Sandoval, Bush work to bring Florida-style education reforms to Nevada

Victor Joecks

It's easy to be cynical about education and education-reform efforts in Nevada.

For decades, we've known that Nevada's education system needs dramatic improvement. And for decades, unions, led by the Nevada State Education Association, have told Nevadans that spending more money would improve our schools. Thus, spend we have.

Over the last 50 years, Nevada has nearly tripled its inflation-adjusted, per-pupil spending. Despite this massive influx of money, education results have remained stagnant. Moreover, Nevada now has the lowest graduation rate in the country, at 41.8 percent.

Gov. Brian Sandoval, however, hasn't been content to simply pump more money into a broken system. During an early October visit by former Florida governor Jeb Bush, Sandoval made clear that he's committed to implementing education reforms like those that produced stunning educational improvement in Florida over the last decade.

The education reforms that Bush and Florida lawmakers began implementing in 1999 included vouchers, ending teacher tenure, ending social promotion, expanding virtual learning and giving schools letter grades based on performance.

Florida's achievement in the last dozen years is truly stunning. In 1998, Florida and Nevada had the exact same score on the National Assessment of Educational Progress fourth-grade reading test. Since then, Florida's fourth-grade reading scores have increased by approximately two grade levels, while Nevada's increased only half a grade. Especially remarkable have been Florida's gains for its African-American and Hispanic students: Their reading scores have jumped by 2.5 grade levels.

Sandoval sought many education reforms modeled after Florida's success during the 2011 Legislative Session, but the Democrat leadership killed most of them. Eventually, as part of the final budget compromise, the Legislature did approve some minor education reforms. Allowing districts to fire an ineffective tenured teacher after three years was one, while ending layoffs based on seniority — subject to collective bargaining — was another.

By bringing Jeb Bush to Nevada to talk about education reform, however, Sandoval made it clear that he's not giving up on Florida's reforms.

During a breakfast meeting, both governors spoke about the importance of ending social promotion. That's the practice of passing a child onto the next grade, even if the child has failed one or more subject areas. It's especially harmful when schools send kids on to the fourth grade when they don't yet know how to read. As Bush noted, a student learns to read until the third grade, and after that he or she reads to learn.

Thus, if a child who hasn't yet learned to read by the completion of the third grade is promoted  on to the fourth grade, he or she is set up to fail every single day in school thereafter.

The former Florida governor also emphasized the important role that opportunity scholarships, sometimes called vouchers, had in the improvement of Florida's public schools. He described how the possibility of students using scholarships to attend other schools motivated the worst academic schools to increase student achievement.

While Florida's remarkable gains are acknowledged by Nevada liberals, some attempt to attribute Florida's successes to increases in education spending and pre-K programs. Assemblywoman Lucy Flores tweeted that Nevada needs reform plus "increased investment," and Speaker John Oceguera tweeted that to turn around its schools, Florida made a "huge investment" in pre-K.

What liberals don't mention — or don't know — is that from the 1998-99 school year to the 1999-2000 school year, Florida's per-pupil spending fell from $8,405 to $8,094, adjusted for inflation. Moreover, the state's inflation-adjusted, per-pupil funding didn't get back to 1998-99 levels until 2004-05. Yet all that time, Florida was making stunning gains in student achievement. And while Florida's per-pupil funding did increase more rapidly in the second half of the decade, it had only surpassed Nevada's level by $169 as of 2008, the latest year for which data is available.

Similarly, while Oceguera credits pre-K with increasing student achievement in Florida, Florida's pre-K program wasn't implemented until 2005. The earliest it could have impacted scores on the fourth-grade reading test, therefore, was 2010. Currently, NAEP scores are only available through 2009.

After decades of unfulfilled promises to improve education in Nevada, Sandoval's commitment to pushing Florida-style reforms finally offers Nevadans genuine reasons for hope.

Improved student achievement is no merely theoretical possibility: Sandoval has the proven roadmap.

Victor Joecks is communications director at the Nevada Policy Research Institute. For more visit This article originally appeared in the November 2011 edition of Nevada Business.