Each time the Nevada Legislature convenes, lawmakers struggle to solve the problem of an educational system that is failing the state’s children. Occasionally, a creative solution like the Millennium Scholarship program is passed. More often, a few well-intentioned modifications to the current system are proposed, but by the time they are watered down enough to get past all the political roadblocks, they have little chance of making any substantial changes.
This year, a ray of hope may be on Nevada’s horizon – its eastern horizon, to be exact. In February, Utah Gov. John Huntsman Jr. signed into law a school voucher program that will eventually offer all Utah children a scholarship to attend the public or private school chosen by their parents.
Publicly funded voucher programs allow families to direct funds set aside for education by the government to pay for tuition at the public, private or religious school of their choice. Voucher programs are not new; in fact, they currently operate in seven states and the District of Columbia. Some vouchers are designed for low-income families. Others have no income requirements, but give vouchers only to parents whose children’s schools have been designated as failing. Some programs give vouchers to parents of children with special health needs or handicaps. In fact, State Sen. Barbara Cegavske (R, Las Vegas) recently proposed such a voucher program for Nevada.
However, the Utah plan will be the first to offer a voucher to every family with school-age children. Phase I of the “Parent Choice in Education” Act, which will take effect in fall of 2007, will provide scholarships ranging from $500 to $3,000 depending on family income, assisting families that choose to send their children to private schools. All current public school students will be able to use the voucher to transfer to a private school. Children currently enrolled in private school will also be eligible for vouchers if their family incomes are below 185 percent of federal poverty guidelines. In fall 2007 and thereafter, all kindergarten students will be eligible for vouchers, so that all K-12 students will be phased into the program by 2020.
Studies have shown that children who use vouchers to move from failing public schools into private schools perform better academically. Low-income students taking advantage of voucher programs are much less likely to “fall through the cracks” in the public school system. (For statistics, see the resource box below.)
The plain truth is, private schools can provide a better education at a lower price than public schools. According to a report by the Milton & Rose D. Friedman Foundation, the average public school spends about $10,000 per student per year, while the average private school charges $5,000 in tuition.
In Nevada’s two largest school districts, those in Clark and Washoe counties, we are struggling to hire enough teachers and support staff, and build enough school buildings to keep up with growth. A state-funded voucher system that would encourage some parents to move their children out of public schools and into private schools would relieve some of this pressure.
If a voucher program makes sense for Nevada, why hasn’t it been tried here? The answer lies in the enormous power wielded by the Nevada State Education Association (teachers union). Teachers unions across the country uniformly oppose any form of school voucher system. Their purpose is to protect the jobs of their members, and fewer public school students mean fewer jobs for public school teachers. Their supporters have come up with many arguments against the use of vouchers, but none of them have been borne out by reliable statistics. One of their claims is that withdrawing students from the public school system costs school districts money. In fact, several studies have shown it has just the opposite effect.
It will take some time for free-market forces to bring in enough private schools to fill the demand. In addition, regulations will need to be set up to make sure private schools are doing a good job, without over-regulating them. However, these challenges can be met if we have the will to stand up to the powerful political forces that are preventing us from getting the voucher system we need.
Ask your Nevada legislators what they’re doing to support school vouchers. If Utah can do it, so can we.
For a detailed discussion of Utah’s new law: