Ep. 104: Nevada K–12 and School Choice Poll with Don Soifer

March 8, 2019

Nevada Action for School Options, EdChoice and Braun Research, Inc. teamed up recently to survey Nevadans on their views about K–12 education issues. The recently released report reveals what Nevadans think about public schools, school choice programs and more. Learn more about the findings and what they mean locally in this podcast with Nevada Action for School Options President Don Soifer, EdChoice Director of State Research and Special Projects Drew Catt and EdChoice Research Assistant Mike Shaw.

Drew Catt: Hello, I’m Drew Catt.

Mike Shaw: And I’m Mike Shaw.

Drew Catt: And welcome back to EdChoice Chats. Today, we’re discussing a new polling brief by Nevada Action for School Options and EdChoice, Nevada K–12 and School Choice Survey. The purpose of this Nevada survey project was to measure public opinion on, and in some cases awareness or knowledge of, a range of K–12 education topics and school choice reforms.

This survey of a statistically representative statewide sample of adults, ages 18 and up, who resided in Nevada, was funded by EdChoice, developed by EdChoice and Nevada Action for School Options and conducted by Braun Research, Inc. Here to discuss the findings from the poll is Don Soifer, executive director of Nevada Action for School Options. Thank you for joining us, Don.

Don Soifer: Thanks for having me. Great to talk to you.

Drew Catt: Awesome. Yeah. Always a pleasure to speak with you. So, Nevada has earned a reputation for being open to innovation in its public policies, including in education. What options to families in Nevada have now?

Don Soifer: So I think that’s really out of necessity for Nevada, right? Because Nevada has had a pretty steep growth in its overall student population now for decades. The Census Bureau, which is usually pretty conservative in such things, says that Nevada is going to need to add another 250,000 seats in schools over the next 10 years. And just to put that in some sort of perspective, by far, the biggest school district in the state is Clark County, which is the fifth largest school district in the country, only has 330,000 seats.

So, the reasons for being innovative and being open to innovation generally, not just in education, but other areas, come from the reality of this, what I call the most dynamic education growth landscape in the country, and the fact that the taxes are low. Nevada does not have a state income tax. So, much of the revenue that’s necessary comes in through the hospitality industry and taxes related to that.

So, as a result, you see a focus and an openness to innovation in Nevada that you don’t see in other states. That you do see in some western states. So right now the biggest school choice program in Nevada is the Opportunity Scholarship Program. It’s even not that big. It’s given about 3,000 scholarships so far.

The way that works is, if your family is within 300% of the federal poverty line, so about $72,000 for a household of four, you’re eligible for a scholarship of up to $8,100 to attend a private school of your choice. And there are other uses as well. And that program is in renewal now, and it’s become a real political focus of the legislature. So, there’s that program.

Charter schools are relatively new in Nevada, and serve just under 10% of the population, but a little over a third of that goes to statewide online schools that are also under a lot of pressure for their results.

And then the last piece that’s, I think really captured most of the country’s attention for Nevada’s innovation with education, is the education savings account that was passed into law. And the challenge, of course, in the State Supreme Court, which upheld the law constitutionally in the state, but struck down the funding formula. Up till now, the legislature has not been able to secure funding that would pass muster with the courts just yet for that program. So, that’s really the hallmark for education innovation in Nevada for the most part.

Mike Shaw: Don, you mentioned these schooling sectors and these mechanisms for choice in Nevada. These, of course, are also to benefit parents and families to give them options. And so in the poll we went to get at what parents thought of these programs, as well as the schooling sectors themselves. We did that by asking Nevada parents where they’d like to send their children to school if it was up to them.

