Ep. 275: 25 Years with Michael Chartier and Don Soifer — The Nevada Story

October 14, 2021

We continue to celebrate our 25th Anniversary by speaking with Michael Chartier and Don Soifer and they tell us about advancements in school choice in the state of Nevada.

Brian McGrath: Hi, this is Brian McGrath from EdChoice. Welcome to another episode of EdChoice Chats. In 2015, Nevada was the surprise center of the school choice universe. Policy makers in the Silver State, several who had recently attended a Friedman Foundation policy event where they were introduced to the idea of education savings accounts, had passed the nation’s most ambitious school choice proposal yet; a universal education savings account. This was groundbreaking. Almost out of nowhere, Nobel laureate Milton Friedman’s vision of all students being allowed to choose a school that best served their needs was enacted into real policy. Universal school choice had arrived, but as often happens in the state of Nevada, which is perhaps best known for Las Vegas and its long histories of fortunes won and lost and won again, things went from really good to really bad to really good again.

Today, Nevada is again a leader in the education reform movement, but not in the way that many had imagined back in 2015, when it appeared that Nevada families had hit the jackpot and won a universal school choice. So what happened back in 2015, and what has happened in Nevada since then? Today, we are talking with two people who have had seats at the feature table of the school choice battle royale in Nevada. Let’s start with Michael Chartier, who was the Director of State Engagement for the Friedman Foundation, now known as EdChoice, back in 2015, when policy leaders went all in for school choice.

Michael Chartier: We had a great group of legislators that came to our lender center conference in Salt Lake City, and they got into a little bit of a side room and decided that this was something they were going to do and bring educational choice to Nevada. So they hashed out their plan, took it to the state and we said, “Hey, you came to our conference, we’re going to be there to support you when you go back into your state and try to make this happen,” and we provided services along the way.

Brian McGrath: Did you think it was possible or did you think you were just chasing something that wasn’t likely to happen?

Michael Chartier: I thought it was possible, but unlikely. We had to work for it every second of every day. Many of the resources that EdChoice brought to bear, including the private school survey… That piece of research dropped at the exact right time and got us over a fiscal note hump. And that was a particular piece of research that we delivered that really kind of sealed the deal for us in terms of getting this bill out of the Senate. I specifically remember sitting in a hotel room in Reno and getting a phone call from Senator Hammond saying, “Hey, Michael, I just want you to know the bill is dead. We did the best that we could, but it’s over.” That turned out to not be the case. We had to fight for it the whole way and we had to provide resources, testimony, and advice along the entire process.

Brian McGrath: And what was their rationale for going so big so quickly? They want to go universal from the get-go. What was their rationale behind that?

Michael Chartier: Once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. They viewed this as a-once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. The Republicans at the time who passed the bill had full control of the House and the Senate, and they knew that this was their one shot. And if they didn’t take it now, they weren’t ever going to get it again.

Brian McGrath: So the program is sort of conceived out of our conference quickly with some legislators. They go big because it’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunities that sounds great. We throw all our resources that we can, or are applicable to them. They pass it, it gets shut down more or less. What do you think the rest of the movement or others can learn from that kind of experience?

Michael Chartier: We learned a few things. Number one, especially when you’re going to pass a new school choice program, it doesn’t matter whether you pass a really, really small one or a really, really big one. The opposition is going to be exactly the same no matter what the size your program is. So when in doubt, go big. I think secondly, that we realized that there are some tricky situations and some nuances when it comes to funding and how the funding works. So we took a more in-depth look at how these programs are structured, and what some of the arguments were that were put forth on the legal side and we are incorporating those into other programs going forward.

Brian McGrath: What’s the future for school choice in Nevada?

Michael Chartier: I would say for the foreseeable future, that was the one best shot at a large universal program, but then we also have to look to other groups like Don Soifer and his group and the work that they’re doing for the public school system. Even though we can’t get the big, shiny universal program that we want, there’s still a lot of things that we can do to help improve education for Nevada children. And so we’ll work and explore those avenues as well.

