Sandoval’s having what Florida’s having

Patrick Gibbons

The majority of Nevada's low-income and minority fourth graders cannot read at grade level, says the National Assessment of Educational Progress.

The Silver State also has the lowest high school graduation rate in the nation. Among minority students, not even one out of three achieves a standard diploma on time.

With recognition rampant that Nevada public education needs serious reform, both major gubernatorial candidates have weighed in with ambitious education plans. 

Brian Sandoval and Rory Reid, both, are explicitly acknowledging that Nevadans need a competitive school system with more local and parental control. Both say they want to hold schools and teachers accountable by grading them on their effectiveness. Both say they want to make it easier to fire ineffective administrators and teachers.

Importantly, both candidates — for the record, at least — are abandoning the misguided "spend more" dogma in favor of the real education reforms that the Nevada Policy Research Institute has frequently recommended to the state legislature.

The major difference between the candidates is that Sandoval borrows many ideas from Florida, a state that has seen some of the largest achievement gains in the nation. Because Florida resembles Nevada in many ways, this is especially promising: Florida is a sunny tourist state that spends below the national average on K-12 education. It has a majority-minority student population that leans heavily Hispanic. The major difference, of course, is that student achievement in the Sunshine State has risen sharply — while remaining flat in the Silver State

Hispanic students in Florida now outscore or tie the all-student averages of 31 states on the national fourth-grade English reading exam. Florida's low-income Hispanic students even outscore Nevada's average for all students. So effective have been Florida's reforms that today the average African-American student in Florida now ties the average student in Nevada.

Low-income, inner-city kids in Miami-Dade — an 82-percent-minority urban county — are a full grade level ahead of the average fourth grader in Nevada. Embarrassingly, even Florida's English Language Learners are catching up with the average student in Nevada.

Obviously, Nevada needs to copy Florida — quickly. Sandoval's education plan aims to do just that. So what does that mean?

Florida grades schools A through F based on effectiveness. It created scholarships for students in failing schools, vouchers for kids with learning disabilities and scholarships so that low-income families could afford private schools.

Florida adopted alternative teacher certification to help attract new talent, created a merit bonus for great teachers and banned social promotion out of the third grade for students unable to read competently. Today, Florida also has one of the largest charter-school programs in the nation and boasts the single largest virtual school in America.

The results speak for themselves, but independent research provides additional, solid evidence that social-promotion bans and school choice work wonders.

A 2006 report on Florida's social-promotion ban by Jay P. Greene and Marcus Winters found that "students lacking in basic skills who are socially promoted appear to fall farther behind over time, whereas retained students appear to be able to catch up on the skills they are lacking."

Florida's school-choice programs have also proven successful. David Figlio, an economist at the University of Florida, and Greg Forester, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Educational Choice, both found modest achievement gains for public schools facing competition because of school choice programs. In all, 18 out of 19 empirical studies on school choice conclude that the competition does in fact improve the quality of public schools.

Furthermore, another nine out of 10 empirical studies conclude that vouchers benefit the students who receive them. Most recently, a random-assignment study published by the U.S. Department of Education concluded that students using the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship to attend private schools saw graduation rates that were 21 percentage points higher than students who did not win the scholarships.

Clearly, choice works. In Florida, 80,000 students attend virtual schools and another 100,000 are enrolled in charter schools, while nearly 50,000 special-needs and low-income students are empowered to attend any public or private school that their parents select.

Coupling school-choice reforms with meaningful teacher evaluations, merit bonuses, alternative teacher certification, A-through-F grades for public schools and social-promotion bans, ensures that Sandoval's education plan is a powerful recipe for educational success in Nevada.

Patrick R. Gibbons is an education policy analyst at the Nevada Policy Research Institute. This article originally appeared in the August 2010 edition of Nevada Business. For more visit