‘Kids Count’ report shows Nevada kids coming up short

The Annie E. Casey Foundation’s 2017 Kids Count Data Book reveals that Nevada kids are drawing short straws, especially when it comes to education where the state ranks 49th in the nation.

So, what have our governor and Democratic lawmakers done about it? Poured more money into the public schools and pulled rug out from under parents who had signed up to use education savings accounts to educate their children in private schools or at home.

When you dig into the data details you find the little has changed over the past few years despite huge tax hikes and spending.

Newspaper column: Reform education, don’t just throw money at it

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.

(R-J photo)

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.

Still no correlation between amount spent on education and actual education

We’ve already learned that Nevada’s doubling of inflation-adjusted spending on education has had no impact whatsoever on the quality and level of education.

A couple of academics writing in Investor’s Business Daily now have crunched the numbers on education spending and outcomes state-by-state, while adjusting for cost of living and demographic differences. Behold: There is no correlation whatsoever … still.

IBD chart

You may notice that Nevada ranks 40th in overall per-pupil spending but 43rd in 8th-grade test scores, but No, 1 spending Wyoming is in the middle of the pack and 50th ranked in spending Utah is well ahead of Nevada in outcome. States that spent less than Nevada are in the top 10 in outcome.

W. Michael Cox and Richard Alm, of the O’Neil Center for Global Markets and Freedom at SMU, concluded:

Better schools are certainly within our means, but we won’t get them with current assumptions and institutions. It’s time to harness the tried-and-true forces of capitalism — most important, choice and competition. Capitalism in the classroom will create proper incentives, spur innovation and drive entrepreneurial activity.

Milton Friedman famously argued that the private sector could do better than government in educating America. In 1955, he laid out a plan to issue taxpayer-funded vouchers for each student, which families would use to pay for the schools of their choice.

Typically, Friedman was both right and ahead of his time. Over the next six decades, the idea of incorporating market mechanisms into education has gained traction as the failure of government schools has become impossible to ignore.

A variety of school-choice options have been introduced in all parts of the country — voucher programs, charter schools, tax deductions and rebates, tax-credit scholarships, private schools, home schooling, online learning and educational savings accounts.

But in Nevada the teachers are pushing for mo’ money, mo’ money, mo’ money, even though mo’ money has done nothing to improve the level of education. The Nevada State Education Association has the margin tax on the November ballot, which will cripple the state’s business and still not guarantee any improvements.

We can keep doing the same ol’ thing or do as Cox and Alm suggest:

Americans are romantic about their public schools. We need to be realistic. We can keep doing what we’re doing — spending more on education, failing our students and undermining the American middle class. Or we can embrace choice and competition, the powerful forces that give us better products for less money in the private sector.

It’s time we let choice and competition work in education — we’ll end up spending less and getting better schools.