How Nevada can finally fix its failing schools

The following is the essay submitted by Ryan Everson as part of his application for the Professor R.S. Nigam & NPRI Freedom Scholarship. Ryan, who will attend Arizona State University this fall, received the scholarship for his outstanding argument for school choice, as well as his many academic and community achievements. To learn more about Ryan and the annualscholarship, please click here.

By Ryan Everson

Nevada’s K-12 public education system hasn’t been on par with the rest of the nation for a long time, and despite all the bickering and blame being thrown around, the state Legislature has yet to do anything to solve the system’s problems. Many Democrats and even some Republicans have placed the blame on funding and Nevada’s per-student expenditure. They claim that increasing spending will guarantee better performance in our public schools, which is why Gov. Brian Sandoval has proposed a business license tax that will increase revenue by $1.3 billion. What our politicians must realize, though, is that more money isn’t the answer. So often in life, the most valuable things to us are the things that money can’t buy, and for Nevada public education, that thing is school choice.

Despite what the skeptics say, school choice is not a new or unproven solution to Nevada’s problems. As of now, 21 states and Washington, D.C., have passed laws allowing for school choice. Additionally, the Friedman Foundation has conducted numerous studies on all facets of school choice. Friedman noted that 11 out of 12 empirical studies found that school choice improves student outcomes, while one found no visible impact. No study found a negative impact. Out of another 23 empirical studies examining school choice’s effect on public schools, 22 found that school choice improved public school performance, while one found no visible impact. Again, no study found a negative effect. An additional six studies were conducted to find school choice’s fiscal impact. All six studies found that school choice saved taxpayers a lot of money.  

There is a mountain of evidence proving that school choice is an effective way of improving Nevada’s education system, but there is also ample evidence proving that increased spending is not an intelligent option, and we need look no further than our own public schools to see that. Glenn Cook of the Las Vegas Review-Journal writes that at the elementary level, one- and two-star schools in Nevada spend over $1,200 more per student than the five-star schools. The same results can be seen on a national level as well. According to a U.S Census Bureau report published in May 2014, Indiana, Colorado, Florida and Washington all have very low per-student expenditures compared with the national average. Yet earlier this year, the American Legislative Exchange Council ranked each state’s schools among the top 10 nationally. This completely debunks the myth that you need high expenditures to have successful students, and proves that states that spending much more money on K-12 education are cheating their taxpayers through inefficient spending.

Also noteworthy in ALEC’s ratings is that Indiana, Colorado, Florida and Washington have private school choice programs, granting opportunity scholarships to those who need a way out of failing public schools. It’s surely no coincidence that the states have such programs and enjoy such a high national ranking. Nevada has finally taken one big step in that same direction in the past month, with the Legislature passing and Gov. Sandoval signing Assembly Bill 165, the Nevada Educational Choice Scholarship Program. The program, effective starting this fall, allows businesses to donate to the choice scholarship fund and receive an offsetting tax credit from the state, and it will begin rescuing students from low-performing schools, allowing them to attend higher-performing private schools.

While opportunity scholarships are a major step toward creating a strong and fiscally efficient education system, many states also have parent trigger laws in place, allowing parents to “fire” their public school. Most trigger laws require that a school be designated as low-achieving for three consecutive years before parents can petition to intervene. However, states such as Indiana say three years is too long and allow a petition to be made after just two years. Local opponents of parent trigger laws argue that it would diminish job security in the Clark County School District, putting its employees at risk. While this may be true, teachers and administrators who are competent and doing their job well have nothing to fear. The argument essentially puts the well-being of bad teachers ahead of the well-being of innocent students. It shouldn’t take a conservative mind to realize the flaw in such an argument.

While implementing these changes would certainly steer Nevada’s education system in the right direction, it is pivotal that we take action on other fronts, as well. Nevada should allow more charter schools and promote vouchers and education savings accounts, giving students multiple means to attain the best possible educational outcomes. Most everyone realizes that Nevada’s system is broken and in need of some major reforms. However, what we as a state also need to realize is that more spending does not necessarily correlate to higher test scores and more successful, better educated students. But school choice does.

I am fortunate to have attended Coronado High School and its feeder schools, which are regarded as some of the very best in the state. As a result, I am now very well-prepared for college. But I was afforded much of that opportunity simply based on what ZIP code my parents live in. Though I’m glad to have benefited greatly from my public school education, it is foolish that others should suffer from it simply because of where they live or lack of finances, especially when we can resolve the issue without raising taxes. By giving Nevada’s students choices for their education, outcomes like mine could arise not only from my neighborhood, but from absolutely anywhere in the state.

Benjamin Franklin once said, “An investment in knowledge pays the best interest.” It is surely in Nevada’s best interest to implement the school choice reforms, to give every child the opportunity to succeed.