When Nevada lawmakers meet in Carson City in a couple of weeks the top priority will and must be education, but the focus should not be solely on funding, but on fundamental, meaningful reform focused like a laser beam on two key elements — choice and competition.
Currently most Nevada students are locked into the monopoly, county-based public school systems. It has long been recognized that giving parents choices stimulates competition for the best teachers and best students, raising the quality of all schools — public, private and charter.
One of the key ways other states have stimulated competition is by providing parents with vouchers, tax money that can be spent at any school they choose. But Nevada is one of a number of states that enacted anti-Catholic Blaine amendments prohibiting public funds from being used for “sectarian education,” specifically, “No public funds of any kind or character whatever, State, County or Municipal, shall be used for sectarian purpose.”
Some lawyer can always find a hint of sectarianism somewhere.
The way around this is for Nevada’s lawmakers to not use “public funds” to provide vouchers but allow parents to keep their own money before it ever reaches the public coffers. This is done with tax abatements or credits.
The state could also allow the creation of tax-exempt education savings accounts, as Arizona did in 2011, to help pay for tuition, books, computers, tutoring and more.
In addition to external competition for public schools, the concept of competition should also be internalized in our public schools.
Principals should receive pay based on how well their schools perform — not overall grades, which would reward those in more affluent schools, but improvement in student performance year over year. The same criteria would apply to teachers. Pay would be based on the improvement of an entire classroom over the school year.
As in most businesses, the highest performing teachers and administrators should be the highest compensated.
This is not something that would require a major investment in equipment and manpower. Most schools have the hardware and technology to allow administrators to access test results for any student in their districts, as well as the aggregate achievement level of the students of any teacher, any grade in any school or group of schools.
Such information, made publicly available — in the aggregate, not for the individual student — also could facilitate “parent triggers,” in which a parent is empowered to move a child from a failing school to a better performing school along with the per pupil funding provided by the state. Now that would provide an incentive.
Lawmakers should also think outside the box — or inside the computer box, if you prefer — and explore the potential for virtual schools in which students attend classes online, eliminating the need for some brick and mortar classrooms and transportation and meal costs.
A study of the Florida Virtual School found its students outperformed their counterparts on both the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test and Advanced Placement examinations. “They earned higher grades in parallel courses. And this was accomplished with less money than was typically spent for instruction in traditional schools,” the study concluded.
Lawmakers should also concentrate on reforms that work and not ones they think will work.
As pointed out by Nevada Policy Research Institute’s “Solutions 2015” book, Nevada has spent billions on class-size reduction in grades kindergarten through third under the assumption that greater individual contact time with a teacher will improve performance, but there has been no corresponding improvement.
In fact studies have found that smaller class sizes simply increase the number of teachers required and results in more ineffective teachers, which has a greater impact on outcomes. An effective teacher in a larger class is still effective.
Also, expending money on full-day kindergarten for all students has been found by the U.S. Department of Education itself to have no detectable long-term effect.
But perhaps the one choice that should not be afforded parents is that of promoting pupils who cannot read adequately beyond the third grade.
First we learn to read, then we read to learn. Without adequate reading skills by third grade further learning erodes and eventually stops.
After all of these are addressed, then our lawmakers should address education funding. Thanks to an initiative pushed by former Gov. Jim Gibbons, they must fund education first and not allow it to be held hostage at the end of the session as was attempted in 2003.
Choice and competition will better improve education than giving more money to those currently failing to make improvements.
A version of this column appears this week in The Ely Times, the Mesquite Local News and the Elko Daily Free Press.