Nevada parents very interested in school-choice options

Karen Gray

Parents want the best education possible for their children — and they're willing to do almost anything to get it.

For instance, this past April, Reno's MyNews4 reported that approximately 50 families in Churchill County began sleeping overnight April 27 at the county fairgrounds. They stayed and slept there until April 30 in hopes of securing enrollment spots for Oasis Charter.

Melissa Mackedon, a founding member of Oasis, was asked by the TV station why parents felt so strongly. Was it because of the 20-student cap on classroom size at Oasis Charter? Or was it parents' frustration with the public school system and its looming cutbacks?

"I think it's both," said Mackedon.

"I'd camp out for a week. And I think parents across the country who might think 'they are crazy'… well, you can laugh about it and joke, but I think 1,000 people watching this would say they'd absolutely do the exact same thing for their son or daughter," said Mackedon.

Those parents — the ones "crazy" enough to camp out for a week to give their children a better education — are why the school-choice movement is gaining steam in Nevada and nationwide.

School choice, generally speaking, refers to an array of programs geared toward giving families a choice in the school their child attends. As such, it has long been a hotly debated public policy issue, whether nationally or here in Nevada.

Sometimes the fights are over school vouchers, subsidies given directly to parents for tuition at the schools they choose, even if private. At other times the issue concerns charter schools — public schools that are privately run. And sometimes the struggles are over open-enrollment plans, where parents get to choose which public school their child attends, notwithstanding the resistance of school-district administrations.

On the one side, school-choice proponents feel that by tying funding to students and forcing public schools to win the assent of parents, public schools would be motivated to improve. On the other side, opponents fear that "choice" programs will drain support away from schools that are in most need of public funds. Typically, the political debates center on the use of public funds for privately run education, with Republicans in favor and Democrats opposed.

While school choice is in no way a new concept, the United States' continued decline in world education rankings, has pushed school reform center stage and given great momentum for school choice.

According to the Alliance for School Choice's 2010-11 annual School Choice Yearbook, the number of states (including the District of Columbia) that have private school choice more than doubled between 2004 and 2010, jumping from six states to 13. As a comparison, it took 14 years to reach six states, including D.C., after Milwaukee public schools implemented the first state-funded school-voucher program in 1990.

The pattern is similar for U.S. charter schools, which — according to the National Center for Educational Statistics — more than tripled between the 1999-2000 and 2008-09 school years. According to NCES data, 1,456 charter schools existed in 34 states in 2000, compared to 4,601 charter schools in 40 states by 2009. Nevada's own Department of Education lists 27 charter schools for the Silver State as of April 2011, an increase of 22 schools over the five schools noted in the NCES data for 2000.

Nevertheless, while school choice is gaining bipartisan support across the country, in Nevada — a state ranking near the bottom of most education-achievement measures — school choice remains the subject of much political jockeying.

Early in the 2011 Legislative Session, Democrat committee chairs squelched the attempt of Gov. Brian Sandoval, a Republican, to bring school vouchers to Nevada, by killing three pieces of Republican-sponsored school-voucher legislation: AJR8, AB367 and SB366.

However, a charter-school bill — SB212, which creates a state charter-school authority and gives it regulating and governing powers over Nevada's charter schools — is still alive. Its idea, of an autonomous state charter-school authority, was first initiated in the 2009 session as a bipartisan effort to deal with administrative burdens placed on the Department of Education by the heavy public demand for charter schools.

After passing SB212 on April 13, the Senate Education Committee sent the bill to Senate Finance, chaired by Senate Majority Leader Steven Horsford, a Democrat. Even though the Finance Committee declared on April 26 — the day before the Churchill parents began their camp out — that it had no jurisdiction over the bill, Horsford sat on the bill until June 1, when he sent it back, without recommendation, to the Senate Education Committee. The Senate unanimously passed its version on June 4. The Assembly passed an amended version early this morning, which means the Senate has to adopt the same version before the session ends at 1 a.m. tomorrow, June 7, 2011. If the Senate doesn't act, the bill will die.

Meanwhile, as legislators play kick-the-can with school choice, Nevada's parents struggle and clamor to obtain the best education they can for their children within the current system.

In Clark County, earlier this year, parents expressed an intensity similar to the Churchill County parents. When Somerset Academy came to Henderson, proposing to open a 400-seat charter school for the 2011-12 school year, the school's founders were inundated by more than 800 letters of interest.

Responding immediately, Somerset set out to expand its program. Instead of purchasing just one building to house its school, Somerset attempted to add another one, next door. However, just as the deal was ready to close, another bidder suddenly appeared and snapped up the second building. Then, just five days before Somerset was scheduled to close on the first building, the new purchaser of the second building objected to the placement of a school on the property and threatened litigation if Somerset founders proceeded with their plans. 

In February, Somerset's board notified parents, "It is unlikely that we will be able to obtain and prepare a location suitable of housing the 400-800 students which we previously expected. We may open at a much smaller size of 200-250 students, and expand in the coming years after we are able to develop our own buildings and facilities."

At least 800 Clark County parents wait to learn if Somerset will open in August.

In another small step forward for parental choice, last year, the departing superintendent of the Clark County School District, Walt Rulffes, established open enrollment for the 2011-12 school year, allowing parents to transfer their students from the schools originally zoned and enroll in any CCSD school that had seats available. Parents will be responsible for transportation.

According to Dr. Byron Green, CCSD's director of instruction and facility administration, when the open enrollment application process was opened earlier this year, the district received 1,200 applications. Of those, 1,176 students received their school of first choice, or 98.5 percent. Three CCSD schools exceeded their seat capacity in the process.

Interestingly, Dr. Green reports 90 applications were from students not currently enrolled in the school district. Because CCSD was committed to a true open-enrollment program, he said, the district did not seek student information other than name, ID number (if CCSD student), parent contact information and the student's three school choices. CCSD therefore cannot determine where the 90 new students transferred from — charter schools, private schools or other districts.

Nevertheless, it's apparent that school choice doesn't necessarily mean that public schools have to suffer in comparison.

One parent, Sherry Green (no relation to Dr. Green), says she transferred her daughter from a charter school to a standard public school because it was a better academic fit.

"When another option was offered, which didn't require me to send my daughter to her zoned middle school," Green told the Nevada Policy Research Institute, "I started looking at everyone's tests scores. I picked the schools with the best performance."

So, it's a myth that standard public schools can't compete: They only need to perform.

Then, if parents, including those in Nevada, are allowed to choose, they'll do what they do everywhere: They'll research the best opportunities available for their particular children and choose the best-fitting selection.

Karen Gray is an education researcher at the Nevada Policy Research Institute. For more visit