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Schools and competition

As the school choice and education reform movements gain speed across the nation, Nevada is stuck in neutral.

Each county has one monopoly school district, anchored by the behemoth Clark County system, which has the country's fifth-largest enrollment. States such as California, Florida and Arizona launch charter schools by the dozen every year, but Nevada opened none this year. We have just 27 charter schools, the 10th-fewest in the nation.

Nevada has no private-school vouchers and no open enrollment policies. Its student achievement levels have been hurt by the scourge of social promotion. Teachers are locked into a compensation structure better suited to the Industrial Revolution than a white-collar profession.

Funding levels are not the dominant cause of our education woes. It is beyond ridiculous to suggest that education would be fixed if Nevada spent as much money as Massachusetts, Vermont or Alaska while leaving intact the same policies and personnel that have overseen our underachievement.

This month's Review-Journal series "Education at a Crossroads" highlighted some of these issues as part of a broad examination of how recession-driven budget cuts might affect Nevada schools. That crossroads has provided two very clear choices for Nevada lawmakers and taxpayers: Spending more money on the status quo or enacting fundamental reforms, many of which carry little to no additional cost.

First, our schools need competition and accountability.

Competition leads to efficiency and innovation. It turns families into education consumers and transfers power from the state to the parents. If parents have the ability to choose where their children attend school, they're far more likely to be involved and interested in kids' academic progress.

Republican Gov. Brian Sandoval has proposed a constitutional amendment to institute means-tested vouchers, so the poorest Nevadans -- those most likely to be stuck with a lousy school -- could send their children to a private school. He also wants to compel school districts to develop open enrollment policies so families don't have to pack up and move into a different attendance zone to switch their kids' schools.

Gov. Sandoval also wants to assign a letter grade to each school in the state and end social promotion by requiring students to pass a reading test to advance to the fourth grade. It's a disgrace that so many schools, having already failed students, guarantee future failure by throwing them into classrooms they're not prepared for.

The state also needs a stronger charter school law, one that eases teacher licensure requirements by allowing schools to hire teachers from college campuses and allows charter schools to take over the buildings of failing public schools.

Nevada schools also must abandon teacher salary scales that reward seniority and credentialism and begin paying for performance. Studies have shown the billions of dollars in pay raises states award each year to instructors who stick around another year or obtain a master's degree in education -- not a subject related to the subjects they teach -- have been among the most inefficient spending in U.S. education.

Those who assert that Nevada needs more tax money for education can make that argument -- after we reform our schools.

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