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Nevada To Battle Over School Choice

Students wearing construction crew gear watching their teacher.
Paolo Zialcita
Students at ACE High School at their construction class.

With midterm elections quickly approaching, some voters are concerned with how the next state government will fix public schools. Some argue the system is in dire need of funding, others say schools need more competition and that the state should support school choice. As KUNR’s Paolo Zialcita reports, the debate over education takes an important role in this election cycle.

It’s a chilly, overcast weekday morning in Reno and a small construction crew is hammering at the frames of tiny homes. The crew looks like any other construction crew - they sport blue hard hats and tool belts. 

There is one slight difference. The crew is young. Really young. It’s comprised of teenagers who attend the Academy for Career Education, a high school in east Reno.

The Academy, or ACE, for short, is a high school that offers a career and technical focused curriculum. Students attend regular high school classes like English, but also take classes like Diesel Power Technology or Construction.

“These kids build houses. From bottom-to-top, they do everything themselves. They’re learning carpentry but they also do electrical and the plumbing. They have to go through all the same inspections, so it’s really comprehensive,” said Leigh Berdrow, director of ACE, one of the eight charter schools in Washoe County.

In all, there are about 50 charter schools across the state, all of which operate using public funds.

Stacey Cooper oversees the charters in Washoe County. She said both traditional and nontraditional public schools, like charters, get their money from the same place.

“Public charter schools work in the same fashion as our district public schools,” said Cooper. “There isn’t any special funding, or funneled resources that go to charter schools that are different from our public district schools.”

It’s that competition over funding that has made charters and school choice a hot topic for debate, especially when it comes to politics. And nowhere is that more true than Nevada, where education is among the top campaign issues this election cycle.

Take the race for Governor. Republican Adam Laxalt has vowed to expand school choice options like the state’s embattled Education Savings Accounts. In a previous interview with KUNR, he voiced support for school choice. 

“I think choice is an important tool for our education system. Our education system is obviously at the bottom and that’s unacceptable,” said Laxalt. “I also support funding of ESA’s. It’s something we fought for in the attorney general’s office, to defend the state law, and it was declared constitutional - as your listeners may know - and now we need to try to find some money for it.”

Laxalt has also voiced opposition of the creation of 2015 commerce tax, which has become a vital source of funding for public schools.

On the other hand, Democrat Steve Sisolak has described himself as a supporter for traditional public education, and has recently gained the endorsement from the Nevada State Education Association. He says he can’t support programs like ESA’s, because it would be sending public funds to private schools.

“We need to adequately fund public schools before we can get into giving money to private schools. I know a lot of parents want that choice, but I think we need to fund our public schools equitably and sufficiently.” said Sisolak.

In addition to the gubernatorial races, the way the legislative branch could shape up could affect how school choice grows in Nevada. State Republicans have made it clear their intention is to pass additional school choice legislation, as well as funding the state embattled voucher system--which has not yet been funded--with many Democrats vowing to oppose those plans.

To further complicate matters, voters seem split on the subject themselves. According to a recent poll by The Nevada Independent, 49 percent of surveyed voters support programs like the state’s Education Savings Accounts, with roughly 38 percent opposing it.

Valeria Gurr is the Nevada director for the American Federation for Children, a school choice advocacy group, that used to be run by current Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos. She said the traditional public school system can benefit from more school choice programs.

“If anything, I think it’s helping public education. It’s allowing children that might not be served best at their public schools to be able to use a scholarship to go to a setting that serves them best,” said Gurr.

Natha Anderson, the president of the Washoe Education Association, said the rise of school choice only hurts traditional public schools.

“This idea of the vouchers and the privatization of schools is a little more concerning, because it is taking already a pretty small amount of money that’s going into our schools, that’s for our public schools, and putting them into private schools, which have other industries that are donating money to it,” said Anderson.

Anderson said that public schools suffer from a number of issues. She’s worried that the expanding school choice will detract from the conversation about better funding for state’s public education system.

Paolo Zialcita is a former student reporter at KUNR Public Radio.
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