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Nevada Statute Supercharges School Choice

By Arianna Prothero — June 09, 2015 5 min read
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Sweeping. Groundbreaking. Historic.

Those are the words school choice advocates are using to describe a new Nevada law that will give parents near-total control over the way state education dollars are spent on their children.

The reason: The level of school choice the law will permit is unprecedented. All parents of public school students will be allowed to use state aid earmarked for their children, placed in education savings accounts, or ESAs, for tuition or other expenses related to a nonpublic education.

That includes religious private schools and home schooling.

By comparison, in the handful of other states that offer similarly styled programs, they’re reserved for certain populations—mostly students with disabilities. Those states also have caps on how many students can participate, while Nevada does not.

Under the law, which was passed by the Nevada legislature at the end of May and signed by Gov. Brian Sandoval last week, the only stipulation for eligibility is that a student must have been enrolled in a public school for 100 consecutive days. That means 93 percent of the 459,000 public school students in the state will be eligible for the new program, according to the Indianapolis-based Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice.

“Nevada really did just win the space race for education reform—this is so much of an advance,” said Robert Enlow, the president and CEO of the Friedman Foundation. The foundation, along with the Arizona-based Goldwater Institute and the Foundation for Excellence in Education, was involved in crafting the bill.

In many respects, a universal ESA program is the fullest realization of the school choice idea: promoting customization and competition that supporters argue will improve education.

States have been nibbling around the edges of the concept with various types of tuition-voucher plans since the early 1990s, including programs in Milwaukee and Cleveland targeted to low-income students.

And in 2002, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the Cleveland program, which gives vouchers that help pay for students in failing public schools to attend private schools, including religious ones, did not violate the U.S. Constitution.

But, while Nevada’s program is much broader in scope than other private school choice plans, some critics doubt it will truly be accessible to all students.

“Being from Las Vegas, I’m a betting man, and I’m going to bet a lot of these private schools are not in inner cities,” said Ruben Murillo Jr., the president of the Nevada State Teachers Association, an affiliate of the National Education Association.

How It Works

Under the Nevada program, which takes effect in January, students with disabilities and those from low-income families will get 100 percent of the state’s annual per-pupil funding, now about $5,700, according to the Friedman Foundation. Everyone else will receive 90 percent of that per-pupil amount.

The money will be deposited into individual accounts. Parents can use the money toward expenses approved by the state treasurer’s office, such as tuition, textbooks, tutors, transportation, and therapy for students with special needs.

Money left unspent will roll over and can be saved for college tuition.

To provide oversight, the state treasurer’s office will audit the accounts, and participating students will take a nationally norm-referenced test in math and English/language arts every year and submit the results to the Nevada Department of Education.

Nevada is the fifth state to offer a program of K-12 ESAs—Arizona, Florida, Mississippi, and Tennessee are the others—and is the first to create a “universal” ESA.

It’s hard to overstate the importance of the new law to champions of private school choice.

“I think because education savings accounts are really only limited by what we can imagine for a child, then the future of education should certainly look like this,” said Jonathan Butcher, the education policy director at the Goldwater Institute.

“This is historic,” said Patricia Levesque, the CEO of the Foundation for Excellence in Education. “Depending upon how they implement the program, you’re going to see a lot of other states follow in Nevada’s footsteps.”

Arizona’s Lead

The original idea for education savings accounts came out of the Goldwater Institute, and Arizona was the first testing ground, with a program created in 2011 after school choice advocates lost a protracted legal battle over the state’s traditional voucher program in 2009.

Florida followed suit, launching its ESA program at the beginning of the 2014-15 school year, while this spring Mississippi and Tennessee passed laws creating their own ESAs, all for students with disabilities.

Although that was originally the case with Arizona, ESAs there have since been expanded to allow participation by other groups, including students attending failing schools, students in foster care, and those from active-duty military families.

This most recent legislative session, a bill sponsored by Democrats extended eligibility in Arizona to students living on American Indian reservations.

Potential Pitfalls

Among the potential challenges for Nevada’s new program: Will there be enough private schools to meet demand? How will the state manage such an expansive program right off the bat? And what will be the impact on local school districts?

Mr. Murillo, of the state teachers’ union, is worried, for instance, that public schools will be left with the most-disadvantaged and toughest-to-teach students.

Some students, in addition to facing selective admissions policies at some private schools, may find them too hard to get to—especially if their parents work multiple jobs or don’t have their own cars, he said.

Finally, the legality of the ESA program will likely be challenged in state—and potentially federal—court, according to Josh Cunningham, a senior policy analyst with the National Conference of State Legislatures. Amendments in some state constitutions, including Nevada’s, place stricter rules on public dollars going to private institutions, Mr. Cunningham said. He cited legal scholars who have said the program is so broad that the Supreme Court’s ruling on the Ohio voucher case may not apply to it.

Mr. Cunningham also pointed to another kind of test for the new program: Does competition created by school choice actually improve academic outcomes?

“Most evidence shows that there isn’t really any measurable impact,” he said. “But a lot of the school choice proponents say, ‘We haven’t really had a program large enough to show the effect of competition.’ Well, this is their chance.”

A version of this article appeared in the June 10, 2015 edition of Education Week as School Choice Supercharged In Nev. Statute

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