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Don Soifer Testimony in Opposition to AB 458

On Behalf of Nevada Action for School Options

May 2, 2019

Dear Chairwoman Dondero Loop and Members of the Revenue and Economic Development Committee,

Thank you for the opportunity to offer this testimony on AB458. I regret that I am unable to present this testimony in person, and am grateful for your consideration.

We at Nevada Action for School Options are opposed to this proposed reduction in allowable tax credit revenues to fund the Educational Choice Scholarships, or Opportunity Scholarship Program. We hope that this Committee will consider the four proposed conceptual amendments at the conclusion of this testimony.

We oppose this proposal for the following three reasons:

First, this is an extremely popular program, and much more broadly than among scholarship participants. This was in strong evidence when Nevada Action published a scientific poll of Nevada adults earlier this year. Among the findings:

  • 68% of all Nevadans support the Opportunity Scholarship program, while only 29% oppose it. Support polled highest among (in order): middle-aged adults, millennials, African-Americans, and those living in Nevada’s suburbs.
  • More than two-thirds of Nevada’s Hispanics (70%) and African-Americans (69%) support Nevada’s Opportunity Scholarship program. Support was even higher among Hispanic parents (74%) and African-American parents (70%).
  • Nevadans identifying themselves as Democrats also strongly support Opportunity Scholarships (70% support, 27% oppose). Among Republicans, 71% support and 27% oppose the program.

Second, student outcomes in the program are particularly strong, and compare favorably with other education reforms.

The 2019 Nevada Department of Education report showed 68 percent of students participating in the program for all three of its years showed positive score change on norm-referenced assessments, as did 66 percent of students in the program for two consecutive years.

Please keep in mind that between 2017 and 2018, Nevada public school students gained one percentage point of proficiency in English Language Arts, and 1.5 percentage points in math. The tests are different, of course, but the comparison offers useful context. It is also worth being mindful that these are all lower-income students, with an average household income of under $46,000, and with a substantial number coming from less-than-optimal educational experiences in their prior school settings.

Third, the program represents a bargain for taxpayer in several ways. The average scholarship size, $4,500, is far less than average per-pupil expenditures in public schools. As a result, private schools’ boards contribute millions of dollars each year so that scholarship students can attend their schools. And with the U.S. Census projecting that Nevada will need some 250,000 new seats in schools over the next ten years, the private philanthropy and other cost savings associated with building private schools are no small consideration in this climate of tight tax revenue.

Finally, we know that this relatively young program is still evolving, and contains some inevitable program inefficiencies which we know can be improved upon. In this spirit, we offer the following policy recommendations which we would be happy to discuss at anytime.

Thank you.

Proposed Conceptual Amendments to AB 458

Summary

  1. Fund the Nevada Department of Education $30,000 to contract with an independent evaluator to design and conduct a quantitative analysis of student outcomes, with an emphasis on longitudinal academic growth, for participating Opportunity Scholarship Program students.
  2. Stipulate that Scholarship Organizations provide families an alternative to requiring students provide filed tax returns of all adults in the household for specified periods. Require, and provide resources for, NDE to sample SGOs for adhering to income eligibility guidelines and other regulatory and statutory requirements.  This requirement has been identified as a barrier for the poorest students’ participation in the program.
  3. Give the authority to the Nevada Department of Education to audit the application and acceptance practices of Scholarship Organizations, to ensure adherence to NDE regulations.
  4. Clarify that any monies received by a Scholarship Organization for the purposes of scholarships must be transferred to another Scholarship Organization in the event that it loses its standing with NDE.

 

Amendment Language

Part I:

Amend chapter   388D of NRS by adding thereto a new section to read as follows:

The Department of Education:

Shall initiate a request for proposal from institutions within the Nevada System of Higher Education for a quantitative analysis of outcome data of pupils participating in the Nevada Educational Choice Scholarship Program.

