The most important lesson in Nevada education

Victor Joecks

Parents regularly urge their children to "learn from your mistakes." When it comes to improving public education in Nevada, however, many parents and other adults keep making the same error.

Their mistake? Believing that increasing education funding will improve student achievement. How do we know this approach doesn't work? We've already tried it … again and again.

In the 1959-60 school year, Nevada spent $430 per pupil on education. In 2006-07, we spent $8,372. Even adjusting for inflation, Nevada has nearly tripled its per-pupil spending from $3,101 to $8,682 (in 2008 dollars) over the past 50 years, and this doesn't include billions in other school-related expenditures.

Despite this massive spending increase, Nevada's education results have been stagnant, and Education Week reports that Nevada's graduation rate is now 41.8 percent.

Fortunately for Nevada's children, Gov. Brian Sandoval is pushing a series of educational reforms that have greatly increased student achievement in other states. Sandoval's ideas include vouchers, ending teacher tenure and social promotion, expanding virtual learning and empowerment schools and giving schools letter grades based on performance.

In 1998, Florida and Nevada were scoring exactly the same on the National Assessment of Educational Progress fourth-grade reading test. That year, Florida enacted many of the aforementioned reforms under then-governor Jeb Bush.

While no one reform was a silver bullet, Florida's improvements have been dramatic. Over the past 12 years, Florida's fourth-grade reading scores have increased by approximately two grade levels, while Nevada's have been stagnant. Florida's gains have been especially pronounced within its minority community. Hispanic and African-American students' reading scores each have increased by 2 ½ grade levels.

One of the most important things Florida did was create genuine competition in education through school vouchers and a tuition tax-credit program. Vouchers and tax-credit scholarships allow parents to choose the education that's best for their child — online, homeschooling, a private or charter school, etc.

The success of voucher programs is not limited to Florida. In Washington, D.C., students using a voucher (at a quarter of the usual cost of a student's education) for at least three years showed reading gains equivalent to 18 months of learning and posted a graduation rate 21 points higher than the control group.

Not only do vouchers allow students trapped in failing schools to escape, the competition actually increases the performance of public schools as well. Nineteen high-quality empirical studies have been conducted on how vouchers (and tuition tax credits) impact public schools. Eighteen found vouchers improved the quality of public schools. One found no impact — likely because in that case, the voucher program was designed specifically to shield public schools from competition.

Adults will always want their children to learn from their mistakes. In 2011, Nevada's students should hope that it's the adults who learn a valuable lesson: that spending more money won't increase student performance.

Instead, they should embrace the bold education reforms that have boosted student achievement and saved money in other states.

Victor Joecks is the communications director at the Nevada Policy Research Institute. For more visit This article first appeared in the Reno Gazette-Journal.

Read more: