Education, crime problems give Las Vegas a bad rap

Well, at least it's not Detroit.

That's about the most positive thing Las Vegans can take away from Children's Health Magazine's 2009 study on the best cities in which to raise a family, in which Las Vegas ranked 92 out of 100.

Las Vegas finished just ahead of Phoenix, which came in at 93, and just behind Toledo, Ohio, which was 91. Detroit ranked 100 -- the worst of the 100 cities for which data was collected.

Burlington, Vt., was ranked the best city in which to raise a family, ahead of Madison, Wis.; Fargo, N.D.; and Lincoln, Neb.

The study was published in Children's Health Magazine's debut issue, with the statistics as recent as were available. The magazine doesn't draw conclusions from the data, and only lists the ranks of cities.

The magazine is published by Rodale Inc., which also publishes Men's Health and Women's Health magazines.

Joel Weber, one of the researchers for the study, said the magazine looked at six primary categories: economics, health, housing, crime and safety, education and cultural attractions.

Within the six categories were a number of subcategories, each weighted in terms of overall importance to family life.

"In total there were 30 variables, all of the data which came from nine or 10 government organizations," Weber said.

Education, which was weighted heavily, was one of the large reasons Las Vegas was ranked near the bottom, he said.

Las Vegas ranked poorly in key areas, including high school graduation rate, the number of advanced degrees per capita, state spending per student and high pupil-teacher ratios, he said.

"It was a perfect storm in an education nightmare," Weber said.

In terms of crime, in which statistics were gathered using the FBI's Uniform Crime Reports, Las Vegas actually ranked in the middle of violent crimes per capita, he said.

But certain categories that were weighted highly -- sex offenders per capita and missing children per capita -- were among the 10 worst in the country.

"With that, combined with education, is a hole you can't dig out of," he said.

Las Vegas also struggled in the economics category, but did fairly well in the cultural attraction and health categories. In terms of health, Las Vegas' fast food per capita was high, but overall obesity was low, he said.

"Good scores in health (category) kept Las Vegas from being as low as Detroit," he said. "Somehow people are finding ways to be healthy."

Denise Tanata Ashby, executive director of the Nevada Institute for Children's Research and Policy at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, said she wasn't surprised with the results.

"Nevada tends to rank very poorly when it comes to any type of social indicators," Tanata Ashby said. "Particularly when it comes to children."

Lack of quality early childhood education could be a large factor why Las Vegas was behind other cities, she said.

Studies show that quality early education -- before a child is enrolled in school -- can help prevent juvenile crime, prepare students for school and lead to higher graduation rates, Tanata Ashby said.

"By the time a child reaches the age of 16, if that's the time you are trying to reverse the trajectory of a child, it's a little late," she said.

Michael Rodriguez, a Clark County School District spokesman, said some of the statistics should be taken in context, such as the transient rate, which is the number of students who move from Las Vegas before graduation.

"The dropout rate has historically been much lower than when you look at the graduation rate," Rodriguez said.

The study confirms the thoughts of one Las Vegas mother, Elissa Wahl, who has chosen to have her three children home-schooled.

Wahl said the high student-to-teacher ratio was one of the big reasons she keeps her kids home.

"Even if you have eight kids, they're getting more attention than the public school kids," she said.

Wahl also acts as a mentor for Las Vegas families who wish to pursue the home schooling option, and said she has taken an inordinate amount of calls lately.

She said most of the problems revolve around an inability of the public school system to meet their childrens' needs.

"In a lot of families, the kid has problems with the sheer amount of students, and the bullying," she said. "I know there are policies to stop it, but there are too many kids to watch."

Weber said the study was limited to the city of Las Vegas and unincorporated areas of the county, and did not include surrounding cities, such as Henderson and North Las Vegas. He noted that all cities have bright spots in some neighborhoods.

"Everywhere in one city isn't better than everywhere in another city," he said.

Wahl said she grew up in rural New Jersey and would love to raise her kids in an area without a lot of crime, but because of her husband's job, that's not the reality.

But Wahl said she doesn't think her family is being held back, either.

"If you don't have the mind-set for looking for drugs and sex, you don't find it," she said. "My children have a great life ... and the city has a lot to offer them."

Contact reporter Mike Blasky at mblasky or 702-383-0283.