The turning of the tide

Andy Matthews

As Nevada’s political punditocracy spends the coming weeks reflecting on the 2007 legislative session, it’s unlikely any members will spill much ink over Senate Bill 158.

That’s because the bill – the “Special Needs Scholarship” bill introduced by Sen. Barbara Cegavske – spent the final days of session quietly collecting dust in the Assembly Ways and Means Committee, even after roaring through the Senate on a 21-0 vote.

Given the bill’s objectives, it’s hardly surprising that the Assembly didn’t want to touch it. SB 158 proposes using taxpayer money to send disabled and troubled students to a private school of their parents' choice. To many defenders of the anti-choice status quo (of which the liberal-dominated Assembly has no shortage), that smacks too much of vouchers – to these folks the most vulgar word in the educational lexicon.

So upon passing the Senate, the bill was promptly slapped with a dubious fiscal note that landed it in Assembly Ways and Means. There, opponents simply ran out the clock, never giving it a hearing, as the session expired.

What has left-wing legislators and their allies in the educational establishment so spooked is less the contents of this particular bill than its broader implications. It is rightly seen as a small but significant first step in moving Nevada toward a day when parents rather than bureaucrats have control over their children’s education, not only for special needs students, but for all.

The school choice movement has enjoyed a string of recent successes across the nation – most notably Utah’s universal voucher law – but such momentum had until now been missing in Nevada.

But then along came Cegavske, who had the chutzpah to question the natural order of things. A long-time school choice advocate, she makes a compelling case for her cause.

“While many public schools provide excellent programs, some children are better served in programs that are designed to meet their individual needs,” Cegavske said. “In particular, no single public school can provide excellent programs in all areas of special education. Yet, they are required to serve every child who enrolls.

“I sponsored Senate Bill 158 to provide scholarships to special needs children because I believe that schools dedicated to serving these populations will have the staff and resources to address individual needs in a way that a comprehensive special education program in a public school cannot.”

Cegavske was especially inspired by Las Vegas’ New Horizons Academy, Nevada’s lone nonprofit private school designed specifically for students with learning differences.

“I saw evidence there that the lives of special needs children can be changed through educational programs that are appropriate to their individual needs,” Cegavske said.

The recognition that students – special needs or otherwise – do indeed have “individual needs” that only their parents can gauge provides the foundation of the case for choice. It would seem a no-brainer.

Yet the treatment Cegavske’s bill received in the Legislature indicates the degree to which the left is beholden to the special interests that gain by protecting Nevada’s educational status quo.

This is true not only in the Assembly, but also in the Senate, where two senators have said the 21-0 vote resulted only when several senators who intended to vote against the bill (and did so in committee) accidentally voted for it when it came before the full Senate.

Sen. Joyce Woodhouse has admitted to being among them (she said her confusion resulted from the frantic pace of Senate business in the session’s waning days), and has since affirmed her opposition to the bill, aptly capturing anti-choice sentiment: “I'm not opposed to things for special needs children, but this is a voucher bill, and I'm opposed to vouchers.”

It’s become common for those on the left – who insist that they alone represent the interests of “the children” – to respond with knee-jerk opposition to any effort to address the institutional failures that plague our public education system. That they would go so far as to oppose efforts to help special needs kids is revealing. The rigidity here cannot be overstated.

The tide of history, however, is clearly against them. As the school choice movement continues to gain traction, the free-market principles that have made other sectors of American society so robust are increasingly infiltrating the education system – the sector most in need of competition-based dynamics.

In Nevada and elsewhere, much work remains to be done. But the battle has commenced. And Cegavske, for one, is not quitting anytime soon.

Despite the setback in the Assembly, she remains optimistic, believing that “the idea of choice in education is gaining acceptance.” She vows to bring the legislation back in 2009.

And with that, the fight for educational freedom will take another small but important step forward.

Andy Matthews is communications director for the Nevada Policy Research Institute.