Nevada behind the curve on charter schools

Patrick Gibbons

Public education is expensive — about 150 percent more expensive than it was 50 years ago. Public education is also ineffective, especially for low-income and minority students. An ineffective but expensive public education not only means that resources are being wasted, but that young minds are being wasted as well.

In Nevada, and across the nation, large achievement gaps exist between the rich and the poor and between white and minority students. A 2009 report by McKinsey and Company estimates that eliminating these achievement gaps would increase the U.S. GDP by $1.3 trillion to $2.3 trillion.

Though the public education establishment is steadfastly stubborn in its refusal to make fundamental changes — such as adopting vouchers and tax credits, which, research shows, provide tremendous benefits to minority and low-income students — there is another option that is gaining wide bipartisan support: charter schools.

Charter schools are privately run public schools. They control their own budgets and curricula and can hire and fire their employees. Many states allow charter schools the freedom to negotiate their own teacher contracts — freeing them from restrictive union contracts. Today, over 4,500 charter schools in 41 states educate 1.4 million students.

Charter schools are growing almost everywhere — except Nevada. About 1 percent of Nevada's students attend just 29 charter schools. Nevada's charter-school program has stalled due to hostility from the state and local bureaucrats. They claim that sponsoring and regulating charter schools is expensive — but we know that claim is false.

Not only does state law provide that additional funds go to the government bodies that charter and oversee charter schools, but the experience of Arizona emphatically disproves the Nevada bureaucracy's talking points. With a staff of just seven, Arizona oversees more than 450 charter schools educating over 93,000 students — about 9 percent of that state's student population.

Delaying the expansion of Nevada's charter-school program is not only expensive, but harmful for students as well. The explosion of charter schools in Arizona — the second-fastest-growing state in the nation — helped keep capital-outlay and debt expenditures down. That's because charter schools, unlike traditional public schools, must pay for everything using the per-pupil funds they receive. To earn funds, charter schools have to attract and retain students. Traditional public schools, to pay back massive bonds, only have to tax people.

According to figures from the National Center for Education Statistics, in FY 2006 Nevada's capital outlays per pupil were 62 percent higher than Arizona's. Debt-per-pupil for Nevada was also 77 percent higher than the national average and 190 percent larger than for Arizona. If Nevada were as efficient as Arizona, we'd save $320 million a year on capital expenses for public education.

But charter schools aren't merely better fiscal stewards than traditional public schools — they're also better educators. Charter schools are more likely to actually educate low-income and minority students. When apples-to-apples comparisons with traditional public schools are made, charter students win — hands down.

Caroline Hoxby, of Stanford University and the National Bureau of Economic Research, found that students randomly selected to attend charter schools in Chicago and New York City outperformed students who desired to attend but were not selected. The longer low-income students in New York City attended charter schools, the more their achievement gap vis-à-vis wealthy students declined. Low-income students attending charter schools from kindergarten through 12th grade eliminated 86 percent of their math achievement gap and 66 percent of their English gap.

Research by Marcus Winters at the Manhattan Institute found that competition from charter schools made traditional public schools perform better. According to Dr. Winters, "For every 1 percent of a public school's students who leave for a charter, reading proficiency among those who remain increases by about 0.02 standard deviations." While modest, Dr. Winters considers this a significant result, given the allegation that charter schools negatively impact public schools.

Charter schools use resources more efficiently, save tax dollars, increase student achievement and improve the quality of traditional public schools — so what is holding the Silver State back?

Nevada needs more charter schools now.

Patrick R. Gibbons is an education policy analyst at the Nevada Policy Research Institute. This article first appeared in the December 2009 edition of Nevada Business.