Nevada’s education system must address two urgent problems: an ever-growing quantity of students and the low average quality of schools. In spite of these problems, Nevada’s State Board of Education has moved to clamp down on a reform which could help alleviate both problems: charter schools.
Nevada’s school age population increased by 21 percent between 2000 and 2005 and is expected to increase by some 60 percent between 2000 and 2016. Nevada is struggling to keep up with these demands. In 2003, Nevada’s per-pupil public school spending for buildings was more than 40 percent above the national average.
Nevada’s school quality issue represents an even more serious problem. According to the Nation’s Report Card from 2007, 43 percent of Nevada fourth graders cannot read at a basic level.
Nevada’s quality and quantity problems are interrelated. The percentage of per-pupil funding going to service school construction debt, rather than to the classroom, was more than 60 percent higher in Nevada than the national average. A comparison between Nevada and neighboring Arizona proves that there are solutions to both the quantity and quality problems. Like Nevada, Arizona’s surging population has required a large increase in the number of schools.
Despite similar rates of enrollment growth, Nevadans spent almost twice as much per student on buildings as Arizonans in 2003--$1,468 compared to $776. Arizona’s interest payments per pupil were also about half of Nevada’s.
How has Arizona managed to address its quantity problem so much more successfully than Nevada?
Arizona’s ability to keep capital costs below the national average came about largely because of its embrace of parental choice in education. Choice options have reduced the need for Arizona’s school district to incur debt in the process of absorbing the increase in the student population.
In 1994, Arizona lawmakers passed legislation creating choice among public schools and districts, and also one of the nation’s most liberal charter school laws. Today, Arizona has 482 charter schools educating more than 112,000 children. Arizona charter schools have proven to be extremely diverse, focusing on everything from the arts, to back-to-basics academics, to the veterinary sciences. And because Arizona charter schools receive no public funding to build facilities, they have delivered enormous savings to taxpayers.
Also in 1994, Arizona lawmakers passed a very robust open enrollment law, which thousands of students use to transfer between district schools and between school districts.