School Choice & Charters

Setback for Groundbreaking School Choice Program Could Have Broader Fall Out

By Arianna Prothero — June 20, 2017 5 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

When it was passed two years ago, Nevada’s plan for education savings accounts—a voucher-like program—was hailed as the most ambitious private-school-choice program in the nation because it was open to all of the state’s nearly 460,000 public school students.

But legal challenges and shifting political winds in the state have stalled that program indefinitely. School choice supporters are split on what the turn of events in Nevada means for the momentum of similarly styled programs nationwide.

A last-ditch legislative effort to fund Nevada’s education savings accounts—which would give all public school students the option to take state money allocated to them and use it for private school tuition or other approved education-related expenses—crumbled in the face of uncompromising Democratic opposition. The Nevada legislature won’t meet again until 2019, essentially leaving education savings accounts dormant for the thousands of families that have applied to use them.

“It’s very disappointing, of course, especially for the 8,000-plus families that applied,” said Matthew Ladner, a senior research fellow at the Charles Koch Institute who helped craft and defend the first law of this type.

“The program is still there. Lawmakers could pick this up in the future, but right now, this is a pretty bitter setback.”

In Arizona, by contrast, lawmakers this year dramatically expanded the state’s education- savings-account program, which was created in 2011. After years of incremental expansion, Arizona’s program is now open to all 1.1 million public school students.

Related bills were proposed in 18 states this year, according to the Foundation for Excellence in Education, which helped craft and pass Nevada’s bill in 2015. None, besides Arizona’s, have passed. “Nevada set the stage in terms of a universal program,” said Adam Peshek, the director of education choice at the foundation, an education group founded by former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush. “I think it in many ways helped Arizona to turn their program into a universal program this year. … The benefit of Nevada is that they set the precedent.”

Starting a Trend?

Passed in the final days of the 2015 legislative session under a Republican-controlled statehouse, Nevada’s education-savings-account program shook the education world. Education savings accounts were a relatively new policy idea that originated in Arizona and were popping up in a few other places as an alternative to traditional school vouchers. Like vouchers, the early ESAs had fairly strict restrictions on who could use them and were often limited to students with disabilities or from low-income families.

Education savings accounts allow states to place all, or nearly all, the state money earmarked for a student in a special account that parents can draw on for approved educational expenses, including tuition at religious schools. In Nevada, that aid would amount to more than $5,000 per student.

When Nevada’s universal program was passed, voucher advocates predicted that other states would quickly follow suit.

But the groundbreaking program never fully launched because of disputes over how to pay for it. While more than 8,000 families signed up for education savings accounts, the state was blocked from distributing funds until legal challenges to the program were resolved. Two separate lawsuits made their way to the Nevada Supreme Court, where justices ruled in October that the program was unconstitutional because of how it was funded.

However, the state’s high court didn’t rule that the program itself was unconstitutional on the grounds of funneling public money into private, religious schools, leaving a path open to advocates: find a new funding source, and education savings accounts could be resurrected.

But doing so became substantially more difficult when Democrats took control of the Nevada legislature in November.

And public scrutiny over the types of families that were seeking to use ESAs put the program on the defensive.

“There was data that showed that a lot of applicants who signed up were from affluent neighborhoods, not low-income neighborhoods,” said David Sciarra, the executive director of the Education Law Center, a national legal and advocacy group that helped launch one of the lawsuits against the education-savings-account program. “The whole issue of unaccountability of the private schools and no anti-discrimination requirements, things like that, a lot of those issues really surfaced during the court case.”

Federal Attention

And then there was the national debate over school vouchers spurred on by President Donald Trump and Betsy DeVos, his education secretary. The Trump administration continues to signal that expanding school choice is a priority, and anti-voucher groups, such as Nevada’s statewide teachers’ union, worked diligently to tie Nevada’s education-savings-account program to the president and DeVos. It’s a tactic that education advocates opposed to vouchers have been deploying across the country, but whether it’s working isn’t clear just yet.

“The exact impact the federal debate is having on the state level is really difficult to say,” said Ladner.

At the beginning of Nevada’s legislative session, Republican Gov. Brian Sandoval proposed carving out $60 million from the state’s general fund to pay for the accounts, but Democratic lawmakers refused. The subsequent power struggle between Democrats and Republicans over the ESA program nearly derailed the entire state budget for fiscal 2017-19, but lawmakers reached a compromise with less than 24 hours left in the legislative session—one that didn’t include funding for the education savings accounts.

