NO on ESAs: Private schools lack transparency and accountability

by Margaret Wagner

Implementing vouchers (ESAs) in the state of Nevada is a troubling concept for many reasons. As an 18-year veteran teacher in the Clark County School District, I have spent my career working within the education system and have had to learn to do more with less each year to educate my students under increasing oversight and accountability. If vouchers are implemented in the state of Nevada, public school teachers will be expected to continue to do more with even fewer financial resources.

As the system functions now, public schools are funded at the state level on a per pupil basis, and every public school has to accept the students zoned for that school, no matter if they do not speak English or if they have a disability, because every child is legally entitled to a free and public education. The students are counted at a point early in the school year, and schools receive funding based on that count. Students come and go throughout the year in the public schools, often leaving one school to enroll in another school in the district. If a student is expelled from a school, which is a very difficult process, the student will be enrolled in a different school within the district.

The point is, the money for each student stays in the local public system, even as students come and go in individual schools. As one student leaves a school, another student will show up to use the funding of the student who left. The problem with the voucher system is that the private schools can accept the student at the beginning of the year, receive the funding from the state for the student, and then expel the student arbitrarily for a minor infraction that violates the rules of the private school. The student will then be forced to return to the public school system, which did not receive the money for the student but will be expected to educate that student without funding. What is stopping the private schools from accepting students and then expelling them and keeping the voucher money? The money stays in the private school and will not benefit any other students and ultimately increases the per pupil funding of students in the private school and decreases the financial support of the student in the public school.

A second problem with using vouchers to fund private and home schools is the accountability of how that money is spent and the ROI of that money in the form of student progress. Private schools do not have to report how they use the funds they receive to educate their students because of the private funding of the institution. If students begin using public money to fund their private school educations, then the private schools should be required to report how they are using the public money, the same as how public schools are required to be transparent with their budgets.

In addition, student progress in private schools is not required to be reported to the state, whereas the public schools are required by law to assess and report the growth of their students on various standardized assessments. As a taxpayer, I want to know if the money my taxes provide to send a student to a private school is being used productively. The fact that my tax money is contributing to religious education is an issue that does not seem to matter to our state’s judicial system, but the fact that the money may be spent on ineffective educational programs is a problem. If public tax dollars are being spent on private educations, then those private institutions that accept state-funded vouchers are responsible for reporting the academic performance of those students who benefit from the public money.

Ultimately, there are many problems with implementing vouchers in the state of Nevada, and the loss of funding to public schools and lack of transparency and accountability required of private schools are only two. If the government is going to ram through the use of vouchers, then the schools that accept them need to be held to the same standards of educating all students and transparency and accountability that the public institutions are held to.

YES on ESAs: A private school environment is better for some

by Richard R. Becker
There are some people who have the misconception that the Education Savings Account (ESA) Program in Nevada will somehow only help wealthy families. This isn’t our experience.
We, like many families, make as many sacrifices as we can to send our children to the schools of our choice. We do it because all children are different. We know this to be true because our son attended public school for his entire career and it was mostly fine for him, but our daughter is different in that she performs her best in a different environment.
Knowing this, most of her education has been in a home school or private school environment. She is currently in fifth grade and was headed for Faith Lutheran Middle School & High School next year. However, the failure of our legislature to act in favor of ESAs last year has put this school out of reach.
You see, as children get older, education budgets don’t always keep pace with the cost of tuition. Funding ESAs now would have helped offset the growing gap between our education budget and the cost of tuition, ensuring our daughter could have continued on the path she has worked so hard to obtain.
We now have to scramble to find other education options for her. We are hoping to “win the lottery” and be accepted into a charter school or find an alternative private school within our very tight budget to attend for a few years until ESA funding is resolved. The process has created an air of uncertainty and anxiety around education for the first time in her life.
What troubles me the most about this, as someone who teaches educational outreach classes at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, is that educational success is often dictated by the right environment for the student and developing their love for education, unhindered by negative emotions. As educators, we want students to both be challenged and challenge themselves while experiencing a sense of anticipation and excitement in their accomplishment. It’s how they all develop a love of learning.
For this reason, I am hoping you listen to the voices of parents all across our state who support ESAs. They know what is best for their children. Finding an alternative source of funding to make ESAs a reality is more than the right thing to do, it is a critical step toward improving the education system in our state and will also assist in freeing up educational funds and reducing class sizes at public schools.
ESAs are a win-win in that they will support a life-changing program that provides children the opportunities they deserve to succeed. And as they succeed, they will be better prepared and more likely to pursue degrees and contribute to our communities as tomorrow’s leaders, teachers, doctors, engineers, artists, and whatever else they might dream up.

