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Children learn ABCs at Sierra Nevada Academy Charter School preschool on March 14, 2017. Photo by David Calvert.

How much you wanna make a bet I can throw a football over them mountains?… Yeah… Coach woulda put me in fourth quarter, we would’ve been state champions. No doubt. No doubt in my mind. Better believe things woulda gone different. I’d’ve gone pro in a heartbeat. I’d be making millions of dollars. Big ol’ mansion somewhere. Soakin’ up in a hot tub with my soulmate…

— Uncle Rico, “Napoleon Dynamite”

Opponents of school choice programs, whether they’re direct vouchers, charter schools, or various other options, always come back to the same argument – if only we had that extra money that’s going to some other school, along with the student. That money woulda turned it all around. If that charter school hadn’t opened, we woulda been education champions. No doubt in my mind…

For this argument to have any merit at all, traditional public school districts would have to be such tightly run ships that every single penny could be accounted for, and shown to be a direct benefit to the mission of educating and enriching our children. Moreover, they would have to be able to show in detail how the relatively paltry amount of money following kids to charter or private schools would have been used to better effect in the would-be monopolistic school district. 

Does anyone believe this is the case in any of our state school districts, particularly in Washoe or Clark Counties?  Of course not — and Clark County School District superintendents expensing fancy exercise equipment is just the tip of the iceberg. 

Consider building costs alone. My kids’ charter school, with a capacity of nearly 1,000 kids, was built in less than a year for less than $17 million dollars. Washoe County’s newest elementary school serves only three-quarters of that number of students, and even with a developer donating the land it was built on, took longer and cost twice as much to construct. 

Keep in mind that the entire Clark County School District just about shut down over just $15 million “missing” from the budget to meet teacher union salary demands. Multiply that by all the new school construction in Washoe County (and presumably Clark County), and it becomes readily apparent that teachers (and their students) are getting screwed because of hyper-inflated construction costs. Ironically, those inflated casts are largely attributable to prevailing wage rules, where politically connected union bosses convince politicians to spend substantially more than the private sector would spend to build the same building. 

And then, of course, there is the leadership. You don’t fix poorly led institutions by giving bad leaders more money, or more monopolistic power. Jon Ralston’s blistering indictment of the total lack of leadership in Clark County schools should be enough all by itself to induce a little humility in the “traditional public schools are the end-all-be-all” crowd. 

Up north, our former (I love saying that) superintendent Traci Davis is just now getting around to suing the county for wrongful termination, which will keep her record of incompetence in the news for years to come, reminding everyone of why there is such a market for alternatives to the main school districts in the first place. If Davis wins her lawsuit, or even reaches a settlement with the district, she will have succeeded in enriching herself and her lawyers to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars that otherwise would have been available to teachers and their students (proving beyond any doubt that she never really cared about our kids in the first place). If she loses (and she should), district leadership and the credibility of public schools will still have taken a major (and deserved) hit.

The government has an obligation to provide quality education to its youngest citizens. But that obligation does not require every kid to be in the same school system, nor does it command one-size-fits-all education solutions. It certainly does not require an education monopoly which only the very wealthy can escape.

The thing about publicly funded school choice is that it gives us the best of both worlds – we get the innovation, flexibility, and firewalls against poorly managed schools that competition ignites, letting both parents and teachers “vote” for the schools that are right for them regardless of family income. Keep in mind, too, that it’s not as if money for school choice programs simply disappears. The child in the alternative school is still learning, and public money is still going to educate her (more efficiently, too, in many cases). 

Teachers who feel abused don’t have to illegally strikethey can quit their bad principal or bad superintendent and still get a job in their field in the city where they live with another school who values them. They wouldn’t need their ridiculous union bosses at all, in fact – which is why union bosses hate the very concept of school choice so very much.

And what happens when anti-choice government monopolists start dismantling the progress Nevada has already made?  Kids suffer. Real kids, right now, are losing Opportunity Scholarships, a last remnant of school choice outside of public charter schools, even though kids who already had them were promised they wouldn’t lose them. Chances are they wouldn’t have sought those scholarships in the first place if the traditional public school system hadn’t previously failed them (or could be reasonably expected to do so).

The Opportunity Scholarships currently cost $4.75 million per year, and serves approximately 2,300 students. That’s a pretty great deal at $2,065 per student, considering per pupil funding in Clark County public schools is nearly three times that number. And does anyone think that an additional $4.75 million per year (and 2,300 more students) is going to fundamentally improve statewide education in the state of Nevada?  

***

The facts show that the arguments against school choice are nothing more than blaming some outside force for bad internal leadership. The arguments of the anti-choice activists are no more tenable than Uncle Rico’s excuses for his lack of a pro football career and will lead to no better outcomes. 

The damage done to our children, our taxpayers, and our teachers as a result of the crusade to make every family bend the knee to the One True Education Provider is enormous. If we don’t reverse course next legislative session, Nevada’s education system will keep bouncing along the bottom of all the surveys, while education “leaders” keep uselessly bragging about what they could have done for our schools if someone else hadn’t once tried to do it better. 

Orrin Johnson has been writing and commenting on Nevada and national politics since 2007.  He started with an independent blog, First Principles, and was a regular columnist for the Reno Gazette-Journal from 2015-2016.  By day, he is a criminal defense attorney in Reno.  Follow him on Twitter @orrinjohnson, or contact him at [email protected]

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