To lift Nevada's education system, offer more school choice

Nevada is very fortunate to have what many other states don’t: hot-spot tourist destinations that help drive economic opportunity.

In education, however, it’s the complete opposite: Nevada families are very unfortunate to be in a state well behind others in the educational opportunities that are available.

School choice programs are offered in 22 states and Washington, D.C. The plans vary in terms of how they operate, but the goals are the same: Allow parents to use the government funding reserved for their kids’ education to pay for the educational services that work best for them. That could include private school tuition, transportation to outside-the-district public schools, online learning expenses, tutors or other unique tools that assist with academics.

Decades ago, this idea was exactly that — an idea. Today, however, we know what to expect from school choice programs thanks to the experiences of other states and the large body of available, high-quality research.

Among voucher and tax-credit scholarship programs in particular, more than 250,000 students are participating. Vouchers transfer a child’s state funds to the school of his or her parents’ choice, whereas the latter policy provides tax credits for donations made to scholarship-giving nonprofits.

If school choice were not needed or desired, those families wouldn’t request vouchers or scholarships. For example, in just the second year of Indiana’s voucher program — the nation’s largest — 9,324 low- and middle-income children are enrolled. As one participating parent said, “There isn’t a doubt in my mind that (my son) Jaevion is exactly where he needs to be in order to thrive academically … and it’s all possible because of the voucher program.”

Then there’s the research. Empirical analyses on school choice far exceed the research on any other education reform. Of the 12 random-assignment studies — considered the gold standard of social science research — conducted on voucher programs, 11 concluded school choice improves student outcomes (six found all students benefit, five showed some benefit and some aren’t affected) and one found no visible impact.

As for vouchers’ effects on public schools, 22 of 23 empirical studies found school choice improves public schools, with one showing no visible impact. So even the students who don’t use school choice still benefit.

Empirical research also has concluded school choice saves taxpayers money. In Florida, for example, its Legislative Office of Economic and Demographic Research reported the state’s tax-credit scholarship program was saving $23 million per year as of 2011-12. That’s because the scholarships are worth less than half of a child’s total funding in public school. In total, all six empirical studies on school choice’s fiscal impact show it saves taxpayer dollars.

School choice also increases diversity in schools. The public school system tends to be racially homogeneous because children are assigned to schools based on their parents’ ZIP codes, with the neighborhoods themselves being ethnically similar. School choice breaks down such racial barriers by giving kids the opportunity to attend schools outside their districts. That’s why seven of eight empirical studies show school choice encourages greater diversity in schooling (one study showed no effect).

Importantly, no empirical study in any of the aforementioned categories has found a negative impact from school choice — not one.

Such an impressive track record is probably why Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval is encouraging the Legislature to adopt a tax-credit scholarship program that would serve families with incomes not exceeding 300 percent of the federal poverty guidelines ($69,150 for a family of four). That allowance would be a big step forward for a state that currently provides nothing in the realm of private school choice.

And given the parameters outlined in Sandoval’s proposal, Senate Bill 445, Nevadans could expect modest cost savings, with participation numbers in the low thousands. Importantly, over time, those numbers will grow, as has been the case in Arizona, Florida, Georgia and Pennsylvania. For instance, 13 years into Florida’s program, 50,821 low-income children are receiving scholarships.

Alabama’s lawmakers and governor, tired of the poor performance of their education system, saw this same evidence and acted this year to create a tax-credit scholarship program for families underserved by public schools.

No doubt Nevada has children in need of higher-quality schools. How much more evidence do state leaders need before they give parents the freedom to choose those schools?

Robert Enlow is the president and chief executive officer of the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice, the school choice legacy foundation of Milton and Rose D. Friedman.