Families & the Community

Nevada’s School Choice Law Encounters Growing Pains

By Arianna Prothero — August 25, 2015 4 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

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.

Enough Supply?

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.

Gauging Impact

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.

A version of this article appeared in the August 26, 2015 edition of Education Week as Nev. Officials Work to Unknot Kinks in School Choice Law


This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Budget & Finance Webinar
Innovative Funding Models: A Deep Dive into Public-Private Partnerships
Discover how innovative funding models drive educational projects forward. Join us for insights into effective PPP implementation.
Content provided by Follett Learning
Budget & Finance Webinar Staffing Schools After ESSER: What School and District Leaders Need to Know
Join our newsroom for insights on investing in critical student support positions as pandemic funds expire.
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Student Achievement Webinar
How can districts build sustainable tutoring models before the money runs out?
District leaders, low on funds, must decide: broad support for all or deep interventions for few? Let's discuss maximizing tutoring resources.
Content provided by Varsity Tutors for Schools

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Families & the Community Opinion What Student Impacted You Most as a Young Teacher?
Paying attention to students and their families can provide some of the most valuable lessons to teachers.
Michael Nelson
2 min read
Mike Nelson reads to his students.
Mike Nelson reads to his students.
Mike Nelson
Families & the Community Q&A How These District Leaders Turned Family Engagement on Its Head
Two Leaders to Learn From share insights on what family and community engagement entails.
7 min read
Families & the Community Video ‘A Welcoming Place’: Family Engagement Strategies for Schools (Video)
Schools that enlist parents as partners see positive results. Here's how to do it.
1 min read
Families & the Community Bring Back In-Person Field Trips. Here's Why
School field trips took a hit due to the pandemic and are still recovering. Educators and experts explain why they should come back.
4 min read
Students from Piney Branch Elementary School in Bristow, Va. arrive at Elizabeth Furnace Recreational Area in the George Washington National Forest in Fort Valley, Va. on Tuesday, April 23, 2024 for an outdoor education field trip. During the field trip, students will release brook trout that they’ve grown from eggs in their classroom into Passage Creek and participate in other outdoor educational activities.
Students from Piney Branch Elementary School in Bristow, Va., arrive at Elizabeth Furnace Recreational Area in the George Washington National Forest in Fort Valley, Va., on April 23, 2024, for an outdoor education field trip.
Sam Mallon/Education Week