Bak tu skul in th Silvur Stayt

D. Muska

Few students are happy to return to school after summer vacation, but Nevada students unlucky enough to attend one of the state’s many failing government schools have especially good reason to feel upset: Despite well-meaning “reforms” and massive infusions of additional funding, the Silver State’s government-education system continues to demonstrate little real ability to perform its basic mission.

During the 2001-2002 school year, NPRI will propose a number of market-oriented policies aimed at addressing the state’s education deficit. But it is always helpful to first clearly define the core issue. So, herewith, some straight talk about the failure of the Silver State’s government schools, and a description of the main roadblock to meaningful education reforms.

First, the Sorry Stats

Nevada citizens, collectively, are some of the least educated in the United States. According to new figures from the U.S. Census Bureau, the Silver State is fourth from the bottom of the states in percentage of residents with a college diploma (only Arkansas, Kentucky and West Virginia rank lower). A whopping 60 percent of applicants fail to pass the Nevada driver’s license exam, which is written at a sixth-grade level. And these statistics can’t be explained away as merely the results of an influx of poorly educated adults—the percentage is too high.

Consider Nevada’s scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), a test that measures and compares students in most of the states. In 1998, Nevada eighth-graders performed poorly on the NAEP writing test. Only 17 percent were ranked “proficient” or better, and of the 35 states that participated in the assessment, only three states scored lower than Nevada. Last year, a mere 16 percent of the Silver State’s fourth-graders performed at or above the NAEP’s proficiency level in math. (The figure for the nation was 25 percent.) Nevada eighth-graders fared only slightly better, with 20 percent math proficiency, compared with 26 percent for the nation.

The general achievement level of Nevada’s high school students appears to be slightly better than the performance of elementary students. But appearances are deceiving. The state’s dropout rate is double the nation’s average. By removing so many of the worst students from the mix, Nevada’s dropout rate artificially inflates the achievement of the students who remain. Even so, about one in five of the state’s high-school seniors fail—despite repeated attempts—to pass the exam required for graduation.

The state’s students perform slightly better than the national average on the SAT, but even this encouraging statistic is deceptive. Since so few Nevada students—only about a third—even take the SAT, many poor-performing students are weeded out, boosting the state’s scores. If the percentage of Nevadans taking the SAT matched the national average, the Silver State’s score would doubtless be significantly lower.

Last year Nevada’s verbal score fell, and the long-run trend is even more disturbing. A recent study revealed that during the last two decades, Nevada’s SAT scores dropped by 2.6 percent. Additionally, the few high school graduates who decide to continue their education (Nevada’s college-continuation rate is only half the national average) often encounter serious problems once they arrive on campus. Since the entrance requirements for Nevada’s government universities are not demanding, many freshmen arrive totally unprepared for college-level work. Almost half need to take remedial classes in math or English. A whopping 65 percent of UNLV freshmen do not complete their degree requirements in six years; for UNR, the figure is 56 percent.

Why So Bad?

A recent study cast light on the main reason for Nevada’s education deficit, namely, the state education establishment’s refusal to let kids escape the failing government-school model. Last year the Manhattan Institute ranked states by the number of options parents have for educating their children. Called the “Education Freedom Index,” it considered charter schools, vouchers and light home-schooling regulations. Nevada’s score was dismal—only the leftist hotspots of Hawaii and West Virginia imposed more shackles on parents and kids.

This pathetic ranking in education freedom directly relates to the poor quality of Nevada’s schooling. That’s because research increasingly shows that it’s the freedom-oriented reforms that work. It’s common knowledge that home-schooled children score substantially higher than their counterparts in government schools. The explosive growth of charter schools—which are freed from many of the stifling regulations placed on traditional government schools—is another indication of parents’ thirst for education options.

But it is vouchers, both private and public, that are producing the most startling results. Last year the Heartland Institute found that of the 82 choice schools in Milwaukee, 39 spent less per student than the $5,000 voucher, thus saving Wisconsin taxpayers millions of dollars. Test scores are up, parental satisfaction is high and Milwaukee government schools have been forced to use radio ads and launch new, more innovative schools in order to retain their students. Cleveland’s voucher program, first funded by the Ohio legislature in 1996, has yielded similar results—lower per pupil costs, soaring levels of parental satisfaction, and higher test scores.

Perhaps most encouraging is the effect market education seems to have on the achievement gap between white and minority students, a problem that is especially severe in Nevada. Earlier this week the Cato Institute’s Darcy Olsen wrote that if “black students across the nation had the same scores as black students in private schools, the national black/white achievement gap would shrink from 33 points to 13 points; for Hispanics, the disparity would move from 29 points to 9. Even controlling for income levels, the private school advantage holds.”


“Despite criminally low test scores,” writes syndicated columnist Michelle Malkin, “enormous waste, unsafe classrooms and administrative incompetence, the public schools remain a hallowed and untouchable fixture.”

Nowhere is her observation more true than here in Nevada, where Big Education—year after year and decade after decade—continues to deny tens of thousands of youngsters the good schools they otherwise would be able to attend.

It’s time to give freedom a chance.