When considering legislation, Nevada lawmakers have the difficult job of trying to foresee the pros and cons should a bill become law. School voucher proposals make that task a little easier: There are winners, and then there are more winners.
A school voucher allows tax dollars available for a child's education to "follow" him to the public or private school of his parents' choice. As a new report by Dr. Greg Forster of the Foundation for Educational Choice found, students who use vouchers and those who remain in public schools affected by vouchers are learning at improved rates.
Of the 10 "gold standard" random-assignment studies conducted on voucher programs, nine concluded that some or all participants benefitted academically from vouchers. Just one found no difference. As for public schools, 18 of 19 empirical studies showed vouchers impacted them positively, with one reporting no effect. Importantly, no empirical analysis has discovered negative effects from vouchers.
The logic as to why vouchers benefit students and schools is simple: The "threat" of families leaving encourages public and private schools to compete in order to better meet all students' needs. The children "left behind" in public schools enjoy smaller classrooms and more resources. And the students who leave public schools do so in favor of schools more suited to their needs and abilities. It's a win-win … win.
Protectors of public education's status quo claim school vouchers harm public schools. And yet, among the nation's 13 voucher programs operating in nine states and the District of Columbia, opponents can't identify one empirical study showing vouchers hurt students or schools academically. They fail to produce such a study because there isn't one.
That's why Nevadans should be encouraged by Gov. Brian Sandoval's proposed constitutional amendment to establish a voucher program in Nevada. Under this plan, all Nevada parents would receive vouchers worth at least half the money state and local governments spend on education per pupil. The other half would be available based on families' financial needs. Nevada currently spends more than $8,000 per student, including some federal dollars and excluding capital costs.
Empirical evidence suggests Gov. Sandoval's sizeable proposal would produce positive results among Nevada students. In fairness, Dr. Forster found vouchers' gains are generally more modest, with the larger academic improvements occurring among subgroups of students. But those gains are limited only because the programs themselves are limited by the "students they can serve, the resources they provide, and the freedom to innovate."
Still, even modest improvements are better than stagnancy or regression. And notably, school choice produces these results at a lower cost. Add another "win," this one for taxpayers.
Because of their myriad positive effects, vouchers also are winning greater bipartisan support. Gov. Sandoval joins the ranks of Republicans and Democrats nationwide who are forgoing the politically convenient, business-as-usual route: asking some taxpayers for more money to support public education. Instead, the governor is standing up for children's and their parents' interests while being mindful of taxpayers and educators. That's right: Contrary to popular opinion, vouchers also help school leaders.
Universal vouchers would give Nevadans the financial ability to open schools adapted to families' and communities' needs, rather than government's onerous rules and regulations. Such freedom would allow principals and teachers to employ new teaching methods and identify what works and what doesn't. That includes permitting school leaders to recognize high-quality teachers and help, or remove, ineffective ones.
Milton Friedman, "father" of the voucher concept, once said that the uniform and seniority-based structure of public education has created a system in which good teachers are grossly underpaid and poor teachers are grossly overpaid. Dr. Friedman was right. Under a voucher program, parental decision-making would ensure that only effective teachers were rewarded.
Vouchers also encourage greater parental responsibility by giving parents something previously unattainable: money, and thus buying power, which they could use to invest in schools (and teachers) suitable for their children.
Empirical evidence shows school vouchers are on a winning streak academically. And until such evidence continuously proves otherwise, lawmakers should think twice before handing vouchers undeserved legislative losses.
Jeff W. Reed is a state programs director with the Foundation for Educational Choice, the school choice legacy foundation of Milton and Rose Friedman, and a contributing writer to the Nevada Policy Research Institute. For more visit http://npri.org.