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EDlection 2016: Desperate Times Call for Urgent School Reforms in Nevada

July 11, 2015

Talking Points

Nevada, facing dismal school outcomes at all levels, tries a grand experiment in ed reform

GOP Nevada lawmakers have created the most far-reaching school voucher program in the country

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EDlection 2016 is The Seventy Four’s ongoing coverage of state-level education news, debates and votes in the lead up to the 2016 presidential election. The Nevada caucuses are scheduled for early February.
By most measures, Nevada schools are terrible.
State lawmakers, staring down one of the country’s worst educational profiles, have embraced seemingly every school reform ever tried in an effort to turn around conditions for the state’s 460,000 students.
“We have to own the fact that our K-12 system doesn’t need to improve, it must improve,” Republican Gov. Brian Sandoval told the legislature in his State of the State address in January.
Among the stats Nevada needs to shed:
  • The worst high school graduation rate in the nation, at 63 percent, compared to 80 percent nationally
  • A paltry 21 percent of children enrolled in preschool
  • Just 34 percent of fourth-graders testing as proficient or better in math in 2013, compared to 41 percent nationally
  • An F from the Education Law Center for both school funding fairness — poor students received 48 cents to the dollar allocated to their more affluent peers — and the total amount spent on education as compared to the state’s GDP.
The ambitious reform package adopted by the Republican-controlled legislature earlier this year includes creating an achievement school district to take over Nevada’s lowest-performing schools and setting in motion a reconfiguration of the state’s school districts, mainly to deal with overcrowding and teacher shortages in the clogged Las Vegas-area schools.
Legislators changed the state’s funding formula to give more resources to low-income children, English language learners and those with disabilities. They expanded all-day kindergarten and supports for schools that educate the greatest numbers of ELL and low-income students.
And in a move that has already attracted national attention, Nevada approved the country’s most far-reaching school voucher program, one that allows parents in unprecedented number to take state tax dollars and put them toward private school tuition and other related educational expenses.
“I think we got a lot more done for education reform this session than in the last 40, 50 years in Nevada,” said Brian Diss, executive director of StudentsFirst Nevada.
Las Vegas is the country’s 31st-largest metropolitan area but its fifth-largest school district. There is no escaping the overcrowding by moving out to the suburbs
The outcome of Nevada’s grand experiment will get national scrutiny in February when the state holds the country’s fourth presidential primary. Many of the contest’s frontrunners have championed vouchers: former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush started a voucher program in that state (that has since been struck down by the Florida Supreme Court) for students in failing schools, and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker expanded a program in his state for low-income children beyond Milwaukee, where it began in the early 1990s. Bush later signed a bill giving tax credits to businesses that contribute to a voucher program; litigation on the second iteration is ongoing.
The school program’s success or failure will also reflect on Sandoval, who as the popular Hispanic governor of a presidential swing state is often mentioned as a possible GOP vice presidential pick. He recently ruled out a bid for an open Nevada Senate seat, further fueling conversations about a potential spot on the ticket.
Education Savings Accounts
The education savings account bill will create the country’s first broadly accessible program to help parents pay private school tuition and other similar costs, like homeschooling curriculum or tutoring. Other states have some sort of voucher or education savings account program, though they’re all limited by student income or disability status or attendance at a failing school.
Although some education reformers – including StudentsFirst Nevada – support vouchers, they wanted it done on a smaller scale, just for children in failing schools.
The sweeping nature of the program “was just a symptom of the Republicans being in control of both houses and the governor’s mansion for the first time since the 1920s,” Diss said. “They wanted to take a big bite of the apple. The thinking is that when the next session rolls around they probably won’t have the same opportunity to do as much.”
As in other states, the program could be the subject of a lawsuit.
The ACLU of Nevada is undertaking a “fast track analysis” of the education savings account bill ahead of its January 1 implementation, said Tod Story, the group’s executive director.
The state constitution does prohibit state support of religious activities, but Story said the group is also looking at how it will affect public school funding.
Diss said his group was also concerned about universal vouchers pulling large amounts of funds out of public schools: “When you start taking all those dollars out of it, it will be tougher for those schools already getting pretty low funding.”
Supporters of the legislation say it will promote competition, boost public school coffers (local property tax revenue and federal aid will stay in students’ assigned schools even as they leave), and, key in overcrowded Nevada, lessen the strain on already-packed schools.
It’s also not clear if the program will provide enough money to make the difference for students wanting to attend private schools. Most students will be entitled to 90 percent of their state-allotted per-pupil funding, or about $5,100. Students with disabilities or those whose families are at or below 185 percent of the poverty line (just shy of $45,000 for a family of four this year) will receive their full, $5,700 state allotment.
Average tuition for private school in Nevada runs between $8,000 and $10,000 a year.
Any money left over when a student graduates can be used for college. To be eligible, a student must have attended a Nevada public school for 100 consecutive school days prior, so longstanding private school students, homeschoolers and kids transferring in from other states won’t be eligible.
Breaking Up Las Vegas
Many of Nevada’s education problems stem from a single school district, Clark County, that’s centered around Las Vegas and educates nearly 70 percent of the state’s children. Clark County has for years grappled with teacher shortages and a rapidly expanding, high-need student population.
As of mid-June, the Clark County schools were 2,600 teachers short for the upcoming school year. The legislature this year authorized $15 million over the next three years for scholarships for would-be teachers and increased pay and teacher development to attract new teachers to hard-to-staff schools.  
Las Vegas is the country’s 31st-largest metropolitan area but its fifth-largest school district. There is no escaping the overcrowding by moving out to the suburbs: unlike other large metropolitan areas, Las Vegas and its outlying towns are all part of the same school system.
“There’s a misalignment,” said Magdalena Martinez, director of education programs at the Lincy Institute, a public policy research program at the University of Nevada Las Vegas.  “There’s no other state that has so few school districts given our population.”
A bill passed this year both allows small school districts in other parts of the state to consolidate – several educate fewer than 1,000 children, and one had just 74 students this year, according to state statistics – as well as create a commission to split the 318,000-student Clark County district five ways in the 2018-19 school year.
Some are concerned that splitting up the Clark County schools could create pockets of poverty or blocks of students of one race. And like everywhere else in the country, differences in the local property tax base could leave some students with fewer resources than when all of the school taxes were going into one funding pot. The breakup “needs to be done in a way that’s neutral and maintains equitable funding across the board,” Story said.
But Martinez, the researcher who argued in favor of dividing the district, said that like many places, Las Vegas neighborhoods are already segregated.
She suggested that the modeling meant to draw racially balanced congressional districts be used to separate the Las Vegas schools. “Those are really good and legitimate questions, but let’s not be paralyzed by fear of the uncertain,” she added. “More than anything, being able to bring the decision-making and the autonomy to the local level, that’s what makes our democratic public education.”