NO on ESAs: Hire quality teachers and raise expectations instead

by Scott Van Winkle

As a former teacher in the Clark County School District and the parent of a child in a private, faith-based pre-school, I can see the school choice law from both sides. One thing the media has missed is that the law favors wealthy students, who would benefit from the Education Savings Accounts (ESAs) the law creates more than poorer students, and is therefore unfair. On the other hand, it would create opportunities for some poor students to escape public schools where expectations are low, and educational outcomes are often worse for individual students. I side with the public school advocates who see the law as a threat.

The teachers’ union and organizations that support public schools see the ESAs as a money grab for private schools, aimed at diverting funding from the public school system toward schools that tend to be run by churches or religious non-profits. This plan does create concerns about public funding of religious organizations, which the Nevada constitution specifically outlaws, and that argument is the nutshell of the legal argument against the law and the reason the court has rightly ruled against the law.

On the other side, private school advocates, faith-based groups, and some parents see the ESAs as a way to increase choice in education, particularly from disadvantaged groups or kids who otherwise wouldn’t be able to afford private school. The program would create competition for the public school system, even for parents who otherwise wouldn’t consider private school, because it allows parents to “opt out” of the system for their child, designating funds from tax money to subsidize their enrollment in private school.

The public school defenders see the issue as one of fairness to students who may not have the option or desire to attend private school, either because the schools are not in their neighborhoods or because they do not belong to a particular faith that would benefit from the ESAs. Diverting funds from the public school system to private schools is robbing the poor to feed the rich, they argue. The private school defenders describe the issue as one of fairness to students in poorer neighborhoods, where good teachers are harder to find, the facilities are older, and education in general faces greater obstacles, but in fact, more of the money would go to suburban schools than inner-city ones.

The problem comes down to low expectations for kids in poorer neighborhoods. The school choice law does not offer a viable solution to the problem it purports to solve. Raising expectations at low-performing schools has to happen, regardless of the student population. Whether individual students are better served by a transfer to private schools is not the issue. Individual students will be able to find a solution to a poor education if their parents are involved, advocate for higher standards, and find ways to teach their kids both inside and outside of school. The bigger issues facing public education today have to deal with perception, which becomes reality, that our public schools are failing.

CCSD has become a target because it is perceived as a giant bureaucracy, but the fact that it is the largest employer in Clark County does not mean that it is a one-size-fits-all organization. Every school has its own culture and organization, and teacher quality makes the biggest difference in the quality of education that every student receives. Focusing on teacher quality at the lower-performing schools is one solution. It isn’t possible even for good teachers to reach every kid, but it is possible to have high expectations and to help them learn — to go from where they are to where they can be — regardless of their economic situation. Attracting and retaining high quality teachers at low performing schools should be the goal, and we shouldn’t take resources away from those schools. Instead, we should incentivize teachers to teach long-term at lower-performing schools, not just with money but with recognition and respect.

The school choice law further erodes confidence in the system, as opposed to strengthening it. There is a lot of choice in CCSD right now, since kids can attend magnet schools or find a teacher or program that works for them. We need to change the perception that the system as a whole is failing, and this law is not the answer.

YES on ESAs: Education system shouldn’t prevent a choice to exit

by Kevin Magee

I’m a public-school teacher, and my dream is to open up a school and tutoring center that primarily serves underprivileged kids. This will be almost impossibly difficult without a program like Education Savings Accounts. Despite claiming to want to improve and modernize education, a lot of good people are fighting against a program that can achieve exactly that.

One practical effect of being against school choice measures such as ESAs is to grant only the rich and relatively well-off the ability to meaningfully exercise choice over their children’s education. They can afford private schools or choose to move to a neighborhood where there’s a school they like. For most however, that is a luxury, and unless there’s anyone out there in favor of banning private school and making it illegal to move, this is a glaring inequity.

Proponents of a public-school-only approach to education conflate public schools with public education more broadly. Publicly funded education, but not necessarily publicly managed schools, is still public education. Public schools are how most of us get our education, but they are one of many ways to educate a person. We’ve known since at least the 80s when it was closely studied, that one-to-one tutoring is a far more effective method for educating someone than a traditional classroom with 20-30 kids. ESAs will permit more diversity in our education system allowing parents to pursue alternate means of education like this.

Maybe some people just can’t stomach the thought of abandoning such a stable institution as public schools. After all, they’ve been with us, relatively unchanged, for over 150 years. But to some, that’s a bug, not a feature.

I understand skepticism about big, radical change, but the reality is that most people using ESAs will likely use them for private schools, which are very much known entities. There is no magical mechanism that makes public schools somehow educate children better than privately run schools. So at the very least, a switch from publicly managed to a more privately managed school system won’t look all that different. Add to that the fact that studies show strongly positive results on parental satisfaction among those who use school choice programs versus traditional public schools, and in the absolute worst case scenario you end up with a system that performs no worse, but in which parents are happier.

I’ve heard people claim that school choice destroys public schools, and even more inaccurately, that it destroys public education. It’s telling that public-school defenders openly recognize that, absent the de facto prohibition on parents’ ability to choose, we would likely have a different system. In other words, they assume that the only thing stopping “too many” parents from leaving the public-school system is their inability to afford it. That’s a pretty damning assumption coming from public school’s own advocates.

To say that ESA’s take funding from schools means that a particular school has a right over a particular student. This would be like saying I am destroying some of McDonalds’ profits every time I don’t eat there. Someone’s choice to not participate does not equate to actively destroying it.

This argument is also based on the idea that Nevada, and America in general, doesn’t spend enough on education, but this is hard to square with reality. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the United States spends more money per pupil on primary and secondary education than all other countries but Switzerland, Austria, Norway, and Luxemburg. While Nevada does spend below the national average, it’s right in line with the OECD average near countries like Japan, the United Kingdom, and Korea. If we’re spending roughly the same as Korea, whom many consider to have one of the best education systems around, and getting such different results, it’s clearly not a matter of funding.

There are ways to improve the ESA law. The funding level could be increased as part of a broad school funding reform. Simplify the Nevada Plan so that all education money, state and local, goes straight into the Distributed School Account. Then appropriate a matching per-pupil amount just for ESAs. This would dramatically increase the ESAs funding level, as well as equalize the state’s education funding formula, a goal of the left. Payouts for ESAs could even be made more progressive by further phasing down the payout based on income, which would free up money to get rid of the 100-day requirement.

NO on ESAs: Nevada should learn from failed Indiana voucher program

by Heather Witt

Nevada ranks last in the nation in public education, according to Education Week’s 2017 Quality Counts Report. Fifty-first out of 50 states and the District of Columbia. Our public schools have been failing for a number of years now. So isn’t it time we provide students with the opportunity to escape these failing public institutions? Don’t our students deserve the ability to escape these failing schools and attend schools that will better serve their needs? How can we, as a state, provide parents with the opportunity to choose better schools for their children? School choice along with Education Savings Accounts seem a clear and appropriate answer.

But what if we’re asking the wrong question? What if, instead of asking how we can provide parents with the opportunity to choose better schools, we ask what we can do to support struggling public schools? Especially since it’s generally the students in the worst performing schools who are unable to capitalize on voucher programs, as they often lack the transportation needed to get to those “better” schools, regardless of the cost of their tuition. Additionally, Nevada’s ESAs are not sufficient to cover the full tuition of many private schools and would likely only subsidize students families who’ve already made that choice.

