Progress report

Karen Gray

Could there be education reform in Nevada's future? There is certainly evidence that school choice is now getting a longer look than ever before among Silver State legislators and educators. The past year has seen marked progress for the concept of school choice.

Take charter schools, for example.

When the State Board of Education followed in the footsteps of the Clark and Washoe county school districts in November 2007 and refused to allow any new charter school sponsorships, members of Nevada's interim legislative education committee publicly made it clear that the move concerned them.

Then, the next summer, committee members moved to address and rectify some of the main issues raised by the moratoriums. They asked that legislation be drafted to create an independent state institute to serve as a local education agency, parallel to county school districts, and oversee charter schools. Assembly Bill 489, introduced by the Assembly Education Committee, led by Assemblywoman Bonnie Parnell, is currently making its way through the 2009 legislative process. Under that bill, the authority to sponsor charter schools and the authority to regulate them would move from the State Board of Education to a new, independent and statewide Nevada Charter School Institute.

In August 2008, the State Board of Education revised its charter school application regulations, saying it hoped to establish a clear and objective application process. And the board also lifted its moratorium on charter school sponsorship.

Sure, Nevada hasn't embraced school choice to the extent of Arizona or Florida, which, at last count, had about 900 charter schools between them, voucher programs for foster care children and for students with disabilities, plus individual and corporate scholarship tax-credit programs that assist families wishing to send their children to private schools.

Yet, given where Nevada is starting, what's happening is a definite step forward: Public school educators are realizing that to accomplish their mission and really improve student achievement, choice has to be in the mix.

Take for example the increasingly public commitment of the Clark County School District to expand its "choice" programs. For some time now, at just about any meeting of the Clark County school board, one has been able to hear the word choice resonating from the dais.

Last week, a presentation on graduation and drop-out rates highlighted successes of some of Clark County's choice schools. Dr. Lauren Kohut-Rost, deputy superintendent of instruction, explained to the board, "Expansion of choice is huge with graduation rates as kids have more opportunity to choose. And it's not just magnets and CTAs [career and technical academies], but it's the pilot open enrollment program that includes the Northeast Region." Kohut-Rost also had praise for empowerment schools.

According to Kohut-Rost's presentation, Clark County's Advanced Technology Academy, a choice school, is predicted to have a 97.8 percent graduation rate when the class of 2008 graduation rates are finalized by the Nevada Department of Education. Similarly, the Southeast Career and Technical Academy, formerly called Vo-Tech, was cited as always having the district's lowest drop-out rates, predicted to be 0.7 percent for the class of 2008. Another choice school, Cheyenne High School, an empowerment school, is anticipated to have a 4.8 percent drop-out rate for the class of 2008 — down from 5.3 percent for 2007. Cheyenne is thus predicted to be a full 1 percent under the 5.8 percent drop-out rate estimated for the whole district.

"When students have choice, they will absolutely perform," declared Dr. Lauren Kohut-Rost, reaffirming the Clark County School District's commitment to expand its choice programs.

It is an important turning point when CCSD publicly acknowledges the integral role that choice plays in student success. The district's commitment to expanding school choice and realizing it in the public education system definitely deserves praise. However, there are issues.

The realized building costs for the Clark County School District's most recent CTA campuses have ranged from $72 million to $108 million-plus. Taxpayers of Nevada and Clark County cannot bear that level of expense to establish more campuses like these. However, Nevada lawmakers could bring more of these programs to the state by passing legislation truly facilitating the establishment of charter schools, which do not use taxpayer dollars to build their facilities.

When it comes to school choice and education reform, Nevada is in a position to be innovative. School choice doesn't have to be a matter of private sector versus public sector.

If Nevada can mesh private and public through the concept of school choice, Silver State students could mirror the accomplishments of their peers in Florida, which now leads the nation in year-over-year student achievement.

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