Don’t cheer for surrender in public education

There were plenty of things to cheer when it came to education reforms enacted in the 2015 Nevada Legislature.

From the requirement that all children read by third grade to improved teacher training and incentive programs to expansion of Zoom schools, creation of Victory schools and amendments to the longstanding Nevada Plan, the session was a good one for education in many ways.

But one bill that’s received accolades from conservatives doesn’t represent a step forward for public education in Nevada as much as a step around it.

Senate Bill 302, which passed on party-line votes in both chambers of the Legislature, would establish a voucher-style program whereby parents who pull their kids out of public schools would get a grant worth 90 percent of current state per-pupil spending, deposited into an “education savings account.” Families who are under 185 percent of the federal poverty rate would get 100 percent of state per-pupil spending.

That money could be used for anything education-related, from tuition to technology, at schools public, private or parochial. It would be deducted from the budget of the county school district in which the child lives. Of course, private financial firms could manage the money for parents and the state, and make “reasonable fees” for doing so.

Conservatives are hailing the bill as an innovative approach to solving education problems, and a victory for parents and students. But is it really? Or is it simply a work-around that leaves a serious problem — the quality of education in the public schools — unaddressed?

Instead of using every available dollar to find innovative ways of making our public schools better — and Gov. Brian Sandoval and the Legislature surely took steps to do that in the 2015 session — vouchers are a surrender. They’re a tacit admission that the problems that afflict our public schools are unsolvable, and that the only way out is to abandon the system and turn to private solutions. Indeed, that’s a longtime conservative goal.

But surrender isn’t an option, especially for the thousands of kids who are unwilling or unable to leave public schools. Instead of building ways to funnel public funds to private institutions, we need to be working on ways to make those public institutions work better, and keep working on it until we get it right. Those solutions may need to be radical, and they will certainly disrupt the status quo. But if we did that, there would be no need, and no desire, to leave the system.

Another problem with the bill is the state constitution’s vehemently clear prohibition on public funds being used for sectarian purpose. Article 11, Section 10 says clearly “no public funds of any kind or character whatever, state, county or municipal, shall be used for sectarian purpose.” SB 302 attempts to get around that prohibition by saying that the actions of a sectarian school participating in the program are not the actions of state government, and specifically exempting the program from a law that prohibits public school funds being used for sectarian purposes.

But that weak-tea fig leaf cannot restore modesty to this red-faced affront to the state constitution. Proponents argue that the money, once transferred to the education savings account, suddenly becomes private funds to be used at the discretion of parents. That’s simply ridiculous: Students are required to attend school; the state is required to educate them; the state funds raised from taxpayers for the express purpose of education are deposited into those accounts and must be used for educational purposes. Using that money at sectarian institutions creates an undeniable constitutional problem.

Meanwhile, the myriad issues faced by public schools persist. Vouchers will not change that, nor diminish the obligation of this state and its citizens to educate every single child and prepare them for work or college. While private schools play a role in that, the vast majority of kids will attend public schools. We must get them right, not give up on them.

Steve Sebelius is a Las Vegas Review-Journal political columnist who blogs at SlashPolitics.com. Follow him on Twitter (@SteveSebelius) or reach him at 702-387-5276 or ssebelius@reviewjournal.com.

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