The Washington Post recently reported on Indiana’s voucher program. After five years in implementation, with the requirement to first attend a public school swiftly lifted by the Indiana legislature, more than half of Indiana’s voucher recipients have never attended the state’s public schools and only 3% of new recipients in 2015 lived in the boundaries of F-rated public schools. The Post also reported on research that found Indianapolis students who used vouchers to transfer from public to private schools had no change in their language arts performance and had a decline in their math performance. Before seeking to fund a similar program in Nevada, taxpayers deserve a full and complete understanding of the impact on student achievement, on diversity in schools, and on the funding of our public schools.

This is my 6th year teaching in a Title I middle school, were a significant number of children qualify for free or reduced lunch. The last two years, I’ve fed my children breakfast in the classroom every morning. In addition to lacking sufficient food at home, many of my children lack sufficient financial, educational, and/or emotional support. They don’t have books, they don’t have Internet access, they don’t have parents that are able to help them with their homework. They have siblings to care for, they have work to do, they have social and emotional problems that I couldn’t imagine.

How about instead of giving parents a choice as to where to send their kids – which inevitably still leaves these kids behind –we instead provide them with the support they need from their public schools? How about we care more for our children? Provide them smaller class sizes so that teachers can build stronger supportive relationships. Make sure they have books at home. Provide them with the social and emotional support they need. How about we take the millions of dollars our state wants to invest in a state voucher program and fully fund our public schools? Why is that not an option?

Source:  Brown, Emily and McLaren, Mandy. How Indiana’s school voucher program soared, and what it says about education in the Trump era. Washington Post, 12/26/2016

YES on ESAs: Supply and demand will make it work

by Benjamin Owliaie

We lived in a small condo near UNLV for two and a half cramped years. We put off trying for our first child for three years.  We lived on a shoe-string budget while still managing to rack up more and more credit card debt each month. These were the major sacrifices we made to put our two girls, now 9 and 8 and products of my first marriage, into American Heritage Academy, or AHA for short. There were many minor sacrifices along the way as well. However, without hesitation, I can firmly say we would make each and every sacrifice again if we had to.

My wife, who is a saint, welcomed the three of us into her life and into her condo after we married in 2012.  Zoned for a low rated school in a low rated state, private school, in our minds, was the only option. In contrast to our zoned school, AHA offered a faith based education, focused on principles that were important to us, had small class sizes and great test scores.  Was it even a choice?

Of course there was the question of money.  I had just finished my bachelors at UNLV and was blessed to land a job in the Zappos call center.  It wasn’t exactly the “big bucks” I was making while serving in the Army, but I had no complaints about landing a good job in this market. My wife worked for a non-profit making more than me but not by much.  However, she had and annuity from the tragic loss of her father ten years prior.  So my wife of only a few months offered her annuity to help pay for her new step-daughters education. (Did I mention she is a saint?)

But what if we didn’t have the annuity?  Maybe we would have been lucky enough to get into a charter but perhaps not. What then?

What if there was another way? What if a state in the bottom two or three in education tried something new and different? Something even revolutionary? What if….it works?

The most common attack against the ESAs are that they will drain money from the public schools.  I’ve read the arguments for and against this point, but I’ll leave that discussion to smarter people than myself.  Other arguments against them that I’ve seen on Twitter and in various articles seem far less substantial.

For example, ESAs will only benefit families already in private schools who can already afford it! Our story and I’m sure countless others proves this demonstrably false. The annuity made private school feasible for our family but didn’t come without the aforementioned sacrifices, including debt.

There aren’t enough (or any) private schools in lower income areas! Well, probably not….yet.  Can I introduce you an economic principle called supply and demand? Where the ESAss create demand, new private schools will supply. This also has the benefit of lowering public school class sizes which we all agree is too high.

Not all private and charter schools are good schools. Some get shut down! Good. Shut down bad schools and someone else will fill in the gap.  Again, supply and demand. This is a long term rebuild not a quick fix; there will be bumps in the road along the way.

