Poll bodes ill for Nevada schools, group says

CARSON CITY -- A survey concluding that only a small percentage of Nevada residents would send their children to public schools if they had other options was called a warning to educational leaders that the state public education system is not meeting the needs of parents or their children.

Just 11 percent of Nevada residents who responded to a recent survey on educational issues said they would send their children to public school if they had the freedom to choose any available option, according to the survey of 1,000 Nevada residents for the Nevada Policy Research Institute and the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice that was released Tuesday.

Nearly half of respondents, 48 percent, would choose a private school, 23 percent would select a charter school and 15 percent would opt for home schooling. Three percent chose a virtual school for their children.

The most common reason for picking an alternative to a public school was academic quality at 33 percent, followed by school curriculum, 25 percent, extracurricular activities, 13 percent, and safety/discipline, 11 percent, according to the poll.

NPRI Communications Director Andy Matthews said the poll results should be seen as a warning that the state public education system is not meeting people's needs.

"It is clear that Nevadans are doubtful of the effectiveness of our monolithic public education system and want more choice when it comes to how their children are educated," Matthews said.

NPRI, which describes itself as a nonpartisan, nonprofit think tank seeking private, market-based solutions to public policy challenges facing Nevada, supports alternatives to public education, including charter schools and vouchers for parents to send children to school of their choosing.

Assembly Education Chairwoman Bonnie Parnell, D-Carson City, defended the educational system, saying the Legislature has made progress in offering alternatives to a traditional public education, including measures supporting the creation of charter schools and home schooling programs.

"I'm a strong supporter of charter schools," she said. "We realize that the traditional public school setting is not for all children."

Parnell said there has never been any strong appetite for a voucher school program in Nevada because of church-state conflicts and the controversial use of tax dollars in private schools.

While alternatives to a regular public school were overwhelmingly favored in the poll, just over half, or 53 percent of those responding, said they would strongly or somewhat favor using public funds to send a child to a private school. The other 47 percent were strongly or somewhat unfavorable to the idea.

The poll shows that about 55 percent are strongly or somewhat favorable to the idea of charter schools, defined as public schools that have more control over their own staff and curriculum

And 54 percent of those responding were strongly or somewhat in favor of a voucher program, where parents would be given tax money to send their children to a school of their choice, public or private, including religious schools.

Despite how the poll results are interpreted, Parnell said she believes there is overwhelming support for Nevada's public education system among parents. Nevada's public education system has shown progress in terms of student and school achievement and in reducing the dropout rate, she said.

The poll also provides some evidence that residents believe Nevada's public education system could be better funded, Parnell said.

The NPRI interprets the data as showing satisfaction with public education funding, since 61 percent say that public education funding is either "about right" or "too high."

Keith Rheault, Nevada's superintendant of public instruction, said the support for voucher schools seen in the poll has not been demonstrated at legislative hearings on the issue.

And the school choices listed by respondents also don't seem to reflect what is actually happening, he said.

As an example, the number of home-schooled children has dropped 8 percent over the past two years and represents less than 1 percent of all students in Nevada, Rheault said.

The survey of likely voters was conducted Dec. 14-16 by Strategic Vision, an Atlanta-based public relations firm with a division that specializes in polling. The margin of error for the poll results is plus or minus 3 percentage points.

Fifty-eight percent of those responding had school-age children. Forty-one percent were Democrats and 40 percent were Republicans.

The poll also shows that Nevada residents are more concerned about jobs and economic growth, at 25 percent, and taxes, 22 percent, than they are about public education, which came in third at 21 percent.

Only 7 percent of those responding rated Nevada's public education system as excellent, with 21 percent calling it good, 39 percent saying it is fair and 14 percent calling it poor. The other 19 percent were undecided.

Most of those polled, 51 percent, said teacher pay is about right. The average annual salary in 2005 was $43,394, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. Another 31 percent said the average salary was too low and 18 percent said it was too high.

The biggest challenges facing Nevada's public school system is a lack of funding, at 33 percent, followed by overcrowded schools, 17 percent, lack of parental involvement, 16 percent, and overcrowded classrooms, 15 percent, according to the poll.

Lack of safety, 12 percent, and over-testing, 7 percent, also were identified as problems.

Contact Capital Bureau reporter Sean Whaley at swhaley@reviewjournal.com or (775) 687-3900.