Nevada, and especially the Las Vegas Valley, is home to the nation’s most dynamic landscape for growth in the demand for K-12 education. Projections by the U.S. Census indicate that the state will need to create some 250,000 new seats in schools during the next decade or so. Over the past 12 months, Clark County’s population growth — 47,000 new residents, a 2.2 percent population increase — ranked second in the United States, continuing a trend that has persisted most of the past three decades.
This means that not only will we need new seats, teachers and educational materials to serve these new students, we will need new schools. And building new schools is an expensive endeavor.
Despite the school funding increases legislated in 2015, population growth and other trends continue to place heavy pressure on school budgets.
Late last year, Moody’s Investors Service assigned a negative outlook to the Clark County School District’s A1 general obligation bond rating, at about the same time it downgraded the Washoe County School District to the same rating, with a stable outlook. Both of these factors likely increase the costs of capital and of creating new school options.
Public charter and nonpublic schools of choice around the country have proven they can provide high-quality education options designed and built at considerable savings to taxpayers. If supported by smart frameworks for land use and zoning, they can be located in areas where families are the most underserved educationally and in greatest need of quality new opportunities.
They have also been able to utilize innovative financing mechanisms, such as U.S. Treasury New Market Tax Credits and public and private revolving loan funds, to maximize savings and retain dollars for instruction.
In its 2017 final report, the SAGE Commission made numerous, wide-ranging recommendations concerning school construction and maintenance following the rigorous consideration of factors, informed by an information-packed research study by the Guinn Center for Policy Priorities. Among these recommendations were several that, if followed, stand to make new schools of choice (the commission limited these to charter schools and not private schools) of even greater value to taxpayers.
A striking example of how this can work to the considerable benefit of students, families and taxpayers in Las Vegas is the Cristo Rey Las Vegas St. Viator High School. Cristo Rey will be a new Catholic school with a proven model rooted in strong, college-preparatory academics and a corporate work-study businesses connecting the school’s student population with workplaces, often for the first time. The school expects to open in summer 2019 at a North Las Vegas facility being built entirely with private donations to serve 500 students, all being recruited from lower-income neighborhoods.
Some 7 miles to the west, Founders Academy of Las Vegas, a public charter school, will open its 2018-19 school year in a striking new building to offer just more than 500 students in grades K-12 a “classical education for modern times” academic model developed by experts at Michigan’s Hillsdale College.
Examples like these offer proof points for just how much value schools of choice can deliver important new educational opportunities for our burgeoning school-aged population — and at considerably improved terms for taxpayers.
As Nevada’s policymakers look beyond current fiscal and overcrowding challenges facing the state’s school systems and make progress pursuing the important (and promising) challenges through initiatives underway in the Clark County School District and other traditional district schools, it is important that they consider smart policies to harness schools of choice as an important component of their long-term solutions.
Don Soifer is founder and president of Nevada Action for School Options, a nonprofit based in downtown Las Vegas.