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School choice enlists parents in cultural war

Opportunity for parents to select children’s school evolved from educational issue to political firestorm.
Dayvid Figler
Dayvid Figler

I’m perplexed by how “school choice” has gotten so much attention and energy in recent Nevada public discourse. Even more so how it seems to have shaped up as an ideal ideological hammer against Democrats.

Gov. Joe Lombardo and his apparatchiks appear heavily invested in it being the driving issue of the next round of legislative elections. Vocal advocates for school choice are pounding the socials screeching a transparently misleading, but deceptively alluring narrative: “Parents should be allowed to choose what’s best for their own kids!”

And while I’m sure many of these advocates would love every parent in Clark County to be able to micromanage every single lesson plan from every single teacher in every single classroom on a daily basis to really emphasize “parental rights,” it’s clear the big crusade we’re seeing now centers around what advocates dub “Opportunity Scholarships.”

These are less about a measurable opportunity for better achievement, but more about the opportunity to have a private school get a tuition payment from an applicant who may not be able to afford amounts which (according to testimony from families seeking funding) are very costly. A quick survey of a couple of schools shows kindergarten can run over $6,500 a year and almost $9,000 for the higher grades. For some high schools, it can run $14,000 a year. 

The government-paid tuition dates back to 2015 when the Republican-controlled Legislature and a Republican governor passed AB165. In simple terms, and after some Nevada Supreme Court legal-adjustments, this allowed private entities to donate tax-deductible “scholarship” money on the front end, and gave distributors of the scholarships the ability to ask the government to give them a “credit” on state taxes they’d otherwise have to pay (and the general populace would benefit from) for doing such a good deed.  

It must be noted that over 95 percent of Opportunity Scholarships in Nevada are used at religious schools.

Without getting too deep into the legalities of the decision, the Nevada Supreme Court acknowledged the argument that some people may find it shady to use any public funds to assist in paying for any religious studies. But the majority of that court sidestepped going down that holy hole; only two justices felt there may be enough merit on the religious establishment problem to at least explore. It’s all pretty much moot nowadays given the pro-religion leanings of the current United States Supreme Court.  

You may have seen reporting on a recent fiscal showdown in the Interim Finance Committee. That fight (which the governor lost) seems to be the foundation for this steady school choice blitz that’s lingering in the political sphere. And because the amount of money in the pool for these AB165 credits is set by lawmakers, the governor asked for more, even though he knew he didn’t have the votes. It was all political theater about funding levels and mechanisms. It wasn’t whether school choice is a good or bad idea, and certainly not — as Gov. Lombardo later wrote — about Democrats voting for “forcibly removing children from their schools.” 

Still, I’d imagine there remains a healthy portion of Americans, like me, who find it a bit cringy to have any aspect of public funds foster, by direct or indirect means, any support of religious schools. That’s not to say that daily prayer, scripture studies and sectarianism are inherently bad for kids, just that the government should get as far away from those institutions as possible. Mostly because we simply don’t want government mucking around there, or not paying attention if it’s possible some things going on there aren’t kosher in a secular society.

This especially rings true to me reviewing mission statements from Nevada Opportunity Scholarship schools that say things such as: “The curriculum stresses a fundamental educational program integrated with Catholic/Christian philosophy and values” and “We teach the TRUTH about how God created the world and everything in the world.” I suppose that makes it easier to instruct kids that blasphemy in traditional textbooks abounds and that AB165 (2015) was created by divine guidance.

And now back to this school choice messaging and how it’s being presented as the salvation of civilization in Nevada — a wedge issue designed to be a driving force of getting voters to the polls. It’s being presented as the final stand between the last fort of fairness and opportunity for poor children and the “Demon-crats’” insatiable desire to oppress financially challenged students with bad learnin’, violent school yards and the (completely unambiguous and not at all impossible to explain) boogeyman called “wokeism.”

School choice is an easy shorthand in the bombastic rhetoric of modern-day attention, but it’s a  big conservative concept more than half-century old. It got a lot less traction when “separation of church and state” was still a high ideal, and people were wary of policies that could disproportionately harm students already firmly in the public education system. Simplistically, school choice doctrine favors public education money being pooled so parents can take a pro rata share away to educate their child any way that parent sees fit. Their most consistent argument in support of this pathway is pedantic: “public education sucks.” 

Without wading into the waters of how unfixable Nevada’s “sucky” public education may be, it remains a major responsibility of government and a mandate on all who procreate and/or care for children to enroll their kids in school. Also, I’ve always felt that the mantra that Nevada is at the bottom of most lists forgets that it’s not true for all lists, and that nationwide assessments of achievement are a narrow window into how education happens in thousands of classrooms across our valley every day.

Lambasting Democrats for only wanting to “throw money” at public schools to make them better is a wonky dig since, despite the hollering about “all this money” we’re “throwing” at public schools, we still rank in the bottom 10 percent of per-pupil spending and the bottom half of average salary for public school teachers. Don’t tell me we can’t money our way out of rough rankings on student achievement until you start spending Connecticut-level dough (or even West Virginia — which is about 20 spots higher than us).

