,000 low-income kids attend any public or private school their parents choose.

Yet, despite these successes, many Democrats still fight vouchers and any threat to union monopoly control over K-12 education. Congress killing the very popular D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program is a revealing example.

Still, some reforms have shown the potential to draw broad, bi-partisan support: Local school autonomy and public-school parental choice are important examples. The idea is simple: Give local schools more operational autonomy, including in how they use their funds. Then allow those funds to follow the child once parents select among the competing public schools.

This brings a much-needed market orientation to public schools — an alternative far superior to the Soviet-style, command-and-control, bureaucratic monopoly we now suffer.

The fact is, spending more money on a seriously defective, outmoded public-schools model won't produce the results Nevada needs.

It's long past time that lawmakers gave serious thought to how our state's scarce resources could be spent more effectively.

Patrick R. Gibbons is an education policy analyst at the Nevada Policy Research Institute. This commentary first appeared article originally appeared in the Reno Gazette-Journal on March 14, 2010.