But private schools are just about making money! I guess I don’t fully understand this argument.  Yes, people want to make money, as do I and as do you.  If they do it by providing a good education, perhaps better than a public school can, why is this an issue?

If the anti-school choice arguments are all correct and the ESAs set Nevada back in education, which isn’t a far drop, then I’ll gladly apologize and vote for those who would seek to repeal. (Assuming they gets funded, of course.)  But if they are so sure it’s doomed to fail, why not let it fail under its own shortcomings? Fund the ESAs and let’s have a good look at what that does.  The anti-school choice crowd here in Nevada has the ultimate card to play here with far reaching repercussions. If school choice doesn’t work, then prove it.  Let the ESAs, widely considered the most liberal (classically, of course) school choice bill ever written, prove once-and-for-all that school choice is a failure.  Or, are they really afraid that it might just work…?

Setting sail into a new world of journalism

Welcome aboard The Nevada Independent.

We are about to embark on a grand journalistic adventure, and we want you along for the ride. This is your state, your news, your voice.

Over a span of three decades, I have done everything I have wanted to do in journalism and more. From night reporter to columnist to TV host, I have approached this wonderful profession with passion and zeal. I have interviewed local and national politicians, met hundreds of interesting people and loved every phase.

Now, it’s time for a new one.

I decided earlier this year to try the one job I have always mused about, the one role I have wanted as a career capstone: editor. So during the last six months or so, with the help of my marvelous managing editor, Elizabeth Thompson, we have built something out of nothing, the site you are on right now.

This is the culmination of 30 years of covering what a friend of mine used to call the only game for adults, the endlessly fascinating movement of chess pieces in a match where the stakes are high and the consequences are real. It is a contest where human foibles eventually will be exposed, where the fittest don’t always survive, where the ends often do not justify the means.

One eternal truism about politics is that it is everywhere – in all governments, in policy issues, in personal relationships. To truly understand why things are happening in an ever more complex world, especially in one where trust is fading and truth is evanescent, you have to understand all aspects: the people, the issues and, yes, the politics.

That’s where we come in.

We are committed to go where no news source in Nevada has gone before: To cover issues important to the public with depth, with insight and with transparency.

I have already told you a little about our mission. Our name is not just a name; it is a promise.

The fantastic team I have assembled, the most formidable group of reporters in Nevada, will be truly independent. They are beholden to no one and dedicated to only one purpose, which is to provide you with the best coverage of politics and public policy in state history.

When I conceived of this venture in the middle of 2015, I had three reporters in mind to form the core of our coverage of the Legislature. And I could not be happier that this trio – Michelle Rindels, Megan Messerly and Riley Snyder – will be blanketing the Legislative Building until sine die, showing you not just what is happening but why it is happening. I already know how great they are. You are about to find out.

We will not neglect Las Vegas during the next 120 days, with the creative and talented Jackie Valley covering everything from education to gaming to municipalities. TNI also is fortunate to have recruited two superb columnists from different sides of the political spectrum – John L. Smith and Orrin Johnson – to opine about topics familiar and otherwise, to bring distinct voices to an often homogenized commentariat.

We will provide timely surveys from one of the best in the business, Mark Mellman, who knows Nevada, the people, the issues. We also have a few surprises in store, including a special correspondent we will unveil on Sunday whose first column will rattle cages and provoke action. Her contributions to TNI will have an impact from Nevada to Washington, DC.

But the most important part of The Nevada Independent will be our readers. Yes, we have to make the ultimate decisions on what to cover and how to write about a panoply of topics. But we want – nay, need – your help.

Whether it’s as simple as commenting on a story or opinion piece or participating in a Facebook Live chat with me or penning an op-ed, you are an essential part of our mission. We want you to make us better. We hope you will tell us where we have gone right and where we have done wrong.

This is a new role for me, too, and I ask for your patience. Some of you out there may know me as a hard-hitting reporter and commentator. That is all I have known for 30 years.

I come to this new incarnation as a tabula rasa, eager to learn, prepared to stumble and excited to evolve. I ask of you only to put aside any preconceived notions, to clean your slate, too, as you judge this new enterprise.

