Sandoval’s scholarship plan offers hope for students

Victor Joecks

Failure can be one of the best things in life. In the short term, failure doesn’t seem attractive, because it involves … well … failing. In the longer term, however, failure motivates us to either try a different method and succeed or find a different path entirely.

Cut from your high school basketball team? You can either practice more and improve your skills for the next season or decide that debate is more up your alley.

Is your business losing money? You can either find better ways to serve your customers or learn that your time and talents are better used elsewhere.

Failure is truly devastating, however, when you know it’s inevitable and that you’re powerless to change your future results.

That’s the type of failure facing many of Nevada’s poorest students today. For decades their schools have been — in the words of U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan — dropout factories, with graduation rates under 60 percent.

For most of that time, many children have been shuffled from one grade to the next, no matter how little they learned. Some of them — even if they do “graduate” — can’t even read their diplomas. Twelve years of public-school failure are perfectly summarized when students can’t even understand the paper purporting to signify their accomplishment.

Why are these schools allowed to continue failing students?

Among many factors, two of the biggest are the political power of Nevada’s teacher and administrator unions and the long-time complacency of state lawmakers. The latter — intimidated by the former — have refused to empower parents with the ability to send their children to the schools of their choice.

Today, Gov. Brian Sandoval is offering these students new hope, with the Opportunity Scholarship plan cited in his State of the State address.

While the governor’s program has not been detailed, similar efforts around the country operate by giving businesses or taxpayers a dollar-for-dollar tax credit for money donated to a scholarship-granting organization.

These organizations are non-profits formed to award scholarships that help children attend the schools their parents desire. Empowered by such scholarships, a family is able to select the school that best fits a child’s unique needs — rather than being compelled to send him or her to a school dictated by geography or the district bureaucracy.

While Opportunity Scholarships accomplish the same end as vouchers — empowering parents to select the school best for their children — they avoid constitutional issues. Some school-choice supporters also prefer Opportunity Scholarships over vouchers because they occasion less government interference in private or online schools.

And the benefits go beyond the educational. Were Opportunity Scholarships offered to all Nevada’s current and future public-school students — an NPRI study estimated — Opportunity Scholarships would save taxpayers nearly $1 billion in the next 10 years.

Now, people who are reluctant to allow parents choice like to point out that some of the schools parents select will fail.

And it’s true. Some private, online and charter schools will fail. But unlike a government-run school that can fail generations of students, these failing schools will either shape up or disappear. That’s because — empowered by Opportunity Scholarships — parents have options. If the school they selected for second grade isn’t cutting it, they can find a different school for the third grade. Currently, those parents have little choice but to send their children to the same failing school year after year.

These choices are at the heart of the school-choice movement, which acknowledges that parents are best qualified — and motivated — to select the school and school type that’s best for their children.

Twenty-one states and Washington, D.C., have some type of school choice. School-choice programs have raised graduation rates in Washington, D.C., and increased math and reading scores in Milwaukee and Charlotte. School choice not only helps students who choose one of the alternatives to public schools. School-choice programs also — 18 empirical studies have shown — produce improvements in public schools. No empirical study has ever found that a school-choice program harmed public-school students.

Sandoval’s Opportunity Scholarship commitment was publicly announced Jan. 16, preceding National School Choice Week, which runs this year from Jan. 27 to Feb. 2, 2013.

Shining a spotlight on the need for effective education options for all children, the bipartisan, grassroots School Choice Week will feature more than 3,500 events spanning all 50 states, including over a dozen events in Nevada.

In the last 50 years, Nevada has nearly tripled inflation-adjusted, per-pupil spending while education results have been stagnant. It’s time for the adults to learn from that failure and provide Opportunity Scholarships to give our children a better future.

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