When Overcrowding Happens in Vegas

What happens when the population of K-12 students grows faster than the government is able to build school buildings? Las Vegas is finding out the hard way:

Las Vegas is back, baby. After getting slammed by the Great Recession, the city today is seeing rising home sales, solid job growth and a record number of visitors in 2014.

But the economic rebound has exacerbated the city’s severe school overcrowding and left school administrators, lawmakers and parents scrambling.

This elementary school was built to serve a maximum of 780 students. Today it serves 1,230 — and enrollment is growing.

Forbuss Elementary is hardly alone. The crowding is so bad here in the Clark County School District that 24 schools will soon run on year-round schedules.

Forbuss already is. One of five sections is always on break to make room. Scores of other schools are on staggered schedules. More than 21,000 Clark County students are taking some online classes, in large part because of space strains. Nearly 700 kids in the district take all of their classes online.

“It’s pretty rough some days. I’m in a small portable with 33 students,” says Sarah Sunnasy. She teaches fifth grade at Bertha Ronzone Elementary School, a high-poverty school that is nearly 90 percent over capacity. “We tend to run into each other a lot. Trying to meet individual needs when you have that many kids with such a wide range of ability levels is hard. We do the best we can with what we have,” she says.

At Forbuss Elementary there are 16 trailer classrooms — the school prefers the term “portables” — parked in the outdoor recess area, eating away at playground space.

There’s also a “portable” bathroom and portable lunchroom. “It’s warmer in the big school,” a little girl tells me. “These get cold in winter.”

“You have to make do,” says Principal Shawn Paquette. “You get creative.”

“Our school is so overcrowded, that, you know, everybody’s gotta pitch in,” says school support staffer Ruby Crabtree. “We don’t have enough people.”

The Nevada legislature recently approved funding to build new schools and renovate old ones, but as NPR notes, the “handful of new schools won’t be finished for at least two years.” In that time, the Las Vegas school district is expected to experience 1 percent enrollment growth, or about 3,000 to 4,000 students, so the district will need “at least two more elementary schools every year.”

Instead of herding children into crowded trailers “portables,” Nevada should consider giving students and their families the option of attending private schools. As education policy guru Matthew Ladner has pointed out repeatedly, school choice programs can serve as a pressure release valve in areas experiencing rapid growth–particularly where the elderly population is also growing, further straining public resources:

The 76,000,000 strong Baby Boom generation is already moving into retirement. Every day between now and the year 2030, 10,000 Americans reach retirement age. Every state will be much older than today, and the vast majority of states will have a larger portion of elderly than Florida has today – some much larger. 

As the Baby Boomers retire, many will also be sending their grandchildren off to school. The Census Bureau projects many states will face a simultaneous increase in school-aged and elderly populations. A fierce battle between advocates of public spending on health and public education looms. If economists have correctly described the relationship between age demography and economic growth, tax dollars may prove scarce, exacerbating the problem.

Let’s be clear about the improvement needed: in anticipation of the crisis ahead, we need a system of vastly improved learning outcomes at a lower overall cost per student. In other words we need to improve both the academic and cost effectiveness of our education delivery system.

Fortunately, we already know how to improve learning outcomes at a lower cost per student: school choice.

Last month, Nevada adopted a scholarship tax credit law, but sadly the available credits are so limited that the law will barely relieve any pressure at all. As I explained recently:

The total amount of tax credits available is limited to only $5 million in the first year, or about 0.14 percent of statewide district school expenditures. Following Arizona, Florida, and New Hampshire, Nevada lawmakers wisely included an “escalator clause” allowing the total amount of credits to grow by 10 percent each year. However, assuming an average scholarship of $5,000 (significantly lower than the law allows), there would only be sufficient funds for 1,000 students in the first year, which is the equivalent of about 0.2 percent of statewide district school enrollment. Even with the escalator clause, very few students will be able to receive scholarships without the legislature expanding the available credits.

This year, Nevada let the school choice camel get its nose whisker under the tent, but policymakers shouldn’t rely on the escalator clause alone for growth. Students crammed into overcrowded district schools need alternatives now. Kids who happen to be assigned to an overcrowded Las Vegas district school shouldn’t have to stay in that school.