Back to Schools You Wouldn’t Choose: Nevada parents have been left behind in the school-choice movement

As Nevada’s children return to school this fall, many parents will again be frustrated, recognizing that their children will be relegated to sub-standard education.

Parents who can’t afford to live in the wealthy neighborhoods that host the best public schools, and who can’t afford private-school tuition, will discover that the educational opportunities available to their children are generally inferior to those available to children of more affluent families.

Consider, for example, what the Clark County School District’s new school performance ranking system reveals. With the exception of magnet schools — schools of choice sponsored by the district itself — there is a clear correlation between school quality and the income levels of the surrounding community.

The best of the traditional public schools are found in Summerlin and Green Valley. The worst are clustered around North Las Vegas and Nellis Air Force Base.

Magnet schools, along with charter schools — privately run public schools — do offer an alternative for the typically low-income families who are zoned into failing traditional schools. The demand for such alternatives, however, is high, and space is limited.

As recent documentaries like Waiting for Superman illustrate, parents wishing to enroll their children in these schools are often disappointed to discover that admission is based entirely on results of a random lottery. The lucky few who are accepted can escape the failing public schools where they would otherwise attend. But when the best opportunities for one’s children depend on chance, chance is a cruel mistress.

The filmmakers behind Waiting for Superman suggest it’s no coincidence that the worst public schools so often are found in low-income neighborhoods. But poor neighborhoods don’t create bad schools, they note: It’s bad schools that create poor neighborhoods.

Traditional public education’s failures amplify the cycle of poverty in those neighborhoods — making it critically important that the families in these neighborhoods have educational choices, which give their children a better opportunity to succeed in life.

That’s why the school-choice movement sprouted up, not in wealthy, suburban areas, but in some of the nation’s most poverty-stricken urban cores. The nation’s first voucher program was implemented in inner-city Milwaukee, led by a famed civil rights activist.
Cleveland was next, and there — as in Milwaukee — the primary beneficiaries were children from low-income, disproportionately minority areas. The same is true of Washington, D.C.’s Opportunity Scholarship Program, launched by Congress in 2004.

In 2001, when Florida created a tax credit for businesses that donate into a scholarship account to help finance private-school tuition, the program was specifically designed for students from low-income families. To qualify for one of the program’s scholarships, a student’s family income cannot exceed 185 percent of the federal poverty level. And several other states have created similar private-school scholarship programs with preferences for low-income or special-needs students.

It’s important to recognize the origins of the school-choice movement and who its primary beneficiaries have been. That’s because the movement’s opponents habitually mischaracterize it, claiming that school choice is all about allowing wealthy families to take money out of public schools and send their children to elite private schools.

The record is clear: Families who live in low-income areas and have been zoned into failing public schools are those most likely to benefit from greater school choice.

It’s this recognition that recently sparked a national wave of legislation to ensure that no child is forced to attend a failing school. In 2011, 13 different states enacted or expanded school-choice programs. So far in 2012, Louisiana, New Hampshire, Virginia and Pennsylvania have also enacted sweeping school-choice legislation. Sadly, Nevada remains a laggard in the school-choice revolution.

Many parents will send their children off to school this fall, hoping their children can beat the long odds placed before them by Nevada’s government-enforced public-school monopolies.

For now, however, these parents must endure the knowledge that the statistics are against children from Nevada’s low-income neighborhoods.

That’s a situation that can and should change immediately, and it’s why school choice should be at the top of the agenda when the Nevada Legislature reconvenes in 2013.

Geoffrey Lawrence is deputy policy director at the Nevada Policy Research Institute. For more visit http://npri.org.