The Best Performance Auditing

Doug French

Positioning itself for the upcoming election, the Republican Assembly Caucus recently announced its “Contract for Nevada.”

One of the hot buttons the Contract addresses is education. But instead of proposing even the mildest of reforms, the Contract suggests requiring a performance audit of public schools. In other words, the Contract would have state government bureaucrats audit the school system bureaucrats. This, though it’s already well established that spending more money on public education does not make the product any better.

Not to be outdone, Democrats have announced their “Quality Classroom Initiative,” which would create more school district report cards. The plan calls for the school districts to report to the Legislature details about their budgets, school safety, discipline policies, class sizes and teacher licensure and qualifications.

Incredibly, the Democrats believe that increased legislative oversight would help districts increase educational productivity and stay within budgets. The Initiative would also force schools to promote parental involvement by sending home expectation agreements that parents would be required to sign at the beginning of each school year or semester.

The Democrats’ plan also creates another costly mandate on Nevada employers, who would be required to allow employees to take time off from work to attend parent-teacher conferences.

Big city school districts like Clark County’s are broken, and the fix is choice—not more government. And the people who know it best are public school teachers. They care about education and know the public schools well. Thus, where public school teachers choose to send their own kids tells us a great deal about their estimate of America’s public schools.

For example, what if public school teachers are spending their hard-earned money to send their own kids to private school? This would tell us that these experts, who know the public school monopoly best, know it is not getting the job done.  

According to a new study by the non-profit Thomas B. Fordham Institute, “Urban public school teachers send their children to private schools at a rate of 21.5 percent, nearly double the national rate of private-school attendance.” According to the study, 12.2 percent of all families in the U.S. send their kids to private schools—and not only in urban and suburban areas, but also in rural areas where private-school options are often rare.  Even here in Las Vegas, despite the dearth of private school options, more public school teachers send their kids to private school than do other families.

And it’s not merely wealthy teachers sending their kids to private schools. Said the Fordham study: “Strikingly, urban public school teacher households earning less than $42,000 a year (approximately the median national income) send their children to private school at a rate of 14.9 percent, a rate 4.6 percentage points higher than the private-school enrollment rate of all families at similar income levels (10.3 percent).”

All of this is extremely embarrassing for the teacher unions. They use every available roadblock to keep families from being able to pursue their children’s education outside government schools.

Yet teachers themselves, when it comes to their own kids, will make the sacrifices necessary to get their children the best education available. “A school of choice—whether it is a well-heeled suburban public school, an urban private school, a charter school, or traditional private school—is self-evidently better to the family that selects it,” the study points out, “in precisely the way that any other choice is better, be it political, social, cultural, religious, or commercial.”

And it’s not just teachers who are dissatisfied with public schools. According to a 2004 Nevada Policy Research Institute study, Nevada Public School Performance, “only 42 percent of parents in the state’s two most populous counties believe the school districts are adequately preparing youth for the work force.” Nevada businesses echo this view. Nearly half of firms surveyed rated recent high school graduate hires as unsatisfactory, giving “very low ratings to recent graduates’ skills in mathematics, communication, and problem solving.”

If Nevada Republicans and Democrats really care about improving education, they should heed the loud message public school teachers are sending. Legislators, whatever side of the isle, should embrace choice in education, with a good first step being to break up the school districts. Parents in Clark County favor breaking up the school district by a 2 to 1 margin, the NPRI study found. In Washoe County the ratio is 5 to 4 in favor of splitting the school district.

Give parents a choice and they will do the performance auditing.

Doug French is executive vice president of a Southern Nevada bank and a policy fellow of the Nevada Policy Research Institute.