Nevada's education system must address two large problems: quantity and quality.
Between the years 2000 and 2005, Nevada's school-age population increased by 21 percent. While the state began this decade with about 340,000 school-age children, by 2016 that number will approach 550,000.
Nevada is struggling to keep up. Public school spending in 2003 for capital outlay was over 40 percent higher than the national average on a per-pupil basis.
An even more serious problem for the state is school quality. According to 2007's National Assessment of Educational Progress – known as the nation's report card – 43 percent of Nevada fourth graders scored "Below Basic" in reading. That means after three years of public school, they're essentially illiterate.
Research shows that children who fail to learn basic reading skills in the early grades often, with each passing year, fall further and further behind grade level. Moving into middle school, they can scarcely read their textbooks. In the eighth grade large numbers begin dropping out.
In short, the Nevada dropout class of 2015 is already moving through the pipeline.
The Silver State's quality and quantity problems are interrelated. The need to construct new public school facilities draws funds out of the classroom. Significantly, the funding per-pupil going to service school debt in Nevada was more than 60 percent above the national average.
Nevertheless, a comparison with neighboring Arizona reveals both quantity and quality solutions for Nevada. They are the subject of a new Nevada Policy Research Institute study, available at www.npri.org.
Like Nevada, Arizona has a surging population that regularly requires large numbers of new schools. Yet, despite similar rates of enrollment growth, Nevadans spent almost twice as much per student on capital costs as Arizonans in 2003 – $1,468 versus only $776 per pupil in Arizona. Our neighbor's interest payments per pupil were also about half of Nevada's.
How has Arizona been able to manage its quantity problem so much more successfully than Nevada?
In 1994, Arizona lawmakers passed legislation allowing parental choice between public schools and districts, as well as one of the nation's most liberal charter school laws.
As of 2007, when Arizona had 482 charter schools, Nevada had less than five percent of that number. Educating more than 112,000 children, Arizona's charter schools have proven to be extremely diverse, focusing on everything from the arts to back-to-basics academics to the veterinary sciences.
Notably, in 1994 Arizona lawmakers passed a very robust open enrollment law, which thousands of students use to transfer between district schools and even between school districts.
Moreover, in 1997 Arizona passed the nation's first scholarship tax credit law. This program gives individual taxpayers a dollar-for-dollar credit against state income taxes for donations to nonprofit groups that give private school scholarships. In 2007, this program raised $54 million and helped almost 25,000 students attend 359 private schools around the state. Arizona lawmakers also created three new private choice programs in 2006.
Arizona's ability to keep capital costs below the national average came about largely because of this embrace of parental choice in education. Greater educational freedom has relieved the need for Arizona's school district to incur heavy debt in order to absorb the increase in student population.
What has been parental choice's impact on school quality in Arizona? Charter schools comprise an amazing nine of the top 10 publicly funded high schools in the greater Phoenix area. The lone non-charter school on the list is a magnet school – also a choice-based school.
Nevada's paltry number of charter schools looks even worse compared to neighboring states. The five states surrounding Nevada (Arizona, California, Idaho, Oregon and Utah) have 482, 710, 30, 81 and 60 charter schools, respectively. They collectively educate hundreds of thousands of students. Nevada, clearly, is the tortoise of the region.
Last November the Nevada State Board of Education voted 8-0 to impose a moratorium on approval of any new charter schools. Board members told reporters that the freeze was necessary because the Department of Education was being "overwhelmed" by 11 charter applications.
Arizona's State Board for Charter Schools oversees 482 Arizona charter schools with a staff of only eight. Nevada's board overseeing cosmetology, on the other hand, currently has 14 full-time employees. In addition, the Nevada Legislature had created a funding stream for charter school oversight. Claims of being "overwhelmed" are thus difficult to buy.
Nevada policymakers must recognize the dire need for new high-quality schools. Currently, even ultra-high-quality charter school operators around the country are frozen out of Nevada. If the operators of any of those top 10 schools in Phoenix wished to replicate their success in Nevada, they would be shut out – an absurd denial of opportunity for Nevada's children.
Dr. Matthew Ladner is vice president for research and policy at the Goldwater Institute in Phoenix and a policy fellow of the Nevada Policy Research Institute.