We will make mistakes. But we will correct them as soon as we discover them, and we will explain why we made them.

As we point out relationships among elected officials and lobbyists and special interests, we will be transparent about our own. Our work, I hope, will always stand on its merits, but we will give you all the information so you can judge for yourself.

I have never been more excited about anything in my professional career, not so much because I have confidence in my own abilities but because of this once-in-a-lifetime team that will make me look good every day. This is really about them.

It is truly an honor to be at the helm of a ship staffed by so many stars. I have thought many times about how I would have done things differently if I were in charge of a news organization. “If only I were the editor…” I mused. Well, now I am.

Welcome aboard TNI, folks. It’s going to be quite a ride. Thanks for coming along with us.

Photo courtesy of Jon S under Creative Commons.

Setting sail into a new world of journalism

Welcome aboard The Nevada Independent.

We are about to embark on a grand journalistic adventure, and we want you along for the ride. This is your state, your news, your voice.

Over a span of three decades, I have done everything I have wanted to do in journalism and more. From night reporter to columnist to TV host, I have approached this wonderful profession with passion and zeal. I have interviewed local and national politicians, met hundreds of interesting people and loved every phase.

Now, it’s time for a new one.

I decided earlier this year to try the one job I have always mused about, the one role I have wanted as a career capstone: editor. So during the last six months or so, with the help of my marvelous managing editor, Elizabeth Thompson, we have built something out of nothing, the site you are on right now.

This is the culmination of 30 years of covering what a friend of mine used to call the only game for adults, the endlessly fascinating movement of chess pieces in a match where the stakes are high and the consequences are real. It is a contest where human foibles eventually will be exposed, where the fittest don’t always survive, where the ends often do not justify the means.

One eternal truism about politics is that it is everywhere – in all governments, in policy issues, in personal relationships. To truly understand why things are happening in an ever more complex world, especially in one where trust is fading and truth is evanescent, you have to understand all aspects: the people, the issues and, yes, the politics.

That’s where we come in.

We are committed to go where no news source in Nevada has gone before: To assemble the best team of journalists in the state and to cover issues important to the public with depth, with insight and with transparency.

I have already told you a little about <a href=”https://preview.thenevadaindependent.com/article/from-the-editor/”>our mission</a>. Our name is not just a name; it is a promise.

The fantastic team I have assembled, the most formidable group of reporters in Nevada, will be truly independent. They are beholden to no one and dedicated to only one purpose, which is to provide you with the best coverage of politics and public policy in state history.

When I conceived of this venture in the middle of 2015, I had three reporters in mind to form the core of our coverage of the Legislature. And I could not be happier that this trio – Michelle Rindels, Megan Messerly and Riley Snyder – will be blanketing the Legislative Building until sine die, showing you not just what is happening but why it is happening. These are the finest reporters in the state, and I am lucky to have them.

We will not neglect Las Vegas during the next 120 days, with the creative and talented Jackie Valley covering everything from education to gaming to municipalities. TNI also is fortunate to have recruited two superb columnists from different sides of the political spectrum – John L. Smith and Orrin Johnson – to opine about topics familiar and otherwise, to bring distinct voices to an often homogenized commentariat.

We will provide timely surveys from one of the best in the buisienss, Mark Mellman, who knows Nevada, the people, the issues. We also have a few surprises in store, including a special correspondent we will unveil on Sunday whose first column will rattle cages and provoke action. Her contributions to TNI will have an impact from Nevada to Washington, DC.

But the most important part of The Nevada Independent will be our readers. Yes, we have to make the ultimate decisions on what to cover and how to write about a panoply of topics. But we want – nay, need – your help.

Whether it’s as simple as commenting on a story or opinion piece or participating in a Facebook Live chat with me or penning an op-ed, you are an essential part of our mission. We want you to make us better. We hope you will tell us where we have gone right and where we have done wrong.

This is a new role for me, too, and I ask for your patience. Some of you out there may know me as a hard-hitting reporter and commentator. That is all I have known for 30 years.