We did this using a split sample experiment of respondents, but whichever way you slice the data, one result seems pretty queer. Nevadans exhibited a variety of preferences of schooling sectors. 47% would choose a private school. About a quarter would choose a public district school, about a fifth would choose a charter school, and 9% would homeschool their child. This is compared to a less than pluralistic Nevada enrollment distribution that you somewhat cited with the charter ratio and the relatively small take up of tax credit scholarship students. And 86 percent of parents, we’re enrolling their children in public district schools by your survey responses. Don, why do you think there is such a wide gap between what folks are getting and what they prefer in Nevada?

Don Soifer: Yeah, no, thanks. And I really, totally agree. I think those are some particularly insightful findings from this. And they were even stronger among communities of color. Just about half of Latinos and just about a third of African Americans said exactly what you just said. That if cost and transportation were no issue, they would send their kids to private schools.

But to answer your question here, Nevadans overwhelmingly support choice. That came back again and again in this poll, and polls in prior years before. It’s consistent. There just aren’t that many choices that families can actually exercise and use in Nevada. There’s only about 100 private schools in the state. Most of them are really small, and the larger ones are all really concentrated in certain ZIP Codes.

Likewise charter schools. These are relatively new, and the reasons for that are varied and interesting. I mean the reason there were so few charter schools has a lot to do with the fact that per pupil funding in Nevada is famously real low, and there just isn’t the broad base of philanthropy that we see buttressing the charter school sectors in places where it’s strongest, like New York City and California and Washington, D.C.

So, what we have here is very clear, stark evidence, that we’ve seen before that Nevadans across just about any way you’d slice and dice the population, really support school choice opportunities. The market share for schools of choice is not that robust. And I think that, as that continues to grow and improve, and the policy landscape is conducive to that, I think that those are areas that are eventually going to rectify themselves. I mean Nevadans like choice. It’s plain as day.

Drew Catt: Yeah. And that’s really interesting, Don. So before seeing our poll results, how aware did you think Nevadans were of tax-credit scholarships or the Opportunity Scholarship Program that you previously described, and ESAs?

Don Soifer: Yeah, no, thanks, and that’s a good question. And you’re right, the polls showed that there are significant gaps in awareness, that a good chunk, roughly a third of Nevadans, are not aware of these programs. But that doesn’t really surprise me. They’re small programs. Press coverage for education in Nevada, generally, in the newspapers and in the outlets, it’s not underrepresented—there have consistently been some good reporters covering education—but these programs are small. And if you look at 3,000 kids in the Opportunity Scholarship Program, compared to 440,000 school kids in the state, I think that you would probably say that they get actually more coverage than they otherwise would.

But because of the size of the programs, because of the relative immaturity of the programs, they just haven’t been around all of that long. I think that the gaps in understanding and knowledge of the program that the poll turned up sorta makes sense, and I would expect those to continue to rectify themselves.

There’s also a real geographic concentration that the numbers showed. Frankly, areas that don’t have as many schools of choice options, actual options that actual families can actually use, were less aware of the program, and I think that most people would think that makes sense.

Mike Shaw: Yeah, Don, that makes total sense to me. But like a lot of public opinion polls do, this one attempted to get at what Nevadans think of these programs despite maybe their lack of knowledge by informing them about the Opportunity Scholarship Program about ESAs via definitions. And when we did that, more than two thirds of Nevadans supported the tax-credit scholarships, which was a 25 point increase from the baseline results, where we don’t provide a definition. So a very stark increase.

We saw a similar increase in support for our ESA descriptive question. Once we provided the definition, three-fourths supported ESA, so really striking support numbers there. And I think you’d agree with me, it’s interesting to see that increase in favorability once Nevadans are informed of these options that are in the state.

Don Soifer: Yeah, I think you guys are totally right, and I think that makes a lot of sense. And now with the survey, and past studies before us, and really even how it dovetails with national data. I think all of that makes sense. If there’s one real disconnect that I would point to, and we just talked a bunch about how the policy landscape can be more conducive to supporting the actual options and the actual schools of choice that families overwhelmingly crave in Nevada, the real disconnect is that, if you have about 80%, about four out of five current school parents agree that education choice programs like education savings accounts should be available to all families, one area that you don’t see aligned with that is the representation in the state legislature.

