Sandoval following Florida on education reform

Victor Joecks

For good reason, a whole generation of basketball players wanted and still want to "Be Like Mike." Michael Jordan was the best basketball player of his generation and one of the greatest players of all time. Everyone wants to emulate the best.

For the same reason, leaders in several states, including New Mexico, Utah, Indiana, Arizona and Louisiana, are pushing their states to follow Florida on education reform. When it comes to improving educational achievement, Florida is the best.

Florida's educational gains are well documented, and the contrast they offer to Nevada's track record is startling. In 1998, Florida's and Nevada's fourth-grade students both averaged a score of 206 on the National Assessment of Educational Progress reading exam. In 1999, then-Florida governor Jeb Bush enacted a series of education reforms, and by 2009, Florida's score had soared to 226, while Nevada's remained basically stagnant at 211. The average fourth grader in Florida now reads at an entire grade level higher than the average fourth grader in Nevada.

The good news for Nevada's parents and students is that Gov. Brian Sandoval's proposed education reforms mirror and even expand on the reforms that have made Florida so successful over the last 12 years. Sandoval's education bills — Assembly Joint Resolution 8, Assembly Bill 548, AB554, AB555, AB557 and AB558 ­— hold an enormous amount of promise for the future of Nevada education.

AJR8 would amend the state constitution to provide all Nevada parents with tuition-assistance vouchers to spend on their children's attendance at K-12 public or private schools. Based on financial need, parents would be eligible for varying amounts. Nevada reports spending a little more than $8,000 per student, including some federal dollars. However, when the total original budget figures for districts statewide are divided by total district weighted-enrollment figures, per-student spending for the 2008-09 school year averaged more than $13,000.

Florida reforms that can be found in current Assembly bills include:

  • a very clear and public system for grading schools: A through F;
  • an end to social promotion out of the third grade — if the child cannot yet read, he or she repeats the grade or takes a remedial summer-school program;
  • a pilot program for merit pay; and
  • through the proposed constitutional amendment, a universal system of school choice. (More than 25,000 Florida students currently utilize vouchers or tuition tax credits.)

Sandoval's reforms also include proposals to encourage and reward excellence in Nevada's current public school system. They include:

  • ending teacher tenure — all teacher contracts would be for one year with no automatic renewal;
  • basing reductions in force on teacher quality, as measured by academic achievement, and not on seniority;
  • eliminating wage increases based on advanced or higher degrees, which studies have shown have little to no correlation with increased student achievement, especially for elementary and middle school teachers; and
  • requiring school districts to adopt a system of open enrollment, which would allow parents to send their children to a school outside of their zoned school. (Rory Reid advocated a similar reform as a gubernatorial candidate.)

If passed, this package of reform bills would dramatically increase student achievement in Nevada. And while cynics might say that these bills have no chance of passing a Democrat-controlled state legislature, many Democrats and liberals, in Nevada and elsewhere, have championed substantive school reforms like those Sandoval has embraced.

In addition to Reid's strong support for open enrollment, Assembly Speaker John Oceguera is on record supporting the elimination of teacher tenure and, along with 18 other Democratic lawmakers, is a co-sponsor of AB229, which would expand the length of the probationary period of new teachers to three years.

Even liberal Las Vegas Sun columnist J. Patrick Coolican wrote recently that Nevada must fire bad teachers:

We need to reward the best teachers and dump the worst. In most other professions, merit is rewarded with better pay and benefits, and failure is punished with termination.

Similar examples can be found beyond Nevada's borders. Al Lawson, a retired Democratic state senator from Florida, recently offered the following testimony in support of a tuition-tax credit program in Virginia.

Some of the apprehension in Virginia over scholarships for low-income schoolchildren sounds familiar. I, too, once had doubts. But what I've seen over the past decade in Florida has opened my eyes and warmed my heart. To me, giving this option to the least among us is what public education is all about. …

I voted against the scholarship in Florida when it was first created in 2001 because I figured it was just another school voucher scheme aimed at hurting public schools. But I was wrong.

Today, the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship serves more than 33,000 students in 1,100 private schools and it complements, not competes with, traditional public schools. The scholarship is only for students whose household income qualifies for free or reduced-price lunch.

It was intended to help students who struggle, and we now know from state research that those who choose the scholarship are among the lowest-performing students in public schools. It costs $4,106 per student, or 60 percent of what we pay in traditional public school, and we now know from the respected state Office of Public Policy and Government Accountability that it saved taxpayers $36.2 million in 2008-09. That's money that can help other public schools.

Last year, the Florida Legislature passed a major expansion of the program by a collective House-Senate margin of 122-34, including the support of nearly half the Democrats, a majority of the Black Caucus and all but two of the Hispanic Caucus. In the Senate, I was extended the privilege of making the closing arguments on behalf of the bill, and I simply told my colleagues to embrace what these children and their parents are telling us.

While no one can imitate Michael Jordan, Nevada can imitate the reforms that have made Florida a success story over the last 12 years. To borrow another slogan associated with Jordan, it's time for Nevada to "Just Do It."

Victor Joecks is the communications director at the Nevada Policy Research Institute. For more visit

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