Nevada's School Choice Law Encounters Growing Pains
Availability of private schools a concern
The new school choice law in Nevada giving parents near-total control over the way state education dollars are spent on their children was heralded as "groundbreaking" and "historic" when the governor signed it in June. But in the short time since, with hundreds of applications pouring in, state officials are encountering challenges as they try to put the law into practice without any roadmap.
"There's going to be lots of stumbling blocks," said Seth Rau, the policy director for Nevada Succeeds, a statewide group that advocates for improving education.
Under the law, all parents of public school students in Nevada will be allowed to use state funds earmarked for their children for tuition or other approved education-related expenses. The state will place the money in education savings accounts, or ESAs.
Parents can use their ESA money to pay tuition at any private school, including those that are religiously affiliated, or buy materials for home schooling. A parent could even use the money to mix and match courses and services from private and public sources to create a customized education for their child.
But key questions are cropping up as the school year starts: What impact will the ESAs have on private and public schools? How will parents who've been paying out of pocket for private tuition react?
And will there be enough private schools to meet demand?
Over 1,200 families applied for ESAs in the first 10 days of the application process, said Grant Hewitt, who's leading the implementation team at the Nevada State Treasurer's Office, which is overseeing the program.
The Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice, a school choice research and advocacy group, estimates there's currently enough space in Nevada's private schools to accommodate a 33 percent growth in enrollment, or about 6,600 students.
Officials in the treasurer's office, meanwhile, are not overly concerned. They predict a sizable chunk of ESA applicants will opt to use their money to home school.
But many people—from the policy level to the school level—are predicting that a swell in private school enrollment will come next year.
"It may not be a first-year problem, but Nevada has a very small pre-existing private school sector," said Matthew Ladner, the senior adviser for policy and research at the Foundation for Excellence in Education.
A lot of families either have chosen to hang back a year to see how things shake out or simply don't know the program exists, said two private school principals.
"The best part about it is that it will allow more students to attend that could not afford to go here in the past," said Rick Harris, the principal of Bishop Manogue Catholic High School in Reno.
The new program is also facing a wave of criticism from parents who are already paying for private school and are not eligible for inclusion in the ESA program.
They argue that since their taxes help pay for public schools, they too should be entitled to ESAs to pay for private schooling.
To qualify for the program, students must have attended a public school for 100 consecutive days before applying for an ESA.
Officials in the treasurer's office have been trying to find a work-around so students can become eligible without completely dropping out of their private school and enrolling in a public school.
Some private schools have been worried that they would lose students trying to qualify for ESAs and wouldn't be able to weather even a short-term exodus financially.
Among them was Lake Mead Christian Academy in Henderson, just outside Las Vegas. The school lost enough families to force it to back out of a lease for a new building, said Sue Blakeley, the school's founder.
The treasurer's office has since tweaked some rules to allow students to take a single class at a district or charter school while remaining in private school or home school to meet the 100-day eligibility requirement. Virtual school courses, however, do not count.
Although taking one course at a brick and mortar school is the least disruptive way for students to gain eligibility, it's not practical, said Blakeley.
"That's not, practically speaking, happening," she said. "The public schools here are very, very full. For them to make those accommodations is next to impossible."
However, she believes once the kinks are worked out the law will be a good thing for Nevada. And it's too early yet to gauge what impact ESAs will have on public schools.
The application period for the program will still be open for several more weeks, and many districts are just starting classes and won't have a final student headcount until later in the fall.
Officials in the Clark County district, which is the state's largest and also has the most private schools within its boundaries, said they are still registering students and don't know yet if ESAs are affecting enrollment.
Most families that sign up for ESAs will get 90 percent of the state money allocated to each child, about $5,000 per student, while low-income students and students with disabilities will get 100 percent, or around $5,700.
The $5,700 allotment would actually amount to a sizable cut in funding for some students with expensive needs and possibly deter some poor students and students with disabilities from participating, said Rau of Nevada Succeeds.
And despite a survey from the Friedman Foundation that found $5,700 would cover 80 percent of tuition at half of the state's private elementary schools, there's lingering skepticism that ESAs will really put private education within the reach of poor families.
Vol. 35, Issue 02, Page 6Published in Print: August 26, 2015, as Nev. Officials Work to Unknot Kinks in School Choice Law