Brian Sandoval and Rory Reid met this week to debate their respective ideas on how to improve education in the Silver State.
Reid's plan — a statewide, five-year expansion of Nevada's Empowerment School program that Reid has rechristened his "Edge" plan — would, if implemented, be a distinct improvement over the status quo. Cutting out middle managers in the central-office bureaucracy, the Edge plan would give greater control of resources to principals and give teachers greater control over their classrooms.
Importantly, its open-enrollment dimension would also empower parents — allowing them to send their children to any public school they believe would best meet their children's needs.
Brian Sandoval agrees with all of the above, but would empower parents even more — issuing them vouchers that can be used to attend private schools as well. Like a scholarship — such as the Pell Grant for low-income students or the G.I. Bill for military veterans — a voucher helps parents and students afford tuition.
During the debate, Reid harshly attacked Sandoval's voucher plan. Taking his comments at face value, Reid appears to misunderstand the concept entirely.
Reid first argued that the vouchers would only benefit the 4 percent of Nevada's students currently enrolled in private schools. This assumes that no parents with students in public schools would choose to send them to a private school, given the chance.
That assumption is false: Almost half of Nevadans would choose private schooling for their children if financial assistance were available. That was one of the findings of a scientific poll of 1,000 likely voters in 2008 conducted by the Nevada Policy Research Institute and the Foundation for Educational Choice. Specifically, 48 percent of Nevadans would choose a private school, given the option, while another 23 percent would choose a charter school. Just 11 percent of Nevadans would consider the traditional public school their first choice. Clearly, Nevadans want what Sandoval is now offering.
Reid also asserted that vouchers would remove $100 million from the public school system. At best, this is a red herring. After all, the purpose of public education isn't to fund public schools, it is to educate students. So shouldn't we be funding schools that work, regardless of whether they are public or private?
Finally, Reid tried to argue that a voucher would only benefit wealthy students because it wouldn't cover the full tuition of certain elite private schools. The argument is hypocritical; Reid doesn't oppose food stamps — which are vouchers — simply because the food stamps don't cover the full cost of food.
Many uninformed individuals mistakenly believe that all private schools are expensive boarding schools like the $38,000-a-year Philips Exeter Academy or elite day schools like the $30,000-a-year Sidwell Friends. But, according to U.S. Department of Education statistics, 79 percent of all private school students attend schools charging tuitions less than $10,000 a year.
In fact, the U.S. Department of Education found the average private school tuition was just $8,549 — cheaper than the average public school, which exceeds $10,700 a year, not including debt repayment, capital expenditures and teacher pensions.
In Nevada, several private schools charge tuitions under $6,000, and only a handful exceed $10,000 a year. Furthermore, many of Nevada's private schools offer discounts for each additional child enrolled, need-based scholarships and fee waivers for parents who volunteer at the school.
Though Reid did not claim vouchers would not help students, an academic consensus exists that should be recognized: Vouchers do improve student achievement.
Today, nine out of 11 random-assignment studies — the gold standard of scientific research — show that students achieve more when using vouchers to attend private schools. And one of those two studies that did not identify an achievement increase found a massive 21-point improvement in graduation rates. Furthermore, 18 out of 19 studies found that public schools improve when faced with the competition from private schools. To date, no credible research shows that public schools are harmed by vouchers.
Reid is right to advocate open enrollment — it simply isn't fair to zone kids to schools based on how much housing their parents can afford. But Reid is wrong to oppose vouchers.
Public education is about the public's desire that their children receive the best education possible. Where that best education occurs — at a charter school, a virtual school, a home school, a traditional public school or a private school — should not matter.
What matters is whether Nevada parents can finally be confident that their children are truly learning.
Patrick R. Gibbons is an education policy analyst at the Nevada Policy Research Institute. For more information visit http://npri.org/.