Shall conduct a study which contains an analysis of:

(a) The year-to-year longitudinal progress of pupils participating in the Program;

(b) The   number   of   students   meeting   or   exceeding   typical growth as determined by the publisher of the assessment;

(c) Other academic outcome data for pupils participating in the program, as measured by their performance on approved norm-referenced tests

When complete, the results of the evaluation must be provided contemporaneously  to   the   Department and the Legislative Committee on Education.

There   is   hereby   appropriated   from   the   State General Fund to the Department of Education the sum of $30,000 for the purpose of contracting with an independent evaluator to conduct an evaluation pursuant to [subsection, section] of this act.

Part II:

Amend chapter 388D.270 (1) of NRS by adding thereto a new section to read as follows:

  • provide eligible pupils under section (e) an alternative as part of their application process which does not requiring them to provide filed tax returns of all adults in the household for specified periods.

 

Part III:

Amend chapter 388D of NRS by adding thereto a new section to read as follows:

NRS 388D.290 Department of Education Validation of Scholarship Organizations

  1. The Department of Education shall conduct a review of Scholarship Organization practices by reviewing a statistical sample of scholarships awarded by reviewing documentation, to be provided by Scholarship Organizations, not to exceed 5 percent of the total number of scholarships awarded.
  2. This review shall confirm that Scholarship Organizations are adhering to income eligibility guidelines and other regulatory and statutory requirements of this program.
  3. When complete, the results of the evaluation must be provided contemporaneously to the Department and the Legislative Committee on Education.

Part IV:

Amend chapter 388D.270 (1) of NRS by adding thereto a new section to read as follows:

Should the Department of Education determine that a Scholarship Organization is in substantial and repeated violation of regulations established under 388D.270 (6), the Department may revoke the Organization’s approval to provide scholarships under section. 388D.250 of NRS.

Should a Scholarship Organization’s status be revoked by the Nevada Department of Education under this section, it shall transfer all funds collected as donations from taxpayers under this program to another approved Scholarship Organization to be used to provide scholarships in accordance with Chapter 388D.270.

 

Don Soifer Testimony In Support of AB 342

On Behalf of Nevada Action for School Options

April 23, 2019

 

Dear Chairman Denis and Members of the Education Committee,

Thank you for this opportunity to provide testimony in support of AB342, which has strong potential to make an important difference in the educational experiences of Nevada’s military-connected students.

In my work as an education researcher I have been fortunate to get to spend time studying and observing schools serving military installations at many bases and states around the country, publishing two major Gates Foundation-funded white papers and a dozen articles about different aspects of this important work. One recurring recommendation throughout that research has been the value of a strong and functional state commission or council to lead the work related to the Interstate Compact on Educational Opportunity for Military Children, which Nevada does not currently have in place.

That may sound like a lot of jargon, but the work of effective state councils has proven important in many ways. On average, these students experience six to nine school changes during the course of their K-12 careers, generally moving across state lines where different state content standards and learning sequences are in use. Moreover, frequent challenges associated with the life of an active-duty family presents well-documented educational hardships, both academic and otherwise.

Right now there is essential work to be done in Nevada implementing the new Military Student Identifier required by the federal Every Student Succeeds Act. I am not aware that the Nevada Department of Education has made any significant progress to date implementing this requirement. Done right, this data tool will support educators, families, administrators, and policymakers to better understand whether, and how, these students and the schools they attend are succeeding — and why. It also will help inform military families about which schools may be the best fit for their children’s needs.

Targeted professional development for educators serving this essential population about how they can most effectively meet the specific needs of students’ lives as members of active-duty-connected families, expediting systematic intake of student information, including Individualized Education Plans for special-needs students, spearheading direct support for students, including social and emotional supports using district and military resources. and other areas are topics these state councils have advanced for the betterment of the communities they serve.

The designated school liaison detailed in section 4 also has important potential toward these outcomes.

A strong Council such as that advanced in this bill, will support that important work, and other priorities such as keeping the legislature and other governmental entities informed about progress, challenges and developments which can make a powerful difference in the educational experience of military-connected students and their families.