We’d be wise to remember the fundamental question at the heart of all this bickering and gamesmanship: What’s the goal of government educating children?

And my shot at that answer: to equip young people with academic skills to navigate a quality (read: productive) life in America. This generally means fostering an understanding, at a minimum, of the way numbers (numeracy) and words (literacy) work; activating brain tools for problem solving; explaining the basics of how society functions, including backward-looking evolution of those systems; and, if we’re lucky, how to elevate and succeed in physical, creative and/or logic/science-based curiosity. Arguably, all society benefits if most of our populace is educated in such a fashion because uneducated young people theoretically make for more terrifying and/or scary adults.

Still, mandatory public education is an entrenched part of American society. And while we should always strive to do better, the concept of school choice has clouded the mission, especially as it is slathered in the sheen of culture war.

So is public school not an inherently good thing worth our singular focus?

* * *

I am a product of the Clark County School District, albeit at a time when there were only about 12 public high schools, not the current level of (Google search) … holy shit … 72 publicly funded high schools. OK, shaking it off. But damn, that’s a lot.

When I was at Valley High School, it was likely a universal experience. I excelled in some courses, struggled in others and graduated along with most of my 600 or so classmates. I participated in a college-prep program, then new, called International Baccalaureate, had fun in theater classes and competition and wrestled (junior varsity) for about five minutes.

Most of us had elective or extracurricular activities tied to the school, some of which shaped our futures, some of which were self-contained in the moment. Many of us went on to college, some didn’t. I went to law school and then used all that education and experience to ultimately become a podcaster and local op-ed crank. I can fondly remember mostly dedicated teachers who worked hard to teach while navigating a minefield of hormonal kids with varying degrees of inherent intelligence, emotional challenge, parental support and general economic or other impactful baggage.

Sidenote: Teachers are frickin’ heroes.

We all made the best of being required to be there. But whether they went on to trades, the arts, degreed positions, business or whatever it takes to survive in the world, I imagine having this education was indeed better than the alternative.

Do I ever wonder if a private school would have been better? Hard to say. I apparently did well on a test to get into a private, Catholic school touted at the time as a place where connections of a lifetime (read: “juice”) could be forged and chances for success were more statistically probable.

In the end, it was unaffordable for me since I came from a poor family of four dependent on my disabled card-dealer dad’s income. Maybe if there was a scholarship available, it would have changed my trajectory and I would have been a kid testifying about the benefits of the chance to go to private school. But alas, the Catholics didn’t seem too keen on giving a monetary break to non-Catholic me and there was no tax-credit scheme in place.

Beyond academics, I’d imagine the pressures of acclimating and generally keeping up financially with the typical private school attendee would have been formidable. This aspect doesn’t get talked about much. And that’s before you analyze the impact of this particular little Jew taking a mandatory religion studies class or attending Mass that is a routine part of much religious school participation. It’s too speculative to suggest that I suffered for going to public school or that going to an expensive religious school as a poor kid of a different religion wouldn’t have been even worse.

I remain steadfast that whatever it is in Clark County public schools systems causing ire, fear and derision amongst its critics — there is a fundamental goodness and fairness that exists in public education. It can be constantly improved with more money, thoughtful leadership, precise metrics for success beyond student tests and toning down the rhetoric encouraging flight. We can’t give up on doing better.

School choice advocates seemingly say we should give up. But more than that, their dubious claim that providing monetary supplements for families to go to (mostly) religious schools is the only alternative choice is nonsense.

Parents have a remarkable collection of choices within the public school system. There are magnet programs, specialized training and education programs within schools, charter schools (which are taxpayer funded), and a host of schools focusing on unique challenges available to a number of students who aren’t a great fit with their otherwise geographically assigned learning institution.

I get it. There’s little desire to require families to explore options within public school, or provide financial advocates to help families achieve the goal of religious school for their kids without governmentment involvement. And since religious schools don’t appear to be offering these folks a financial break, the promise of choice and hope with a government funded program becomes a strong draw. 

But how did this issue rise to a litmus of who gets elected? The rhetoric of opponents of school choice taking away opportunities from low-income and minority students and even hurting kids by not increasing funding for a weird work-around program is mind-boggling. 

With ties to the culture war, oversimplification and vitriol, school choice for a small group of people is poised to worm its way into every potential debate, ad and analysis, whether or not we have kids in school. This is not something I understand. After simple analysis (or even trudging through this column) how can it not go away? Then again, what do I know? 

I was educated in the Clark County School District.

Lifetime Las Vegan Dayvid Figler is a former municipal court judge whose law practice ranges from issues surrounding government actions to capital defense. He has a special interest in advocacy connected to problem gambling disorders and their impact within the carceral and private sectors. In 2019, he was awarded the prestigious Medal of Justice from the Nevada State Bar. An award-winning commentator and writer, he focuses on all things Las Vegas and hosts the daily podcast City Cast Las Vegas.


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