And I don’t want to talk about this in terms of Republicans versus Democrats, but you certainly don’t find 80% of the legislature supporting these programs, because if you did, they would be a lot larger, a lot better funded, and the working parts would make sure that they’re conducive to supporting choice. So, if there really were one disconnect that I would take away from this study, it’s the disconnect between the overwhelming support that Nevadans show for school choice options specifically. And the more experience they have with them, the more they like them.

And it really cuts across just about every line of demographic and racial identity that we looked at. There’s a real disconnect between that, and the positions of their elected officials in the legislature, and the executive branch. And for those of us that have been doing school choice for a long time, that doesn’t come as a surprise. And that’s the challenge we have before us.

Drew Catt: Yeah. And I think that also points out the importance of research like this that gathers the information from the public and, hopefully, elevates it to a view that their elected representatives are kind of hearing their voice through polling results such as these. So, there also seems to be another level of opportunity around who has not heard of these programs. Don, I think your point about people in the areas where the school exist are more likely to know about the programs and know about the schools. That totally makes sense to me.

And we did see that more than a third of Nevadans say they’ve never heard of tax-credit scholarships. Your point about the program being small, again, very logical. But were there any groups in Nevada, in particular, that seemed to be more or less knowledgeable about the Opportunity Scholarship Program or school choice in general? And where folks tend to get their information about these options?

We’ve seen in other states that a lot of times, parents hear about these programs through their social networks, whether that be through faith-based organizations or in their neighborhoods or at their schools. So what do you see as the case in Nevada?

Don Soifer: Yeah, thanks. And I think that all makes a ton of sense. So what did we see that and where do we really see opportunity for improvement here, based on all of that. I think that the more familiar families and people responding to the poll are with those options, the more likely they were to understand them and be supportive of those. And I guess we have to keep in mind that, first of all, these programs didn’t exist before 2015, so they’re relatively new, that Nevadans are westerners and they follow the world of political developments, and public policy developments, absolutely when they need to. But there is a lot going on. And for those that are in communities that have these programs actively, and have schools of choice, we’re seeing encouraging signs there. So, what did we do to really build on that? Right?

So, Nevada does not have the robust support networks around schools of choice or the stewardship for schools of choice in the business community or the philanthropic communities. And there are very robust business and philanthropic communities in Nevada, particularly in and around Reno, Washoe County, and in and around Clark County, Las Vegas.

But they’re just newer at this, and they’re sort of learning to get involved or learning what we know about school choice all over the country, right? Which is that doing it right really matters. The details really matter, and getting the sort of stewardship around schools of choice that you see in the communities around the country that have the most successful, thriving, academically strong results in schools of choice make a difference. And that’s really on all of us. I can’t thank EdChoice enough for all of your help and all your support in making this happen.

And it really gives us a roadmap, kind of like the state supreme court did in its ruling about the ESAs. It’s very clear what are some of the ways that we can get where we need to get. We just all have to work together to get there. And I think raising awareness, like you said before, the real value in a poll like this is to help raise awareness, that helps people understand.

And as business leaders and as elected officials, we have a new governor, a new democratic southern Nevadan governor, Steve Sisolak from Las Vegas. He certainly didn’t become governor running against school choice. In fact, there was a blue wave in Nevada. It was largely led by a number of political dynamics, and the way campaigns went, but opposing school choice was absolutely not a mandate for the blue wave that got elected in Nevada.

And the more we can do to raise understanding and awareness of how these programs work and how they work well, and how they work best for the students who need them most, who are the constituents of their elected representatives, is really on us to do. And I really look forward to putting in place some of this, some of the strategies that we’ve got underway that are exciting, and the ones that we’re heading towards, to really make that happen. I think Nevada’s going to be a really bright story over the coming years as we do that.

