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COMMENTARY: Forget voucher plan; Nevada lawmakers should give any extra money to the public schools

The Great Recession hit Nevadans especially hard — and for years the massive budget cuts triggered by reduced tax revenues choked off funding to our state’s already financially strapped and vulnerable public schools.

After years of painful cuts that increased class sizes and provided fewer resources in classrooms, Nevada schools are in the first stages of recovery. Over the past few sessions, our legislators and governor have invested in education with programs such as the Zoom and Victory schools that have already shown promising results in lower performing schools.

And this year, state leaders — including Gov. Brian Sandoval and state Sen. Mo Denis, among others — are supporting a weighted funding formula to provide additional funds for our most at-risk students, such as those from low-income families and English language learners.

Our close-to-last-place ranking in education funding has served as a wake-up call, and our representatives have stepped up to the plate.

Yet I, along with my fellow district superintendents, am extremely concerned about an ongoing movement to create private school vouchers in Nevada that could put a damper on this progress.

Senate Bill 506 would strip $60 million in funding that could be invested in our 440,000 public school kids and provide it to private schools that are not accountable for their students’ academic achievement.

I want to be clear: I support families who want school choice. That’s why the Clark County School District has built one of the most successful magnet school programs in the nation, and provided opportunities through select schools, the online Nevada Learning Academy, and open enrollment.

Magnet schools are the original version of school choice. In my four years as district superintendent, we have increased the number of magnet school seats by 44 percent, helping to serve another 4,800 students.

Our magnet programs provide an excellent choice for our students. A few weeks ago, the Magnet Schools of America awarded Walter Bracken STEAM Academy the top magnet school of the year award. The organization also named Thurman White Academy of the Performing Arts as the recipient of its New and Emerging Magnet School of Merit Award of Excellence. I was also honored to be designated the MSA superintendent of the year.

If families want their children to attend private schools because of smaller class sizes, less restrictions and less testing, then why not provide our public schools with the same options?

In Clark County, our poorest and our minority families are not applying for these vouchers, as they would have to subsidize additional costs and provide their own transportation. Private schools cannot offer all special education services that the district does, and they do not offer free breakfast and lunch for low-income students.

Vouchers also exclude students in rural areas, where there are very few private schools. Even in cases where private options exist, rural school districts have such tight budgets that losing even 10 students to a rural private school could mean one less teacher, loss of a sport or reductions in elective offerings.

Of course, right now the district has limited funding for magnet schools. About 17,000 students applied to attend magnet schools for the 2017-2018 school year, and we have seats for about only 10,000 of those students. What if we could serve all of the students who applied for magnet school seats? If we had access to $42 million from the funds currently earmarked for vouchers, the district could use that money to create 8,000 additional magnet school seats.

Another $12 million from the voucher funds could be designated for the Washoe County School District to help launch a magnet school program for three elementary schools. Rural schools could use the remaining funds to provide additional career and technical education to their students.

Our students and teachers are just as bright, dedicated and accomplished as those in any private school. On their behalf, I ask that legislators and the governor invest the $60 million currently earmarked for vouchers to create 10,000 additional magnet school seats for public school students.

Pat Skorkowsky is superintendent of the Clark County School District.

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