Brian McGrath: So after what seemed like a big win for educational freedom was turned into what seemed like a big loss, what happened next? Did school choice advocates get up from the table, cash in their remaining chips and go home, or did they stick around and ante up for the next game, hoping that fortune might still come their way?

Don Soifer: Nevada is a perfect example of you guys really understanding the long-haul play and cultivating movement building over the long-haul because nobody else in this space really has ever fully gotten it to where you guys always have, so you just have good support. Hi, I’m Don Soifer, the founder of Nevada Action for School Options. So, Nevada Action for School Options is here to advance quality opportunities for all learners and all families across Nevada, whatever they might look like and better designed to meet their particular family’s educational needs that might not be something that the system has taken fully into account.

Brian McGrath: Don Soifer is a longtime advocate for educational freedom. Before coming to Nevada, he spent 20 years at the Lexington Institute in Virginia working on free market solutions to public policy problems. He also spent a decade on the D.C. Public Charter School Board, so he was accustomed to tough policy fights. He knew you have to keep your chips on the table if you want to ultimately win the hand.

Don Soifer: Well, really the 2015 legislative session came at a crucial time because Governor Brian Sandoval had a lifelong commitment to not just education opportunity, but education choices and a diversity of opportunity. And, he came into office with legislative leaders in the Assembly and in the Senate who really shared that commitment with him and along with his education superintendent Dale Erquiaga, so it really was a perfect time to be thinking outside the box for school choice and opportunities in Nevada. In 2015, you really saw that when there was a push to put more money into the public education system, but to do so in a way that met everybody’s needs and not just assistance needs. So in 2015, just as Nevada charter schools were really beginning to take hold and assume a market share that was broad-based enough to have the happy families and happy consumers of educational choice for the first time in Nevada. It was a real opportunity to move ahead with the opportunity scholarship and a radical new idea that Senator Scott Hammond had with education savings accounts.

Brian McGrath: One of the things I understand about the history of this is that Senator Hammond and a few of his colleagues were at a Friedman Foundation training or legislative training session, and they kind of heard about ESAs and maybe they knew a little bit about it, but they were sort of energized by that. And, Governor Sandoval, if I recall, also came to one of our events prior to him being governor, so it was kind of a fascinating proof point of some of those training sessions in the value they have. So, they took that and they went back and they had… The legislative arrangements seem to be correct, and they launched into this broad-based ESA, which is kind of unheard of at the time. Can you tell us about that program? What was the goal of that?

Don Soifer: Yeah, so Senator Hammond first learned about education savings accounts at a Friedman Foundation training event and the relationship that he built quickly with Robert Enlow and with Michael Chartier really turned into a learning opportunity. It really worked both ways because Scott’s street credit as a 16-year public school educator brought an approach to that. And, teaching in schools, they really served the kids who needed it most. So Scott learned about education savings accounts from EdChoice, and he learned about the potential that they can have to do good, not just for the children who are fortunate enough to take advantage of the savings account because at the time we were all talking about an opportunity scholarship program that was relatively small in size. What Robert Enlow instilled in Senator Hammond was a commitment to lift the quality of school opportunities for all children, by doing it in a broad-based school choice framework for the universal education savings account, which was something that Senator Hammond learned from EdChoice.

Brian McGrath: We held it up as, “look Milton Friedman was right, and you can do this in a universal way and that’s the way school choice should be,” but let’s fast forward. So when the bill gets passed, we all celebrate. And then as often happens, the courts get involved or the opposition gets involved and they sue or they run referendums. But tell me about the downfall of the program as it were and how that happened.

Don Soifer: What happened after the ESAs became law, they went through a very rigorous and a very strong regulatory process where Grant Hewitt and the Treasurer’s Office of Nevada led their regulations process. And in the course of doing so, built a really strong list of families who wanted to sign up for ESAs. However, while this was going on, the predictable interest groups who had fought against school choice, and continue to fight against school choice at every opportunity they get and it was a coalition led by the usual suspects and largely driven by the Nevada state education association and the institutional opponents of choice, pressed the issue. And it went to the Nevada Supreme Court. But what happened in the Nevada Supreme Court was particularly interesting because the Nevada Supreme Court’s ruling prevented that, particularly planned for moving forward, but it did so in a beneficial way.

