School vouchers will force improvement

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In January, I wrote about Nevada’s education system. It’s a touchy subject for students, teachers and parents alike. It seems that no matter how many programs are cut or how much money is re-allocated, the public schools of Nevada still seem to perform at a nationally sub-average (or sub-sub-average) level.

For the few students who manage to find their way into an Ivy League school, there seem to be thousands more that don’t even graduate. In the 2010-2011 school year, only 62 percent of students graduated, which left Nevada’s rate only marginally better than students in Washington, D.C. (59 percent) and on Native American reservations (61 percent), according to the Las Vegas Sun. While the blame can’t all be placed in one spot, something has to change.

Apart from the StudentsFirst initiative detailed in my previous column—which is currently championed by former D.C. superintendent Michelle Rhee and focuses on loosening the hold of teachers’ unions so that effective teachers can replace ineffective ones—another option that has been considered by Gov. Brian Sandoval and the Legislature is a state voucher system for education. The institution of a voucher system would have required a constitutional amendment and died in committee without a hearing during the last legislative session.

The theory of a voucher system is that it promotes greater academic and administrative achievement from schools. Families are given vouchers toward tuition that allow them to choose which school to send their children to instead of relying on zoning. Poorer performing schools will not attract as many students, and high achieving schools will be rewarded with a larger number of vouchers going to their institutions. Currently, this kind of system would mean that more students would be able to attend private schools, but in the long run, private schools would not be able to support the number of vouchers that would end up choosing their institutions. Public schools would then be pushed to entice students via competitive academic and extracurricular programs.

Senate Bill 445 proposes a voucher system in a roundabout way. The bill gives tax breaks—which would not exceed $5 million per year—to businesses that donate to a scholarship fund that helps low-income families send their children to private schools, thereby increasing the students’ chances of success throughout and after their secondary education. The scholarship would apply to families whose income is three times the poverty line or less, which is currently around $70,000. Naturally, such a bill has sparked resentment among teachers’ unions and public school officials since it means less money goes toward funding public schools. But with the graduation numbers at such low rates and systemic disadvantages going to low- and middle-income families who can’t afford to send their children to higher-performing schools, very few options remain.

In fact, if the voucher system can be developed to include public schools—which encompass charter schools, vocational schools, magnet schools and home schooling as well—then even more options can be given to students. In addition, with more competition to achieve among schools, administrators of lower performing schools will be given the push to develop their programs so that they become more attractive to voucher carriers.

Poorly performing schools would have to adapt or fail. This may sound drastic, but perhaps it is time for drastic measures to be taken for the sake of Nevada’s community and workforce. School isn’t everybody’s cup of tea, but instilling a lifelong competency to attain work certainly should be. And to have an adequate workforce, an adequate education system is required. A reconsideration of the voucher system—or comparable alternatives—could be the thing we need to revitalize Nevada’s students’ ability and willingness to learn.