blank.gif (51 bytes) January/February 2001
Stop Sacrificing
Nevada's Kids

by Steven Miller

o force parents to send their children to schools that fail to educate those children is just fundamentally wrong. But for decades, this is what a partisan majority in the Nevada Assembly has been doing.

When they campaign in their districts, members of the Assembly majority are vocal about their commitment to the vulnerable and the at-risk. Yet as soon as these lawmakers get to Carson City, such alleged concern vanishes. Benignly smiling at Nevada’s most vulnerable, its children, they regularly sacrifice them to the state’s most muscular lobby.

Ancient Canaanites used to cavort before their god Moloch’s altar, where Canaanite children were being slain as blood offerings. There’s something of that here. Mindlessly, the Assembly majority always boogies to the beat of the Nevada State Education Association (NSEA) teacher union, notwithstanding the damage this means—and for decades, has meant—to Nevada children. A cynic might wonder if Moloch, too, dispensed campaign funds.

But even if he did, the better explanation for this ongoing wrong probably lies with the human propensity for self-deception. Great evil is rarely done in the bright sunlight of a fully conscious mind. And a glance across the Sierras—at California’s electricity debacle—shows just how easy it is for earnest lawmakers, confidently sleepwalking within their consensual “realism,” to concoct hellish catastrophes.

Clearly, most members of Nevada’s Assembly majority are decent-enough folks and don’t consciously intend any injury. But injury is what they are perpetrating on families who want to choose their own schools. Perhaps the best evidence that the Assembly majority is sleepwalking lies in the fact that the biggest victims of their policy are families right at the heart of their own political coalition—poor and minority parents and their children.

It is these children who fare the worst in government schools. It is also their parents who are the most likely to track down and take advantage of schooling options, if available. That is the lesson from Milwaukee, where parents enjoy perhaps the widest array of educational choices available anywhere in urban America.

Studies of the Milwaukee experience show that, contrary to anti-voucher propaganda, the children who have been quickest to take advantage of the new opportunities have not tended to be youngsters from the strongest families or kids who had previously done the best in school. Instead, it has been minority children most seriously in need of help, whose parents recognized the problem and took action.

Here in Nevada, the Assembly majority condescendingly assumes that it and state and county bureaucrats—not parents—know best where these and all students should go to school. Not only is this arrogance; it’s ignorant arrogance.

America’s black communities overwhelming support school choice for good reason. Solid research now confirms that black children do best when parents—the people who care most about them—can get them out of government schools. Consider the three-city study completed last year by Harvard University’s Program on Education Policy and Governance. It found that black students who received vouchers to transfer from public schools to private schools in three cities—New York City, the District of Columbia, and Dayton, Ohio—after only two years scored an average of 6.3 percentile points higher on the Iowa Test of Basic Skills in reading and math.

This is an outstanding result, significantly higher than that achieved by any other approach, and has been replicated in a North Carolina trial. These studies were designed as randomized field trials—the gold standard of social-science research.

What about the plight of Nevada’s larger school population? The NSEA always argues that kids who would do better in non-government schools can’t be allowed to leave the existing monolith because this might hurt efforts to reform it. In truth, however, allowing school choice has turned out to be an extremely effective way to finally make public school systems serious about reform.

In a recent survey of over 750 randomly selected Florida public school teachers, two-thirds of them acknowledged that the threat of vouchers had helped cause a dramatic improvement in test scores last year at some of that state’s worst schools. Similar results were found in Wisconsin and Minnesota—and every state that significantly expands the choices available to parents and students.

Voucher-haters also like to argue that allowing families to choose non-government schools would siphon funds away from “hard-pressed” public schools. But the primary problem throughout Nevada’s entire system is that its schools are actually not pressed enough. Unlike other enterprises in the economy, these government monopolies face no consequence for ignoring their “customers,” for wasting resources (and people) and for failing to innovate.

Lifelong Democrat and former congressman Floyd Flake today speaks frankly: “Reform will not come as long as those who have no competition continue to receive resources without ever having to be fully accountable for them.”

And when he asks the central question of the day—“Would we do better to put more money into public education rather than to support school choice?”—his answer is emphatic.

“Absolutely not,” he says.

It is time for the sleepwalkers in Nevada’s Assembly to wake up.  NJ

Steven Miller is managing editor of Nevada Journal.


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