So what ended up happening was that the Supreme Court in Nevada ruled that the particular funding mechanism that had been part of the legislative package for education savings accounts was not going to pass constitutional muster for very specific reasons, but that if the legislature and the governor would put together a budget with a dedicated funding stream to do that, and the ruling from the Supreme Court was very specific in how that needed to look, it would be constitutional and it would pass muster. That was the outcome of the challenge, so in a sense, the legal challenge to education savings accounts was somewhat of a failure for those that tried to put it forward, because it did not block school choice at all. It just illuminated a path forward to do that. And at that point, the political coalition that was required to get a funding package for education savings accounts that were already in law was not able to happen because the political dynamic had shifted and changed. And as a result, education savings accounts were never funded.

Brian McGrath: I would say that the universal ESA was a great flag out on the horizon for the other school choice members or movement members who then could say, “Hey, look, you can do it universally. You can go big. You don’t have to piecemeal this and wait 10 years.” So I think that’s a huge victory. Well, let’s get to the future now, or first, the present then the future. The great thing about… And I’ve been to Vegas a few times, you can win, lose and win again. So now, Nevada is leading the way in microschooling, if I’m correct. Tell us about what’s happening in North Las Vegas.

Don Soifer: So Nevada is paving away for a whole new mode of schooling in the United States that’s not only incredibly popular among the families that are involved with it and statewide, but it’s really growing a strong constituency nationally. The City of North Las Vegas has long been mistreated by the Clark County School District. It’s a classic case of a large county school district. In fact, the fifth largest school district in the country with one municipality that’s a working class, lower income municipality that’s just been mistreated by the school district for decades, and the public schools in the school district that served North Las Vegas kids have lower academic growth than an already low district average. So for a variety of reasons, the leadership of the City of North Las Vegas was ready to move forward with a different plan anyway.

Fast forward to the height of pandemic when it became apparent that the Clark County School District was not going to open its schools in-person, the forward-thinking Democrat leadership of the City of North Las Vegas was just not satisfied with that as an answer for its families. Its families needed a place to keep learning on-track because the pandemic learning loss in Nevada was wildly inequitable and coming down hardest on the lowest income families who could afford it the least and Nevada, and particularly North Las Vegas, needed to get back to work.

So the leadership of the City of North Las Vegas… It’s something nobody has ever done before. They reached out to an education nonprofit with the expertise to do it and asked Nevada Action for School Options to open microschools, in-person every day for free in its rec centers and libraries that the city then paid for with municipal funds. So my nonprofit built the teaching and learning model, built the microschooling model, and drew together and trained the team to execute the model and run the microschools every day on three campuses serving about a hundred kids in North Las Vegas. The city is an active partner, so not only does the municipal service contract pay for those expenses, but the city gives breakfast and lunch for free to every kid every day. The city runs the rec centers, so it runs gym and rec time every day. And maybe most importantly, the city donated the computers and the IT team to let all of this happen every day.

So I had a strong background in personalized-learning models. In fact, we ran the first national fellowship for school district superintendents to transition their school districts around the country to blended learning models, which posted some particularly strong academic growth track records. We were regularly seeing 25%. So kids were gaining 125% academic growth in the school year compared with their school districts. So we knew exactly what it was that we wanted to do, particularly to design a microschooling model to combat pandemic learning loss.

And in North Las Vegas, we knew that we would get kids who were behind. More than three quarters of the kids who arrived in the program on day one were more than two grade levels behind in their academic attainment and mastery. So we needed to come up with a program that was going to tackle that head-on. So we built a pretty innovative model with some amazing EdTech partners and some great team members. And the program has thrived in North Las Vegas.

They’ve continued to grow, but there was a lot of back and forth and the predictable resistance from some people allied with the school district because after all, these were kids who are disenrolling and becoming homeschoolers to participate in the program. But, at the end of the day as elected official after elected official and the leadership of the State Department of Education came to tour the Southern Nevada Urban Microacademy, they realized the incredible academic growth that they were seeing. The incredible engagement of the kids that was going on and they fell in love with the program to the point where the Nevada Department of Education has been helpful to the microschool and recruiting educators as the program has grown.

