For all the trials and tribulations that have pummeled public schools, especially the last couple years, the single largest hindrance to educational performance has been the same as it was for decades, and it has nothing to do with what goes on in the classroom, on the home computer screen, or at school board meetings: It’s stability of the student’s household, which almost always hinges on money.
No wonder Nevada’s educational systems fall short of results everyone would like.
Nevada’s neglected precariat
Nevada’s economy is still reeling from the pandemic. In December, the Las Vegas metro area’s 6% unemployment rate was the highest of the 51 largest metro areas in the nation.
Tens of thousands of Nevada jobs lost during the pandemic haven’t come back, and they’re heavily concentrated in Nevada’s largest primary industry and largest employment sector, leisure and hospitality.
Those jobs aren’t all that has gone away. Pandemic relief benefits, most notably the extended child tax credit, have expired.
It’s not as if Nevada was a hotbed of broadly shared household financial stability before the coronavirus. On the eve of the pandemic, Southern Nevada households were by some measures still worse off than they had been before the economic crash of more than a decade earlier.
Of the 355 largest counties in the U.S., Clark County had the 25th highest job growth between March 2018 and March 2019. But it had among the smallest growth in wages, at 309th.
Also in 2019, Nevada’s workforce was even more part-time and precarious than before the Great Recession. Nevada had the 6th highest rate of involuntary part-time workers – workers who would prefer to work full-time but couldn’t find full-time hours – and the ninth highest rate of “marginal workers” – those whose participation in the workforce was hindered by transportation, poor health, family responsibilities, or other factors.
Over more than a 30-year period, from 1984 to 2017, Nevada’s median household income growth was the nation’s smallest.
To the degree – which is not much – they acknowledge the economic precarity of Nevada’s workforce, politicians, economic development officials, educators, business groups, and pretty much everyone who is anyone says that a key part of the solution is education.
Meanwhile, Nevada consistently, year after year, ranks near the bottom of per pupil education spending.
Private school vouchers won’t fix any of that
As the Current reported earlier this week, there is a new attempt to resurrect a Nevada private school voucher program, by which public money will be diverted away from public schools to pay to send children to private ones.
People who want to spend public money on private schools, whether the schools are swanky, churchy, racisty, or just grifty, love to talk about wonderful jobs that might materialize someday. But they never want to talk about the jobs we already have. (In that respect, education privatizers are a lot like the aforementioned politicians, economic development officials, educators, business groups, etc.)
In addition to its worship of market ideology, the movement to privatize public education rests on a premise that at least some precious snowflakes can get a leg up and won’t find themselves struggling along with the rest of the great unwashed toiling in low-pay jobs with poor working conditions – the kinds of jobs that prevail in a service economy that produces the dismal employment data referenced above. As for the hapless children who are condemned to an adulthood of poverty or near-poverty wages, erratic schedules, and/or perpetual financial instability, well, that’s their problem.
We could, s’pose, provide some focus on improving the quality of the jobs we actually have, and that will characterize the economy for the foreseeable future – jobs which are very necessary to all of us and so will continue to rank among the largest and largest growing employment sectors in the nation. We could make those very common but not particularly good jobs in food, janitorial, office, security, and home care services better, by increasing wages and paid leave, requiring employers to provide stable hours (still a problem even in this supposedly transformed labor market) and improved working conditions, and make it easier for workers in those jobs to obtain and secure better pay and conditions through collective bargaining.
We could also enhance the financial stability of the households of students whose parents have those currently low-paying and/or precarious jobs by investing in child care, public transport, affordable housing, affordable and accessible health care, and yes, education, while also reining in predatory justice and financial service systems that view poor people as a captive revenue model.
But doing those things is hard.
It’s much easier to forget or deny that an exploitative jobs “market” and callous neglect of public policy have any relationship to educational outcomes, and instead focus on wrongly blaming public schools, first, for being the root cause of society’s problems, and second, for failing to fix them.
Given the owly national mood of late, Nevada voters, given a chance, may well embrace the idea of transferring their tax dollars from public schools to private ones. Illogical, counterproductive, and heavily laced with spite, it would be a very United States in the 2020s sort of thing to do.
The biggest, most immediate and most tangible impact of a voucher program will be the further hollowing out of Nevada’s already underfunded public schools. The number of students who will achieve something they otherwise would not have because of a voucher scheme will be relatively few. Private school vouchers won’t increase the quantity of quality jobs in Nevada – something that politicians and civic leaders purport to believe is education’s responsibility. And vouchers will do absolutely nothing to address the home and business economics that are by far the greatest barrier to Nevada educational performance.
But from boardrooms to public meetings to political campaigns, evidence abounds that nobody really wants to talk about those economic barriers, because doing anything about them is … eww, hard.
Privatizing education isn’t a solution to Nevada’s underlying problems. It’s a diversion from them.
But Nevada has never taken public education seriously. The temptation to declare defeat, give up, and sign off on privatizing public education might be tough to resist.