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School Choice & Charters Opinion

5 Thoughts on Nevada’s Landmark School Choice Law

By Rick Hess — June 11, 2015 4 min read
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Last week, Nevada governor Brian Sandoval signed into law the nation’s most ambitious school choice program. The new Education Savings Account (ESA) legislation has drawn much attention already (for a stellar summary, see this Friedman Foundation take by Michael Chartier). Normally, I tend to skip the chance to bang on a banged-up drum, but I was incommunicado last week and feel moved to offer a few thoughts.

Nevada’s ESA is a landmark bill due to two striking features: it’s universal and it one-ups school vouchers by offering ESAs (more on why that matters below). Nevada’s ESA is available to all families as an alternative to attending a Nevada public school, so long as the student in question has attended a Nevada public school for at least 100 days. The ESA can be used to fund tuition at approved private schools, textbooks, tutoring services, tuition for distance learning programs, the costs of special instruction for students with special needs, and so on. Students with special needs or whose families earn less than 185 percent of the federal poverty level ($44,863 for a family of four) will receive between $5,500 and $6,000—the full amount of statewide base per-pupil support. Students whose families earn over 185 percent of the poverty level will receive about 90 percent of base support.

Like I said, this has been discussed at great length already, so I won’t rehash it all here. Instead, I’ll consign myself to making five quick points.

First, I find this all immensely promising. For anyone who doesn’t follow school choice, ESAs are significantly improved versions of vouchers. Those who’ve been reading me long enough will remember that I used to write longingly about ESAs a fair bit. Their neatest feature is that they facilitate the “unbundling” of schooling that I wrote about at length in Education Unbound. Whereas charter schools or vouchers allow families to choose this school or that school, ESAs (like the Health Savings Accounts on which they’re modeled) offer families the freedom to spend education funds on a mix of schools and other educational services. This creates more room for customization, encourages schools to start thinking about cost, and can give families cause to start paying attention to school costs and the price of services.

Second, as someone who has spent a fair bit of time in Nevada during the past few years, I was astonished to see the ESA bill make it through. Nevada has long been light on school choice, with limited charter activity and not much else. For a bill of this scope and ambition to pass is a testament to the impact of last November’s elections (Nevada has a unified Republican legislature for the first time in decades—thanks, Mr. Obama!), the skills of Sandoval and Nevada’s razor-sharp state chief Dale Erquiaga, and the ability of politics to consistently surprise.

Third, I am entirely sure that there will be stumbles and problems. Families will make some bad decisions about how to spend their ESAs. Some sleazy purveyors will crop up. These stories will fascinate the media. But the crucial thing, at least for me, is that these problems will be localized and addressable. This is all frustrating and imperfect, but also much more manageable than efforts to address anachronistic public bureaucracies or “fix” schools plagued by decades of dysfunction.

Fourth, those reformers who like change to be tidy and closely managed by people they trust are more than a little appalled at the, hmm, shall we say, potential messiness of Nevada. They’re already wringing their hands about the lack of rules and eagerly gearing up to suggest a bunch of “improvements” to the law. Meanwhile, the perestroika wing of the reform movement (including yours truly) is enthusiastic to see what emerges and keep its hands off for now. That said, I also think we can stack the odds by cultivating an ecosystem that helps nurture talent, attract providers, support non-coercive quality control, and the rest. Whether, when, and how these informal mechanisms come to fruition will help determine the success of this legislation.

Finally, per usual, I’m puzzled as to why teachers aren’t embracing this kind of reform and all the possibilities it holds for them. Instead, Nevada State Education Association president Ruben Murillo has denounced the bill, arguing that taxpayers should not be helping families to attend “private school interests.” Now, I’ve met Murillo. He knows that plenty of teachers in Nevada are frustrated with testing, disciplinary issues, teacher evaluation, accountability systems, and more. And the opportunity for families to choose the kinds of teaching and schooling that will best serve their children means more kids will be in different kinds of schools—which gives teachers opportunities to work in schools that aren’t wired into the system of state-mandated evaluations and accountability, if they wish. After all, many of those “private school interests” will offer a very different school culture and approach. Seems like a win-win to me. I hope Nevada’s educators proceed with that possibility in mind.

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