I commend Assemblyman Roberts and the sponsors of AB 342, and encourage this committee to support it.

 

The academic performance of Nevada’s public charter schools have been a prominent subject of discussion in legislative oversight proceedings in the current session and the interim leading up to it.  When viewed through one crucial lens, the academic growth of individual students over time, Nevada’s charters demonstrate that they have much to offer the students they serve.

Growth measures are much less impacted by many risk factors in students’ lives which adversely impact proficiency levels, so they can be seen as more equitable measures of school effectiveness.

While there is no single factor that can define what makes a school a high-quality school, this growth measure must be considered among the most important. Accordingly, it is the highest-weighted indicator in Nevada’s School Performance Framework at the elementary and middle school levels (growth is not included in Nevada’s measure of high school performance).

Simply put, Nevada measures growth by comparing how students score on the official state test, the Smarter Balanced Assessment, compared with other students who had the same score on last year’s test in English Language Arts and math.

So how do charters perform when it comes to this growth measure? The top two schools in the state on reading in 2018 were both charter schools – Pinecrest Academies’ Inspirada campus middle school was the top-rated public school in the state for growth in English Language Arts, with a score of 82, followed closely by the second-highest rated school, Pinecrest’s Horizon Middle School, with a score of 80.

“A culture of high expectations and data-driven instruction is what propelled us to have some of the highest English Language Arts growth in the state,” explains Pinecrest Horizon Principal Wendy Shirey. “At the Pinecrest Horizon campus, it was a yearlong effort to improve our scores over the prior year’s results. The ELA teachers were strong in their content, tutored before and after school, and taught intervention classes to help students catch up to grade level. We followed a strong instructional model and a rigorous core curriculum to provide grade level content. In addition to that, we were bold enough to believe we would succeed, and we taught our students to believe this as well. We are very proud of our students and our teachers for this incredible growth. “

Reading Growth – Top-Performing Charter School

MGP Scores, 2018

1. Pinecrest Inspirada MS82
2. Pinecrest Horizon MS80
6. Coral Academy of Science LV Windmill ES75
16. Doral Academy of Northern Nevada ES71
16. Elko Inst. for Academic Achievement MS71

Math Growth – Top-Performing Charter School

MGP Scores, 2018

4. Democracy Prep Agassi Campus MS82
5. Discovery Hillpointe MS86
6. Discovery Mesa Vista MS81
14. High Desert Montessori MS75.5
18. Mater Academy Mountain Vista MS74
18. Disovery Hillpointe ES74
18. Elko Inst. for Academic Achievement MS74

In total, seven of the top 25 schools in the state on reading growth are charter schools, and 12 of the top 50.

Nevada’s public charter schools comprise 11 percent of all campuses statewide, because the Nevada Department of Education generally separates school “campuses” by grade level served for accountability purposes.

Results for charter school students’ growth in math were similarly compelling. Democracy Prep – Agassi Campus was the fourth-highest performing school in the state in student growth in math with a score of 86. This fact is particularly impressive when considering that three out of four students at the campus qualify for the federal Free or Reduced Lunch program.

Immediately following were two charter middle schools, Discovery Hillpointe Middle School and Discovery Mesa Vista Middle School, the 5th and 6th top performing public schools in Nevada as measured by student growth in math.

Not only did charter schools hold three of Nevada’s top six spots in math, but they held seven of the top 25, and 10 of the top 50 (again, Nevada charter schools comprised only 11 percent of campuses measured).

Student performance in math, especially at the middle school grades, has been a particular challenge for Nevada public schools.   So schools like Democracy Prep and Mater Academy’s Mountain Vista campus deserve particular recognition for accomplishing such remarkable student growth outcomes while serving a majority of students from lower-income households.

Two takeaways here make sense to support strengthened academic growth:

First, while these charters present valuable examples, their success is uneven across Nevada’s charter school community, and across Nevada public schools generally. Charters where longitudinal student growth consistently earn scores well below 50 points in either English Language Arts or Math need to address these instructional challenges as programmatic weaknesses, and create and implement strategies to improve this performance, as necessary consequentially as part of the charter authorizing process applying to results on the Nevada School Performance Framework.