Drew Catt: Yeah, and Don, I think your point about getting all three sectors involved really resonates to me, especially with like my graduate work in philanthropic studies, just getting the philanthropic sector talking with the business sector, talking with the policymakers. And as you said, just overall raising the level of awareness of these programs and of the importance of school choice in general.

Mike Shaw: And, Don, just for some more local context, you mentioned the huge school district that is Clark County schools and the Las Vegas area in particular, it seems like it’s booming. It does make up a large share of Nevada’s total population, from what I understand. So, I was just wondering how folks in and around Vegas feel about, ESAs and education and the state generally.

Don Soifer: Well, I think, coming back to what I call the most dynamic education growth landscape in the country, that’s what Las Vegas has going on. And as you’re going to need to add a quarter million seats in schools statewide, most of them are going to come in and around Las

Vegas and Clark County, on top of the school district that only serves a little bit more than that already.
And the dynamic that the newer students don’t look like the students of 30 years ago. This is really dynamic education growth, and growth that’s projected across all sectors of jobs, occupations, careers. All aspects of the economy are just booming. And it’s always impossible to look into our crystal ball and know exactly how that growth is going to project 10 and 20 years out.

But that’s what we have to work with and build on. And if half of Latinos, for instance, and a third of African Americans, say that they would love to attend private schools, and other schools of choice, if they had that opportunity. Right now they don’t all have that opportunity.

The public transportation system in Las Vegas is very poor. If you look at the places in the country that have the most robust use of schools of choice, public transportation is a big part of that. So, that’s one set of questions. Let’s be real. The opportunity scholarship itself, the average size of the opportunity scholarship is only $4,500, that doesn’t buy a whole lot of education, and the private schools are doing just the Lord’s work when it comes to making sure that families have… There’s the private support and the private philanthropy that these schools are coming up with millions of dollars, to make sure that families can use that $4,500 dollar scholarship to attend these really terrific schools of choice that have tuitions, in many cases, that are much higher than that.

It really does take an ecosystem around schools of choice to really get there. And I think this poll just shows in so many ways that there’s so much interest in getting this done, and it’s so broad based, and it really is concentrated most in the communities that would most benefit from real opportunities, not just programs that let people take advantage of them, but the actual school choice options themselves. That’s why we do what we do. It really presents an exciting opportunity, but there’s certainly a lot of work to be done.

Drew Catt: Yeah. And I think it’s also important to consider the sacrifices the parents are already making, and kind of how that can interact with the options that are available. About a third of Nevada school parents say they have moved closer to a school to support their child’s education.

And that proportion’s even higher for the Hispanic parents, at about 45 percent, so nearly half. And then one in three parents say that they’ve taken an additional job, and about a quarter say they’ve changed jobs just for their child’s education. And that’s regardless of where they’re sending them to school. So, those are parents across the state making those sacrifices because they believe in the importance of their child’s education. So, Don, how do you interpret these results?

Don Soifer: Isn’t that just incredible? I mean that really just warms your heart, numbers and responses like that. The sacrifices that regular, ordinary working folk are willing to make for their kids’ education is striking.

And there is an elephant in the room here. I mean, Nevada is near the bottom of all of the lists in the country about places that are attractive for education. And near the bottom of the most positive views on, generally speaking, people like Education Week who rank states on education, rank Nevada near the bottom. And what keeps coming up again and again, in all of those published studies, is that education is not that important to Nevadans.

It’s just not that uncommon for an 18-year-old coming out of high school to get a real high paying job in the hospitality industry, whether it’s a hostess in a restaurant. I mean, even a busboy or a dishwasher can make well north of $40,000, or close to $50,000. So, there’s this bum rap that people feel that Nevadans don’t care about education.

But when you look at studies, we look at studies, look at findings like this, you look at the incredible amount of sacrifice that working Nevadans make for their own children’s education, I think there’s a lot to take to heart there. And I think it really tells a message that’s in contrast with some of the education establishment elite views that are dismissive about Nevadans and their attitudes about education. We now know better and let’s see what we can do about it.