But school choice advocates didn’t walk away from the session completely empty-handed. The budget deal contains an extra $20 million over the next two years for a separate private-school-choice program that has a cap on how much a family can earn in order to be eligible for the aid. The Opportunity Scholarship program also was passed in 2015, but it was eclipsed by the much more ambitious education-savings-accounts program. It gives tax credits to businesses for donating to a private school scholarship program.

That one-time infusion of funds will come from taxing marijuana sales and growers, which was a priority for Democratic lawmakers. Marijuana was legalized in the state through a ballot initiative last fall.

Both voucher supporters and opponents don’t think it’s over for Nevada’s ESA program. Among them is Ladner, of the Charles Koch Institute, who said many of the issues that made ESAs attractive to lawmakers and families in the first place, such as extreme overcrowding in the public schools, still exist.

And then there’s the state supreme court’s ruling, which leaves the door open, said Rubin Murillo, the president of the Nevada State Education Association.

“For us it’s all about making sure that we listen to what the concerns are about our public school system and that we act on them, not just pass the concerns along,” he said. “We absolutely have to act upon it; that’s what’s going to be our ally in terms of fighting the funding of vouchers in the future.”

Coverage of how parents work with educators, community leaders and policymakers to make informed decisions about their children’s education is supported by a grant from the Walton Family Foundation, at waltonk12.org. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.
A version of this article appeared in the June 21, 2017 edition of Education Week as Nevada’s Faltering Choice Program Could Have Broader Fallout

Events

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.
Sponsor
Teaching Webinar
6 Key Trends in Teaching and Learning
As we enter the third school year affected by the pandemic—and a return to the classroom for many—we come better prepared, but questions remain. How will the last year impact teaching and learning this school
Content provided by Instructure
Teaching Profession Live Online Discussion What Have We Learned From Teachers During the Pandemic?
University of California, Santa Cruz, researcher Lora Bartlett and her colleagues spent months studying how the pandemic affected classroom teachers. We will discuss the takeaways from her research not only for teachers, but also for
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.
Sponsor
Student Well-Being Webinar
Trauma-Informed Practices & the Construction of the Deep Reading Brain
Join Ryan Lee-James, Ph.D. CCC-SLP, director of the Rollins Center for Language and Literacy, with Renée Boynton-Jarrett, MD, ScD., Vital Village Community Engagement Network; Neena McConnico, Ph.D, LMHC, Child Witness to Violence Project; and Sondra
Content provided by Rollins Center & Campaign for Grade-Level Reading

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

School Choice & Charters Opinion What Do Parents Look for When Choosing a School?
New polling sheds light on what a nationally representative sample of parents had to say on this question this summer.
2 min read
Image shows a multi-tailed arrow hitting the bullseye of a target.
DigitalVision Vectors/Getty
School Choice & Charters Virtual Charters in Hot Water Again. Accusations of Fraud Prompt $150M Lawsuit
Indiana officials seek to recoup more than $150 million they say was either wrongly obtained or misspent by a consortium of virtual schools.
Arika Herron, The Indianapolis Star
2 min read
Indiana's attorney general Todd Rokita speaks at a news conference on Sept. 16, 2020, in Indianapolis. Rokita filed a lawsuit against a group of online charter schools accused of defrauding the state out of millions of dollars Thursday, July 8, 2021.
Indiana's attorney general Todd Rokita speaks at a news conference on Sept. 16, 2020, in Indianapolis.
Darron Cummings/AP
School Choice & Charters How the Pandemic Helped Fuel the Private School Choice Movement
State lawmakers got a new talking point as they pushed to create and expand programs to send students to private schools.
8 min read
Collage showing two boys in classroom during pandemic wearing masks with cropped photo of feet and arrows going in different directions.
Collage by Gina Tomko/EducationWeek (Images: Getty)
School Choice & Charters Opinion Taking Stock After 30 Years of Charter Schools
Rick Hess speaks with Nina Rees, president and CEO of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, on charter schools turning 30.
8 min read
Image shows a multi-tailed arrow hitting the bullseye of a target.
DigitalVision Vectors/Getty