Fear and Loathing in Carson City: Nevada Should Embrace Charter Schools

Dr. Matthew Ladner

5/29/2008 9:15:43 PM - Dr. Matthew Ladner

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.

In 1997, Arizona passed the nation’s first scholarship tax-credit law. This program gives individual taxpayers a dollar-for-dollar credit against state income taxes for donations to nonprofit groups giving private school scholarships. In 2007, this program raised $54 million and helped almost 25,000 students attend 359 private schools around the state. Arizona lawmakers created three new private choice programs in 2006, including vouchers for children with disabilities.

What has parental choice done for school quality in Arizona? Charter schools comprise an amazing nine of the top 10 publicly funded high schools in the greater Phoenix area. The lone non-charter school on the list is a magnet school, also a choice-based school.

Nevada, by comparison, has been hesitant to expand parental options. The five states surrounding Nevada (Arizona, California, Idaho, Oregon and Utah) have 482, 710, 30, 81 and 60 charter schools respectively, collectively educating hundreds of thousands of students. With only 22 charter schools, Nevada brings up the rear as the school choice tortoise of the region.

On November 30, 2007, the Nevada Board of Education voted 8-0 to impose a moratorium on the approval of new charter schools. Board members told the press that the freeze was necessary because the state Education Department was “overwhelmed” by 11 charter applications. Arizona’s State Board for Charter Schools oversees 482 Arizona charter schools with a staff of eight.

If workload seems an inadequate excuse, lack of funding is equally perplexing.

The Nevada legislature has created a funding stream for the oversight of charter school in the amount of 2 percent of the per-student funding for any charter school approved.

Nevada policymakers must come to recognize the dire need for new, high-quality schools. Currently, even ultra-high quality charter school operators like KIPP are frozen out of opening schools in the state. If those top 10 schools from Phoenix wished to replicate their success in Nevada, they would be shut out. Nevada policymakers should loathe the status quo and fear the future unless they radically improve learning. Charter schools, which they should love, not loathe, can jump start that effort.