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Mirage: 5 Reasons Nevada’s New Choice Law Is Not Good News

By Peter Greene — June 18, 2015 6 min read
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Charter-choice fans are ecstatic. Nevada’s GOP legislature has decided to go all in on a state-wide voucher program.

“I think a healthy public school system has choice,” says Sen. Scott Hammond, bill sponsor and future charter school chief. The move was also lauded by Patricia Levesque, who is currently the head of Jeb Bush’s Foundation for Excellence in Education, the organization that helped Nevada write the legislation.

The Thomas B. Fordham Institute is so delighted that they’ve devoted a few weeks of bloggy wonkathonning to talking about how awesome this will be.

It will not be awesome. Here are five reasons that Nevada’s imagined future of choice-driven most excellent unicorn farming is just a mirage.

1) Let’s talk about geography.

Nevada is the seventh-largest state in the US with over 110K square miles. And yet, those square miles are served by a grand total of 35,061 miles of roadway-- and that’s counting every tiny local dirt road.

Nevada uses county-based school districts; there are seventeen counties in Nevada, including Esmerelda County (pop. 783). In all, there are nine counties with population of 10K or less. Of Nevada’s 2.7 million people, 1.9 million live in Clark County, home of Las Vegas and one of the nation’s single largest school districts.

A choice system will have a chance to play out in Clark County. In the rest of the state? Some of those counties don’t even have one high school, let alone several to choose from. To choose another county’s school creates serious transportation issues. So while this may look like a massive change for education across the state, this is really only aimed at one school district. Charteristas like to talk about how this new money will lead to lots of great new charters opening up, but I don’t see any CMO’s racing up to Esmerelda County to cash in on that market.

2. The economics are weak.

Under the new rules, poor kids get a $5,700 voucher (not-so-poor kids get $5,100). The average private school tuition in Las Vegas is $8,393 for elementary school and $8,644 for high school.

That may not seem like a large gap to cover, but Nevada has been leading the country in child poverty rates, with Las Vegas earning a long-standing reputation for being one of those cities-- if you worked there, you couldn’t afford to live there. Vouchers will be a nice windfall for families that can already afford to outsource their children’s educations, but for most of the poor, all a voucher system will do is strip more resources form the public schools in which they must stay.

In other words, if the goal of the voucher program is to help poor students escape “failing” schools, the bad news is that it will not help those students escape-- it will just make their schools fail harder.

3. Choice sorts and segregates

Choice-charter supporters have an almost child-like faith in the free market system, despite all evidence. Here’s Andy Smarick showing concern about previous failures:

Our experience with NCLB tutoring is instructive. It too was supposed to empower families and create a vibrant supply of services. But the law didn’t work as expected.

But Smarick quickly concludes that it was “the existing system” that “gummed up the works.” He admits that “emerging markets are inefficient and sometimes dodgy” but I see no reason to believe that mature markets are dodge-free.

That charter schools might further segregation is both predictable and unsurprising. To work a market that is broad and varied, a business needs to sort potential customers according to how much money can be made from them. Just watch (any non-Southwestern) airline load passengers-- the traveling cattle have been sorted according to how much good they can do for the airline.

Charter promoters insist that a robust charter system will match students with the schools that best fit their needs, but if that actually happened, it would be the first time the free market worked that way, ever. We could talk about automobiles or audio equipment, but since we’re talking schools, let’s look at the market-based education system we already have-- colleges and universities.

Colleges and universities maintain complete control over their own admissions process, and that process is based on one question-- what can you, potential student, do to help us? The best answer is “Hook the college up with some money,” closely followed by “Make the college look good (which will help with the money hooking in the future)” The result is a post-high school system that solidifies and reinforces class divisions in America. A charter-choice system will do the same.

4) The free market does not produce excellence

Here’s a conversation nobody has, ever:

Chris: I need to go shopping for a product, and I need to be certain that I am getting the very best quality.

Pat: Well, then. Let’s go to Wal-Mart.

Wal-Mart is a huge success story, but that free market domination did not come from pursuing excellent products or excellent service, but by finding the most excellent ways to squeeze money out of retailing to non-wealthy folks.

If Nevada’s voucher system survives a court challenge, I guarantee there will be charters launched on a business plan of marketing to medium-poor parents in order to get those vouchers. They will talk about marketing, and they will talk about how they can cut costs to hold onto profits from the vouchers, and they might, eventually, talk about providing a quality education, but that will never, ever be their first concern. The winners will be the charter operators who do the best job of figuring out how to make money in this system, not the ones who provide the best education for students. The losers will be the students who can’t provide a good source of profit for charters.

5) Taxation without representation

If you pay taxes in Nevada and have no school age children, you have now been cut out of the loop. You have no say in what sort of education those tax dollars are spent on. Voucher systems mean that Black taxpayers can foot the bill for Aryan Supremecist High School and conservative Christian taxpayers can fund a Sharia Law elementary academy.

Worse, if many of your local parents decide to ride the voucher train out of your local school, you’ll be faced with the choice of watching your local school fall into a deeper and deeper financial pit or of raising taxes to make up the difference (though Nevada has a tax cap, so that will only get you so far).

Local school districts will increasingly fail as the vouchers strip resources. If you don’t believe that is so, I invite you to buy a second or third home so that you can save money by running three houses instead of one. Or perhaps you can go to work and suggest when times get tight that the company should open more offices to save money. Increasing the total cost of the education system by duplicating services and creating excess capacity is financially wasteful, and it is the public schools that will pay the price.

For those inevitably driven-to-failure public schools, Nevada would like to institute an Achievement School District, a method of managing state takeovers. At that point, local voters and taxpayers lose all semblance of a say in how their schools are run.

The end game in Nevada is pretty simple, pretty clear, and pretty close: the voucher program marks the end of any semblance of commitment to public education and the beginning of a completely privatized system of schools for Nevada. It will not be good for Nevada, it will not be good for students, it will not be good for Nevada’s taxpayers, and it will not fulfill any of its promises. It will make a few edupreneurs wealthy. For everyone else, the benefits of the voucher system will remain a mirage.

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The opinions expressed in View From the Cheap Seats are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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