What will Horsford and Buckley do?

Patrick Gibbons

Senate Majority Leader Steven Horsford and Assembly Speaker Barbara Buckley lead nearly two-thirds of the state's lawmakers. Both have promised to work toward improving education in Nevada—and we can all agree that education in Nevada is seriously in need of improvement. Horsford and Buckley are now primarily responsible for the future educational achievement of Nevada's students.

For many years, wide education-achievement gaps have existed between haves and have-nots and between white and minority students. According to the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP), Hispanic, African-American and low-income students, regardless of race, perform below average in Nevada on the English reading exam.

Thus the situation is dire in Nevada for many minority and low-income students. Those who do not learn to read well fall further and further behind, finding schooling more and more frustrating as they do. They have a high likelihood of becoming high-school dropouts and then living in poverty as adults. When the NAEP fourth-grade reading exam was given in 2007, only 47 percent of African-American students could read at grade level, as could only 42 percent of Hispanics.

Looking at the larger picture, more than half of fourth-grade minority children cannot read at grade level, compared with 29 percent of white students who cannot. Of Nevada students eligible for free and reduced lunches (the government's proxy for poverty), only 42 percent can read at grade level, compared with 69 percent for middle- and upper-income students.

There is little equity in the quality of public education delivered in Nevada. If something is not done, the vast majority of low-income and minority students will remain stuck in a cycle where they do not learn how to read, then drop out of school and remain in poverty.

So, what should Horsford and Buckley do?

They would not have to look very far: Florida has already created an extremely popular and successful program that helps low-income children receive a better education. Florida's Step Up for Students program is a corporate tuition scholarship program that allows companies to donate to non-profit scholarship organizations and receive in return a dollar-for-dollar tax credit. Those tuition scholarship organizations then award scholarships—$500 for travel expenses to another public school or up to $3,950 to attend a qualifying private school of the family's choice.

This year, almost $100 million was donated by corporations in Florida to help low-income children receive a better education. Today, Florida's program serves more than 23,000 such children—many of whom have seen significant improvement in their learning. Of those 23,000 students, more than 70 percent are minority children.

Nevada could copy Florida's successful corporate tuition scholarship program by allowing corporations in Nevada to make donations to non-profit scholarship organizations. In return, the state would give them dollar-for-dollar tax credits on their state tax obligations.

If Horsford and Buckley were to accomplish passage of an aggressive program—allowing, say, 100 percent of the Modified Business Tax to be used to promote tuition scholarships for low-income children—Nevada could help more than 60,000 low-income children across the state attend schools of their choice. That would mean a scholarship for nearly every school-aged child living in statistical poverty.

Corporate tuition scholarship programs give low-income students an equality of opportunity they can't afford without the generosity of others.

Horsford and Buckley can make that happen.

Patrick R. Gibbons is an education policy analyst at the Nevada Policy Research Institute.