Second, as Nevada education leaders consider collaboration opportunities between all schools, Nevada’s charter school exemplars have much to offer. Substantive engagement around strategies that contribute to students’ longitudinal growth would be an excellent place to start.

Some Positive News at First Deadline – Legislative Update

As this 80th session of the Nevada Legislature reached Day 68 (of 120), this week marked its first major legislative deadline – all bills must have been passed out of their first assigned committee (or be granted exemption) to be eligible to continue to advance.  A number of positive developments occurred this week on proposals we are tracking.

Staying Alive – Opportunity Scholarships

Opportunity Scholarship program proposal, SB351, was approved by the Senate Education Committee to be moved on to the Finance Committee, meeting the deadline requirement on the final day.  The measure, authored by Senator Heidi Seevers Gansert, seeks to restore $20 million in funding for the program while adding scholarship eligibility for special-needs students and strengthening program measures of student outcomes.

Also voted forward by the Committee on Friday was a new choice scholarship model, SB 404, proposing to offer scholarships specifically targeted to grow capacity in two of Nevada’s most acute areas of educational need: career and technical education and early childhood education. Household income eligibility requirements would be the same as the Opportunity Scholarship.

This first-of-its-kind plan includes provisions that would permit scholarships to be used for early childhood programs at private, public charter or even traditional district schools in ways that would foster growth of available, high-quality seats as evaluated under the Nevada Quality Rating and Improvement System.  For high school students, eligible programs must offer strong academics toward completion of standard high school diplomas or Nevada Certificate of High School Equivalency in addition to industry-recognized credentials.

Meanwhile, a setback for Opportunity Scholarships moved ahead as AB458, a bill from Assembly leadership to cut the 10 percent annual funding increase for available scholarship dollars in current law, was voted through the Assembly Taxation Committee.

Charter Schools Avoid a Scare

Increased Authorizer Oversight on the Horizon

Nevada’s public charter schools received two important pieces of good news this week.  First, Assembly Education Committee deleted a proposed moratorium or, “pause,” on the approval of new charter schools the committee had proposed last month.

Chairman Thompson explained that the approved package is a bipartisan plan,  under which the State Public Charter School Authority must draft a five-year growth management plan for success, conduct required site evaluations of schools in its portfolio, and “work closely with school districts to ensure schools are comprised of diverse populations.”  Charter school leaders resoundingly praised the plan as a cooperative agreement focused on school quality.

A second, extremely encouraging development for the charter sector came when Governor Sisolak announced his appointment of Rebecca Feiden as the new director of the State Public Charter School Authority.  The Governor described Feiden, for whose candidacy charter school leaders had expressed broad support, as “a lifelong educator with both administrative and classroom experience in charter schools,” who is “uniquely qualified to lead the SPCSA… as we set course to improve Nevada’s public education system.”  We wish Rebecca the best of luck in this important new role.

Private Schools Day Takes Over Carson City

Thursday marked the first Private Schools Day at the Nevada Legislature, led by the Nevada Council for American Private Education, the state’s newly-established association of private schools.  Leaders, students and educators met lawmakers and members of the public throughout the day, sharing their stories about their schools and feelings about what Nevada’s strong private school education has meant to them and their families.  They represented schools displaying the broad diversity of the sector, large and small schools including independent academies, programs designed to serve the educational needs of students with special needs on the autism spectrum, and faith-based schools representing five different religions.

Nevada Action’s Don Soifer appeared on Kevin Wall‘s Live and Local radio show April 10, 2019, on 790 Talk in Southern Nevada and the Nevada Talk Network.  This interview updates latest developments about charter schools and the proposed moratorium, private school choice and the Nevada Opportunity Scholarship program, and Nevada Private Schools Day at the Legislature on April 11, with the new Nevada private schools association he helped launch, the Nevada Council for American Private Education.