Nevada needs more charter schools

Patrick Gibbons

Contrary to what some in the public education establishment regularly imply, charter schools in Nevada are public schools. Tuition is free and any student may be admitted regardless of race, religion, sex or academic ability.

Typically, charter schools receive from government less money per student than do traditional public schools, but in return are subjected to less of the red tape that burdens most public schools. Instead of the one-size-fits-all, centralized approach to educating children, charter schools offer many different philosophies, allowing parents to pick and choose which method works best for their children.

Most empirical studies of charter schools have concluded that charter schools are beneficial to students, increasing graduation rates and the likelihood that students will attend college.

Compared to states like Florida and Arizona, Nevada has only a meager charter school program. In Florida, 389 charter schools serve more than 105,000 students, while in Arizona, 510 schools serve 99,600 students. Nevada, by comparison, in 2007 had just 22 charter schools serving approximately 7,300 students. Only 1.8 percent of Nevada's students attend charter schools compared to 8.6 percent in Arizona and 3.6 percent in Florida.

Results in those two states spectacularly surpass those in Nevada. Charter schools are one of many reasons why educational achievement in Florida dramatically outpaces that in Nevada's public schools. And while educational achievement in Arizona and Nevada is virtually indistinguishable, the fact that Arizona has many charters means that the state spends considerably less per pupil. Most of the Arizona savings reflect the lower capital outlays and smaller school debt, arising from the fact that charter schools are built with private, not taxpayer, dollars. Because charter schools must raise their own capital, they economize, attempting to get the best value for the lowest possible cost when constructing their school. School districts across Nevada make no such effort to save taxpayers money.

If Nevada's charter school program were as robust as Arizona's, Silver State taxpayers could save as much as $320 million in capital outlays annually. Reduced costs on construction would also mean less debt in the long run. While Nevada unfortunately has one of the heaviest education-debt burdens in the country, at $11,776 per student, such debt in Arizona is just $4,061 per student.

Currently Nevada mortgages its children's future, making them pay an additional increment for the poor-quality education we currently give them.

Despite their cost savings and the improved educational achievement they bring, charter schools meet resistance at almost every level of government in Nevada. People opposing charter schools regularly claim that charter schools perform poorly compared to traditional public schools. This claim is false.

Approximately 25 percent of charter schools in Nevada failed to make adequately yearly progress on No Child Left Behind, earning them a designation of "In Need of Improvement." But 28 percent of traditional public schools earned the same designation.

A regression analysis conducted by the Nevada Policy Research Institute also examined the relationship between a school's status as a charter or traditional public school and the length of time a school has been designated "In Need of Improvement." The analysis reveals that charter schools and traditional public schools are virtually indistinguishable when it comes to the AYP. In short, charter schools are not underperforming relative to traditional public schools.

Nevada charter schools are so few in number that they exert hardly any competitive pressures on other public schools. Empirical evidence suggests that more charter schools would encourage more competition and increase student achievement among all public schools. In the worst-case scenario, more charter schools will neither help nor harm student achievement. However, that same worst-case scenario also suggests that more charter schools would allow Nevada to save several hundred million dollars.

With the state "desperate" for more cash and with students in dire need of a better education, why aren't legislative leaders pushing for more charter schools?

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