Nevada Gov. Develops School Choice Legislation

Published November 8, 2011

As four school reform bills Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval (R) successfully championed earlier in 2011 go into effect, Sandoval is redoubling efforts to expand school choice and end social promotion for third graders who lack basic reading skills.

Nevada’s House and Senate are currently controlled by Democrats, and during the most recent legislative session they refused to grant a hearing to a voucher bill Sandoval backed. Nevada lawmakers convene every other year, so the governor’s next crack at improving K-12 education through legislation will come in 2013. His success will hinge partly on the results of legislative races.

But Sandoval, who won office in 2010, is not waiting for next year’s elections.

“We’ll go forward with a parental choice legislative package regardless of the makeup [of the legislature],” said senior Sandoval adviser Dale Erquiaga. Erquiaga said the governor is looking at a variety of voucher and tax credit programs in other states for inspiration to help craft a stronger plan for 2013.

Interest in Vouchers, Tax Credits
“If a Republican or conservative Democrat ends up chairing the education committee, you could end up seeing a lot of pressure for vouchers,” said Victor Joecks, director of communication for the free-market Nevada Policy Research Institute (NPRI).

Joecks said NPRI emphasizes tuition tax credits as a way to increase school choice while avoiding possible state constitutional pitfalls.

One of Sandoval’s four successful 2011 bills, SB 197, created a statewide entity to authorize charter schools. Most of the state’s 17 school districts had stopped granting charters, so charters needed an alternative to expand. Erquiaga says in addition to vouchers or tax credits, the governor wants to continue promoting high-quality growth in the charter sector.

“We feel that choice ought to be available to all Nevadans, regardless of income level,” said Erquiaga. “Everything’s on the table.”

Expanding Charters
An October 5 visit from former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush (R), a national education reform champion, included stops with Sandoval at two Las Vegas charter schools—the Andre Agassi College Preparatory Academy and Southwest Career and Technical Academy.

“Both [schools] are incredibly unique, and both are an illustration of what choice in education can provide,” said Jaryn Emhof, spokeswoman for Bush’s Foundation for Excellence in Education and a member of the visiting delegation.

During his eight-year tenure, Bush made an array of public and private educational options more accessible to Florida students. Since then, Florida students have risen to the top on national tests and have come the farthest of any state in closing the achievement gap between white and minority students.

Erquiaga said his staff members’ interaction with FEE has also fostered a greater interest in advancing digital learning opportunities.

Prioritizing Literacy
Another of Bush’s education reforms that Sandoval remains keen on pursuing is holding back third graders who cannot read. Though Nevada legislators gave the governor’s 2011 proposal no more than a hearing, Sandoval is intent on bringing the issue back in 2013. The National Assessment of Educational Progress shows more than 40 percent of the state’s fourth graders cannot read at “basic” grade level, remaining below the national average.

“Our proficiency at the third-grade level today is really abysmal,” Erquiaga said. “Our kids are advancing to the fourth grade without being able to read, and we lose them.”

Joecks heard Bush make the case for this reform during his visit, and says he came away optimistic that lawmakers could move forward with the change in the upcoming session.

“It’s such a commonsense measure that when you really start talking about it, parents get it,” he said. “That’s the kind of reform where the political pressure could become so great that people on both sides of the aisle will embrace it.”

Evaluation Changes Move Forward
In the meantime, implementing recently enacted changes in teacher evaluations is receiving crucial attention. Sandoval named 15 parents, teachers, administrators, local officials, and other experts to the new Teachers and Leaders Council in September. Following the lead of states such as Colorado and Tennessee, the Council will help Nevada forge the details of a system that bases teacher and principal evaluations 50 percent on student achievement results.

Sandoval was slated to speak to the Council’s first meeting in fall 2011 as the group begins developing recommendations to submit to the State Board of Education by June 2012.

“It will be a long and spirited conversation,” Erquiaga said.

Power to Change
Emhof said recent legislation giving the governor the power to appoint the Nevada superintendent of public instruction strengthens his hand at achieving education reforms. 

“Passing a law is important, but implementation is equally important,” she said, noting the same power was a key to Bush’s long track record of education reform success in Florida.

Emhof expressed confidence Sandoval’s education agenda for Nevada will positively impact students in the long run, with the governor working hard to broaden support and make critical decisions despite political obstacles.

“There’s definitely a need for change,” she said. “The beauty is they have a strong leader who recognizes the need and is willing to put in the investment to make the changes.”


Image by Brian Sandoval public relations.