Few political platitudes ring more hollow than the pledge of a newly elected Nevada governor to make improving K-12 education his top priority.
That's because past governors' professed "commitments" to "our children" have rarely demonstrated an understanding of the kind of commitment our children really need.
Although Nevada's past governors (and legislatures) have nearly tripled inflation-adjusted, per-pupil spending over the past five decades — their definition of "commitment" — the Silver State's graduation rate is now a national-low 41.8 percent, according to Education Week.
Clearly, past governors' "commitments" haven't produced the necessary results. That's why it's so encouraging to see Nevada's new governor, Brian Sandoval, display the political courage to break with the status quo, clearly identify the real problems with public education and propose reforms that have dramatically increased student achievement around the country.
In his first State of the State speech, Gov. Sandoval offered a refreshingly candid assessment of Nevada's educational situation:
Our education system is broken. Not the people, but the system. While many teachers, professors, and students are excelling, collectively they are held back by an antiquated system that emphasizes too many of the wrong things — and for which the only suggested answer has been more and more money.
Instead, he called for Nevada to embrace an education agenda that features demonstrably effective reform ideas, including: increased local autonomy and flexibility; an end to teacher tenure (a position also held, significantly, by Assembly Speaker John Oceguera); merit pay for teachers; an end to social promotion for third graders unable to read; and more parental choice, including vouchers to allow students to attend private schools.
Education reforms from Florida form the basis for many of these proposals — and for good reason. In 1998, Florida and Nevada posted the exact same score on the National Assessment of Educational Progress fourth-grade reading exam. In 1999, then-Florida governor Jeb Bush began implementing many of the above reforms.
The results have been stunning, as the Sunshine State's fourth graders have increased their reading scores by two grade levels in the years since. During the same timeframe, Nevada's scores have increased by only half a grade level.
It's encouraging to see Gov. Sandoval seek to import the policies that turned Florida around. And while all of these ideas are important, a voucher or tuition-tax-credit program stands out as the most promising — which is why it was disappointing to see Sandoval give it the least attention in his speech.
In a saner world, vouchers would be a no-brainer — for the same reason we allow consumers to shop at the grocery store they choose, whether or not it happens to be located in their own neighborhood. Our society recognizes the merits of free markets, and we understand that competition breeds quality. Yet, because of the political power of the educational establishment, Nevada's education system faces little competition and thus delivers the poor performance one would expect from a monopoly.
However, in the 16 states plus Washington, D.C., where vouchers or tax credits have been tried, making schools compete for students (i.e., funding) has elevated performance substantially.
The nation's capital, despite annual per-pupil spending of $28,000 and the improvements made by former chancellor Michelle Rhee, is generally recognized as one of public education's starkest failures. Before Congress voted to kill it, D.C.'s Opportunity Scholarship program, which provided students with a $7,500 voucher, produced dramatic gains.
Students who used a voucher for at least three years through the program demonstrated improvements in reading ability equivalent to 18 months of additional learning, and graduated at a rate 21 points higher than those who didn't receive vouchers.
The benefits aren't limited to those kids who use a voucher, either. The empirical evidence shows overwhelmingly that public schools also see an improvement in quality when subjected to competitive pressure.
The evidence from state after state shows that when schools are held accountable for performance, students benefit. When they aren't, students suffer.
That Nevada's head-in-sand political leadership has for years refused to acknowledge the well-documented reality — that vouchers and market-based education-policy reforms work — is a moral failing that they'll never be able to make up to the countless children for whom it is already too late.
For current and future generations, however, it's not too late. Instead of simply giving speeches claiming they care about Nevada's children, Nevada's politicians must embrace reforms that work. Turning things around will require a new kind of commitment, one Nevadans aren't accustomed to seeing from their political leaders.
Gov. Sandoval's proposals, though, suggest he's serious about addressing Nevada's educational problems. Let's hope he is. And for the sake of "our children," let's hope he and other elected leaders have the "commitment" to get it done.
Andy Matthews is vice president for operations at the Nevada Policy Research Institute. For more visit http://npri.org/.