Dozens of states have implemented or are seriously considering voucher programs, and courts continue to affirm that school choice is constitutional. But in the ongoing debate over improving education in Nevada, the word “voucher” is conspicuously absent. Teacher-union bosses see to it that vouchers are barely even debated—much less implemented—in Nevada. Instead, discussions of fixing education in the Silver State typically center on how to extract more tax revenue from citizens in order to shovel even more funding at government schools. But considering the condition of education in Nevada—the state with the highest high school dropout rate in the nation—it is time to launch a voucher experiment here. Vouchers require no additional tax revenue, grant educational freedom to parents and have worked in other states. Herewith, some information Nevada’s education establishment wants to keep hidden: the facts about the school-choice phenomenon.
Forty years ago, libertarian economist Milton Friedman theorized that as long as government maintained its near-monopoly on schools, American students would never receive the quality education commonly provided by private institutions. He argued that the best way to improve education was not to spend more tax dollars on government schools—or tinker around the edges with tepid reforms—but to give parents choices. Friedman suggested that parents be given a voucher equal to the amount of tax money spent to educate their child. The voucher could be used at any school. While Friedman’s idea was wholly rejected by the education establishment, it was kept alive by school-reform activists. In the decades to come American education deteriorated rapidly, and inner-city schools in particular became dysfunctional and dangerous. As Friedman recently noted, “There is no respect in which inhabitants of a low-income neighborhood are so disadvantaged as in the kind of schooling they can get for their children.” In the 1990s, schools in the poor sections of two cities became so bad that elected officials there approved pilot voucher programs. Choice experiments in Milwaukee and Cleveland currently serve thousands of poor students.
The Milwaukee program was initiated in 1990, and Cleveland’s program got underway in 1996. So the relative youth of both experiments would suggest that results, either positive or negative, would be barely discernable at this point. But they are not. Students freed from failing government schools in these two cities are performing significantly better than the classmates they left behind. A Harvard University study showed that Milwaukee voucher students made substantial gains in achievement, and the longer they stayed in voucher schools, the better their progress. Additionally, research indicates that voucher schools in Milwaukee are reining in costs much better than government schools. While the annual per-student cost in Milwaukee government schools is $9,500, fully half the private schools participating in the voucher program spent less than $5,000, the amount of the voucher. So these schools sent funds back to the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction. Another Harvard study revealed that two thirds of voucher parents in Cleveland are “very satisfied” with the academic quality of their school, versus only one third of government-school parents. A review of the achievement of one out of every five voucher pupils in the Cleveland program showed gains in both reading and math. When one couples the success of the nation’s two publicly supported voucher programs with the documented achievement gains of poor students freed form government schools by the growing private-voucher movement, it’s easy to understand why public support for school choice has hit new highs. Polls now show a majority of parents—and huge majorities of minority parents—favor vouchers. A school-choice program was recently enacted in Florida, and Kansas, Texas, New Mexico and Pennsylvania may soon follow suit. In November, citizens will vote on voucher initiatives in California and Michigan.
The Constitutional Question
With both mounting public support for vouchers and solid research which indicates that school choice works, anti-reform educrats have jumped into the last ditch they can find: the constitutionality defense. The education establishment argues that since vouchers allow public funds to be diverted to parochial schools, school choice violates the First Amendment. Politicians in particular use this as a justification to vote against vouchers—a tactic which Institute for Justice Litigation Director Clint Bolick finds ironic: “Many legislators who vote for sweeping government programs without a second thought about their constitutionality suddenly grow concerned when the issue is school vouchers.” Yet the U.S. Supreme Court has handed down a string of decisions which encourage voucher proponents. As far back as 1947, in Everson v. Board of Education, justices held that states may reimburse parents for transporting students to and from religious schools. Mueller v. Allen (1983), Witters v. Washington Department of Services (1986), Zobrest v. Catalina Foothills School District (1993), Rosenberger v. Rector and Visitors of the University of Virginia (1995) and Agostini v. Felton (1997) all upheld, in one form or another, government funding of sectarian schools. These cases have established that the key constitutional issue is whether government or individuals decide where the public funds will be spent. Therefore, since parents—not politicians, not bureaucrats—decide how to spend education vouchers, “establishment of religion” is not at issue. The U.S. Supreme Court has already declined to review the Wisconsin Supreme Court’s decision to uphold Milwaukee’s voucher program. Cleveland’s program is currently before a federal appeals court, but given the precedents, the High Court is almost certain to uphold its constitutionality as well.
School choice gives parents and students educational freedom. It requires no additional funding—in fact, it may ultimately save tax revenue. And best of all, it works. In the 2001 session, Nevada legislators should consider a voucher program for Nevada. Even a pilot program tailored to poor families would finally start the Silver State down the road toward real education reform. The time has come for Nevada to join the voucher movement, and free students from the state’s failed government schools.
D. Dowd Muska is a contributing editor for Nevada Journal, the Nevada Policy Research Institute’s opinion magazine.