I come to this new incarnation as a tabula rasa, eager to learn, prepared to stumble and excited to evolve. I ask of you only to put aside any preconceived notions, to clean your slate, too, as you judge this new enterprise.

We will make mistakes. But we will correct them as soon as we discover them, and we will explain why we made them.

As we point out relationships among elected officials and lobbyists and special interests, we will be transparent about our own. Our work, I hope, will always stand on its merits, but we will give you all the information so you can judge for yourself.

I have never been more excited about anything in my professional career, not so much because I have confidence in my own abilities but because of this once-in-a-lifetime team that will make me look good every day. This is really about them.

It is truly an honor to be at the helm of a ship staffed by so many stars. I have thought many times about how I would have done things differently if I were in charge of a news organization. “If only I were the editor…” I mused. Well, now I am.

Welcome aboard TNI, folks. It’s going to be quite a ride. Thanks for coming along with us.

 

 

 

A culture of leadership

I can’t say that I’m happy to see Democrats in full control of the Legislature again, although Republicans have hardly been covering themselves in glory lately.  But I am cautiously optimistic knowing Jason Frierson will be the Assembly’s speaker. Whatever my disagreements with him may be on policy, he is a good, decent, and conscientious man who could do much to help our state prosper – but only if he learns lessons from other government bodies that continue to fail us.

Frierson was my first guide to state level politics in Nevada. I was a new public defender not two years out of law school, assigned to lobby at the Legislature on indigent criminal defense issues.  (That’s not an easy gig when your “constituency” has no money to donate and often can’t legally vote.) Typically, a district attorney and a public defender are sent from Clark and Washoe counties by their respective offices to provide information and perspective on crime and punishment bills, and Jason was my counterpart from the South.

Regardless of our political differences, he was gracious and generous with his time, knowledge, and insight.  He worked hard, and was more interested in getting it right than in being right.  He listened, kept a sense of humor, and knew how to work with all manner of personalities and agendas.  His experience and expertise time and again ensured that the right balance was struck between community safety and civil rights.  He was trusted, even when he was disagreed with.  The next session when he returned as an assemblyman, he did his best to retain those qualities, as much as one can while submerged in partisan politics.

Frierson’s party controlled the Legislature for decades, constantly preening about education reform and then doing absolutely nothing to solve Nevada’s dismal graduation rates or test scores. The Republican-led Legislature of 2015 gave parents more education options, and then had the courage to fund those options. They weren’t perfect solutions, because those don’t exist. But it was better than bickering over details until the budget clock ran out and then blaming opponents when real kids suffered.

Frierson can certainly engage his political opponents with partisan vigor, as he’s already done in response to a congressional request for input on federal mandates. That’s to be expected in his position, of course. But he also has a governor who has been willing to put solving problems ahead of partisan point-scoring. And that means Frierson is in a position to be part of those solutions, too.

If the man I met eight years ago is the same one who is to lead the state Assembly, then we will see real, pragmatic solutions offered up to some of our most vexing state issues, with an understanding that the “nuts and bolts” of governing are about basic competence and not philosophy.  I hope and expect that he will work with Gov. Brian Sandoval to improve and expand our education options and budgets, even when the true believers on the leftist fringe of his party want to fight for the sake of fighting. If his leadership creates a culture (within his caucus and in the Assembly as a whole) of solving problems rather than winning arguments, he will secure his legacy, keep his position, and most importantly, make Nevada a better place in which to live, learn, and prosper.

Orrin was a political columnist for the Reno Gazette-Journal in 2015 and 2016. He has appeared as a guest commentator on Nevada radio and television programs including Nevada Newsmakers and The Travis Christiansen Show. He began blogging in 2005 for his law school’s Federalist Society chapter and in 2007 started his own blog, First Principles.

Photo courtesy of JasonFrierson.com.

New Year on Sunrise

The new year begins on Sunrise Avenue with an unlikely sign of hope for a Las Vegas few care to see

Back on the street in a land of plenty, it’s a new year and a time generally set aside for audacious predictions and the flattering of famous men.

The view from Sunrise Avenue around 21st Street seems much the same. 

