Monthly Archive: April 2015

School Choice In Nevada

“Conformity is the jailer of freedom

and the enemy of growth.”

John F. Kennedy

There was a time in the United States when certain types of conformity were accepted. Take the era around World War II, for instance. Men willingly went off to war because, well, that was what men did. Women dutifully agreed to maintain their homes, work in the factories and/or volunteer for the cause. The societal rules and roles were clear, and people conformed without much questioning them.

In earlier centuries, many new Americans strived to become part of the great melting pot, in which the heterogeneous became homogeneous. The aim was to build a life more like that of the resident population. The cornerstone was thought to be freedom, which enabled upward mobility for families.

Some of that began to change in the 1960s when assimilation into a singular kind of society gave way to a desire for multiculturalism and diversity. America in the 21st century is better described as a salad bowl than a melting pot. While we all still share a loose set of ideals called the American Dream, that vision has morphed from a monochromatic canvas into a vibrant ethnic and cultural mosaic.

Conformity, as President Kennedy said, tends to make a prisoner of freedom and is the archenemy of growth.

Populist liberals tend to agree with JFK’s assessment — except when it comes to the issue of school choice. I have never understood this.

You would think that conformity and the kind of creativity-killing collectivism that exists in public education today would be abhorred by progressive thinkers. You would think that they, the ever-vigilant proponents of diversity, freedom and opportunity, would embrace each and every idea that creates more educational choices for more students.

Giving more parents and their children the freedom — and the funding — to take advantage of alternatives to Nevada’s under-performing public schools, to improve their education, and to have a better shot at success and prosperity is what school choice bills are all about.

Gov. Brian Sandoval has already signed one major school choice bill this session (AB 165). The now-enacted legislation allows “at risk” students the chance to apply for scholarships to the private or parochial schools of their choice. The bill signing, which I attended, occurred at the historic Fourth Ward School in Virginia City. The symbolism was striking:  Nevada’s first and newest step toward education reform was signed into law in one of Nevada’s oldest educational settings.

Another choice bill is Senator Scott Hammond’s SB 302. This proposed nonconformist reform would set up Empowerment Scholarship Accounts (ESAs), allowing money to follow students to the schools and curriculums of their choice.

ESAs, first pioneered in Arizona, allow funds for a participating child to be placed into an account which can cover a variety of educational services through use-restricted debit cards. Parents can choose to use all the funds on a single method (like private school tuition) or they can employ a customized strategy using multiple methods (like a mix of online programs and community college classes). Under such a program, parents can even save some of the money for future higher education expenses through a 529 college savings program.

Parent-managed savings accounts (consisting of taxpayer dollars and to which those parents have also directly or indirectly contributed) represent the next step toward promoting personal, customized education for children by way of service providers of all types who compete with one another on both quality and cost. A fully realized system of ESAs would create compelling incentives for innovation in schooling practices both in the private and public sphere. Both systems would be likely to improve.

Innovative? Yes. Conformist? No.

Additionally, studies show that parents who enroll their children in a school choice program tend to be more satisfied with the educational system — and tend to be more involved in their children’s school. Winners all around.

As I listen to parents from depressed socio-economic neighborhoods testify before the Education Committee about the power “school choice” would give them over the schooling of their own children, I am convinced that it is a good thing and that it will inspire those parents to be more involved in the success of their students — and I am astounded that some Democrats turn a deaf ear to those parents.

I am also amazed when liberals pretend that a few school choice options for what amounts to no more than a few thousand students will undermine Nevada’s entire public education system, supposedly because it will pull crucial funding from our public schools. In the big picture, choice-created “loss” to public schools is a drop in the funding bucket. (And these are the same folks who are constantly calling for smaller class sizes, which school choice aids!)

Along with smart, properly-funded reforms in the public schools — which Gov. Sandoval also seeks — I believe school choice is part of Nevada’s future.

In his Inaugural Address in 1961, President Kennedy challenged Americans to ask themselves, “What you can do for your country?” I can think of nothing greater or more important that Nevada lawmakers can do than improve our education system. As JFK said, conformity is the enemy of growth.

Unleashing the freedom, self-determination, and creativity of Nevada’s parents and children — in the form of school choice — will help release us all from the grey prison of conformity to our underperforming schools.