So it’s really been a terrific success story. Microschooling that’s specifically designed around the needs of these learners on a scale that lets you do that. To really focus on meeting the needs of families that need you most and the families that most want to be part of this. And, it’s been a real success story and it’s the first public-private partnership microschool nationally of its kind. It’s something that really is built to grow and built to replicate and I think it’s something that we could see because it’s so inexpensive, because the all-in cost for the microschool is between a quarter and a third of the per pupil funding and the Clark County School District and the academic growth levels are much higher. So, in terms of educational productivity, it’s a real winner and it’s something that we’ve had the Vegas Chamber of Commerce through now three times. I think it’s something that’s going to be attractive to both large employers as well as municipal governments in Nevada and around the country.

Brian McGrath: I’m sure you have, but where else are you getting interest outside of the state?

Don Soifer: As you know very well, this is a watershed moment for school choice and the country. So the school choice movement for all of its strengths has never particularly focused on the supply side. This is a strong supply side solution, so we’re getting a lot of interest from other states that have new school choice programs that families can take advantage of. When we hear from colleagues in states that have passed these amazing new school choice programs, there’s a real opportunity for them to get this right and at a time that some of the micro schools out there, like Prenda, are starting to a lot of attention.

Brian McGrath: Can you give me a quick definition of what is a microschool? Most people have never heard of it.

Don Soifer: So the original one-room school houses were microschools. There are no hard and fast rules about what a microschool is. We focus on multi-family learning arrangements. So if a family as a homeschooler, we’re always happy to help them with anything that we can do, but we are particularly focused on multi-family arrangements. And the thing about microschooling is that it doesn’t have that whole institutional level of bureaucracy that adds to the overhead and also adds to the inflexibility of a system. So microschools have to be built to focus on the needs of the specific learners that they’re looking to address. I do just want to say that Nevada is just a testament to EdChoice, and prior to that the Friedman Foundations. Just a unique and incredible commitment to the long-haul movement building for educational freedom for pluralism and education for school choice, but EdChoice really understands that this is about people, this is about families, and this is about relationships.

So from the beginning with its gold standard of research and its commitment to movement building and making people really understand why school choice works for everybody, Nevada is case-in-point as to why that process of moving forward and the partnerships and their friendships. Robert Enlow and Michael McShane and everyone at EdChoice, and Leslie Hiner especially, are always right at the other end of a phone when challenges come up. And those are the sort of true organic relationship building opportunities that really build movements, and I think really have led to a point where Nevada is where it is in the trajectory now, where the broad school choice watershed moment that we’re seeing nationally is going on. And I just have nothing but great things to say about EdChoice’s role in fostering all of it.

Brian McGrath: As the old Kenny Rogers song, The Gambler, wisely advises you never count your money while you’re sitting at the table. There’ll be time enough for counting when the dealing’s done. The story of school choice in Nevada certainly has elements of that song. Perhaps after the sudden and bold passage of universal choice in 2015. The school choice movement started counting our winnings while we were still sitting at the table. However, Nevada stands as a showcase for the Educational Freedom Movement that thinking and betting big can pay off. The universal ESA, while ultimately not implemented due to a court ruling, showed the movement that you could pass a universal program. It’s hard to believe that West Virginia, which passed its own universal ESA program in 2021 and where EdChoice has been an active member in supporting local partners for the past several years, was not influenced by the Nevada story.

Nevada also shows us that persistence and pushing the envelope on new ideas can lead to outcomes that we didn’t even think about. Currently, North Las Vegas, Nevada is now a prime example of a positive partnership between public and private sectors, provided a crucial experiment in pod learning that is transforming a previously underserved community. Back in 2015, no one was talking about pod learning, but in 2021, Nevada is in a leadership spotlight again. What will be the next educational jackpot won? No one knows for sure, but if I were a gambling man, I would put my chips on school choice and its many current, and perhaps even new forms, continuing to spread all over the country.