Down where East Fremont Street shivs into the four corners, Sunrise is lined with dilapidation and decay. Multiplex apartments, lucrative investments for out-of-state slumlords, teem with dysfunction, drugs, despair. Between the dope dealing and domestic violence, bodies drop here on a regular basis.

The pay phone is always available. The receiver was torn from it long ago. 

There’s little need to call a cop. Metro black-and-whites cruise the neighborhood like clockwork. Officers from the Downtown Area Command know the neighborhood kids and criminal element by name.

Late last year, a man with a history of gang affiliation and drug dealing was shot to death just a ricochet from Hollingsworth Elementary School, one of Clark County’s most challenged outposts of optimism. As old school urban cops used to say, the knife-and-gun club meets regularly here. The children who play outside risk more than a scuffed knee.

Photo by John L. Smith

In the new Las Vegas, Sunrise Avenue and troubled streets like it are easy to avoid. And it seems that every year my plea for Southern Nevada remains the same. See these places, and ask yourself:  Is this the best we can do with the least of our community?

Some church groups don’t think so. Neither do charitable organizations such as the Three Square Food Bank. At Hollingsworth, dedicated teachers and administrators battle uphill every day, balancing social work with instruction. City Councilman Bob Coffin was raised just a few blocks away and hasn’t given up on the place. With pressure from the city, a few lazy absentee landlords appear to have taken a hint. Plywood covers fewer windows, and the garbage piles are smaller.

Down a long stretch of back alley that separates a row of apartments from another development, a sign of hope. A  community wall mural splashes color against the gray. Children’s hand prints and their sweet sketches remind you that the stakes are high. The neighborhood’s mixed cultures are represented. Some of the work is very good. A few sentiments call for hope against long odds: “Vida es bien,” “Teach Them Well!” “Be a Good Dad,” and one partially obscured means to say, “With each sunrise there is a new beginning.”

 Just across from the Best Muffler and around the corner from the last homicide, the remarkable Arnold Stalk has managed to open drug-gun-and-alcohol-free Veterans Village 2. That’s 200 sparkling living units with a host of social services coming.

Stalk sees through the desperation and despair on Sunrise Avenue and finds the potential for grassroots redevelopment in the fallow soil.

“The neighborhood to me is a great area,” he says. “It has significant challenges. A lot of people don’t see it. But through my eyes, I see a neighborhood rich with families, working families, veterans, seniors who have lived in the area for decades.”

It doesn’t happen without broad-based support. Metro plays a key role — and not only in a law enforcement capacity.

Metro Capt. Andrew Walsh is the downtown bureau commander. He knows what questions are coming. I’ve asked them before.

“It’s like dragging a boat anchor uphill around here sometimes, but I think we’re making progress,” Walsh says, noting that his officers try to have face time with residents between calls for service. “We work with a number of families and people living down there. They’re good people in a tough place. We’ve actually developed some goodwill and some trust with their police department.”

And the mural?

It’s the result of many weeks of a community effort, businesses and charities and neighbors helping out on weekends. Local stores such as Home Depot have donated materials.

“It may seem like a small thing, but the relentless showing up every weekend I think has had an impact,” Walsh says. “I don’t know that we had that relationship five years ago in that neighborhood.”

Photo by John L. Smith

Walsh, Stalk and others with time and sweat equity invested in the area know a couple facts that sometimes get lost in the politics and the posturing. They know that no child ever asked to be born into a slum neighborhood. They know that most others who wind up in an overcrowded, unsafe and care-worn apartment in a drug-and-gang-infested area rarely prefer the view.

Say what goes on there isn’t your problem. Talk about poor choices and boot straps, bad karma and tough luck. Steer clear of there at every cost.

But if you’re ever serious about neighborhood redevelopment in the new Las Vegas, consider this the place to start.

John L. Smith is a longtime Las Vegas journalist and author. He was inducted into the Nevada Newspaper Hall of Fame in 2016. Contact him at 702 523-1332, jlnevadasmith@gmail.com, or on Twitter @jlnevadasmith.