Mike Shaw: And maybe that helps explain the reasons why Nevadans favor ESAs as an education mechanism, as a funding mechanism. We found a fifth of Nevadans saying they favored ESAs because they provide more freedom and flexibility for the parents. They put parents in the driver’s seat of their child’s education, and then a quarter listed focusing on more individual attention. And almost two out of five simply said access to a better academic environment.

Drew Catt: And the reasons respondents are opposed to ESAs are fairly aligned with our national polling. With about two out of five listing that they believe that ESAs, would divert funding away from public education, and more than two in five saying that they believe they would cause fraudulent behavior. And Don, the way the ESA infrastructure is set up in Nevada, how would these concerns potentially be addressed, should the program received funding from the legislature?

Don Soifer: That’s a great question. When you look at the ESA program in particular, right, it was really striking to me in the results that not only do Nevadans support universal school opportunities, so, so many of the Opportunity Scholarship Program, and so many of the school choice programs that we see around the country are targeted, are income-eligible. They’re targeted to the lowest income populations.

But in Nevada, not just Nevadans overall Nevadans from demographics that represent the lowest end of the income spectrum, strongly support universal school choice for all families. I think that you can read that loud and clear from these results. So, how do we do that? How do we really set up the program to succeed?

There are thousands of families already on wait lists for Opportunity Scholarships, and that’s, by definition, the lower-income families. When the education savings account program was first passed, before it was ever funded, thousands of families registered to be part of those programs, and to be on those wait lists. And, frankly the number of families that are sitting on wait lists right now for school choice programs are really close to the total number of available seats in all of the schools of choice, particularly all of the private schools of choice, now that we’re talking about education savings accounts, already.

So, if we really want to do what you said, if we really wanted to design the education savings account program so that it really met the needs of these families, we would really want to do it in a way that built capacity, so that we have the capacity for the kinds of programs that these families want to enroll in, and that it’s near enough their homes, and it’s really accessible to these families.

I think that work is on us, and a work that’s on policymakers and legislators in Nevada, to design programs in ways that we know, from all of our experience for decades in school choice, can really attract the sort of investments and capacity building in the schools of choice sector that we need to support that and make it appealing to families.

Mike Shaw: That all seems to be imperative, it seems, for building a successful school choice program in any state. Don, before we sign off, though, I was just wondering if there’s anything else you’d like to add regarding the future of school choice in Nevada or these results?

Don Soifer: Thanks. I really appreciate it. Again, I’m so grateful to EdChoice for all your support and all of you help in getting the story out there. What we have here is a really important storyline, and it really flies in the face of what we read so much the education establishment’s elite media about Nevadans not caring about schools. Nevadans care very deeply about schools. And it’s not just those Nevadans at the high end of the income spectrum. It’s Nevadans of color, it’s Nevadans who are eligible, it’s Nevadans at all ends of the income spectrum who really do care deeply about quality opportunities for their kids.

And I think, really, all we can do to raise awareness of that, and this is not unique, we’ve seen this in polls before, Nevadans answer this way consistently. We really need to make people understand that story, so that, really, we can do the sort of things that we’ve been talking about for the last half hour, to really make sure that Nevada can convene as the shining beacon for educational opportunity for all Nevadans that we know it can be, and that we now have proof that Nevadans want it to be.

Drew Catt: Yeah, I think it’s also learning the lessons from the experiences as being the Battle Born state as well. So thank you so much for joining us today, Don.

Don Soifer: Great to talk to you guys. Thank you.

Drew Catt: All right, well that wraps up this addition of EdChoice Chats. Be sure to check out the description of this podcast for a link to the polling brief, and be sure to subscribe to our podcast on SoundCloud, iTunes, and Stitcher so you never miss another episode. If you have any questions or comments about the polling results, feel free to reach out to us on social media. You can find us @edchoice. Until next time, take care.