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Nevada's real school choice

James Madison High School.
Karina Frayter | CNBC
James Madison High School.

Nevada has been famous for being a legal playground for gambling for decades, and even prostitution is legal in most of the state. But something just happened that really puts the "Battle Born State" on the freedom map in a way that could inspire the liberation of millions of American families in a new and more meaningful way.

That's because Nevada Governor Brian Sandoval signed a law this week that gives all parents in the state the power to use 90% of the state-determined education spending per child on almost whatever kind of education expense they choose. Naturally, a lot of parents will use the money to enroll their kids in private schools. But the law also allows them to use that money to hire tutors, pay for better school transportation, or even get an online teaching program to help with home schooling.

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It will be a while before we know how much this helps the goal of improving education in Nevada, but we already know this is a serious boost for freedom and personal responsibility. It's that kind of freedom that should give an immediate educational boost to the large number of poor families who already know the exact right school to send their children to with this money. And there really is a large number of them across the country, by the way. Contrary to the stereotypes, you can see poorer families with supreme concern for their children's education every time a new charter school opens and they often have to stand in long lines overnight in hopes of getting their kids enrolled.

For those who think this will lead to a harmful attack on public education, it's time for a reality check. The fact is that public education in many parts of this country, especially the poorer areas, is already irreparably harmed. Throwing more money at those schools at the expense of the children trapped in them is not the answer. For whatever reason, they just cannot be managed properly out of their functional bankruptcy. The fact that so many states keep spending more per student amounts to a sick joke when the money only provides a quality education depending on your zip code. And if giving families the power to pull their kids out of failing school districts leads to the shutting down of those districts, then a lot of the people in those districts would say, "so be it." Isn't it better if a school building and a few teachers and administrators have to pay the price rather than thousands of innocent kids?

But what about the families in richer and better public school districts? Won't some of them, maybe just for religious reasons, pull their kids and funding out of those schools and force those left behind to deal with new financial and social challenges? That's where the freedom agenda comes in. Once again, the argument boils down to who should we trust with making the very personal choice of how we educate our own children. The growing backlash against Common Core and increased standardized testing is evidence that more and more parents from all political and economic backgrounds are demanding more personal choice on education. Is it every family's primary responsibility to keep up the quality of their local public school system? Or do they have a primary responsibility and a primary right to provide their own children with a good education? Are these two goals mutually exclusive?

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They might not be in Nevada thanks to this new more flexible law. Some families will use the money for tutoring or summer enrichment programs instead of yanking the kids out the existing public schools. (That's a big deal, as many studies show the educational gap between richer and poorer students becomes much more pronounced after regular school hours and over the summer). In those cases, the system may not take much of a hit and it could reap the benefits of better prepared students. What's even better about this law is that it keeps the power in the hands of the parents even though many of them will be getting money from the government to wield that power. By making sure the final funding transactions go from private citizen to the school or program of their choice, the government's ability to impose undue power inside private or religious schools will be much diminished. That's not the way it is in much of Europe, where even the most conservative religious schools are entirely funded directly by the government and they routinely risk losing their religious freedoms because of that odd arrangement.

Anyone who saw the acclaimed documentary "Waiting for Superman" knows that improving education for poor kids can be a conservative and liberal issue. The film was actually produced by a liberal Democrat and featured an African-American charter school principal who exposed obstacles like public school teacher tenure. The film also showed the desperation of many families who are reduced to entering lotteries to get their kids into better schools. There's been a justified liberal backlash to some new state laws that require the poorest people to pay for drug and alcohol tests before they receive welfare. I would ask those people if they think it's any less demeaning to make poor families enter lotteries or force them to wait in line overnight to get a decent education for their children.

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The new Nevada law goes further than any school choice plan to bolster those families. It also takes more chances in favor of more liberty, and that's why it's much more controversial. While the days of protesting legalized gambling and even prostitution in Nevada are long gone, I expect there will be a significant number of vocal people out there who are okay with gambling and prostitutes but not okay with school choice. But unless you really think there are too many Americans who don't deserve educational freedom or shouldn't be trusted to make school choices, this is a very good thing.

So in this case, let's hope what happens in Vegas doesn't stay in Vegas.

Commentary by Jake Novak, supervising producer of "Power Lunch." Follow him on Twitter @jakejakeny.