Nevada's groundbreaking school-choice law: Help or hindrance to public system?

The Nevada law, signed by the governor Tuesday, allows virtually all parents of K-12 students to opt out of public school but use their children’s state education dollars for a customized education.

John Locher/AP
Nevada Governor Brian Sandoval laughs as he looks a picture presented to him by students at Matt Kelly Elementary School during a bill signing ceremony Wednesday, in Las Vegas.

A groundbreaking law in Nevada allows virtually all parents of K-12 students to opt out of public school but use their children’s state education dollars for a customized education, including private or religious schooling, online classes, textbooks, and dual-enrollment college credits.

The money goes into an education savings account (ESA), and dollars not spent by the parent in a given year roll over for future spending – until the student finishes high school or opts back into public school.

With this move – GOP Gov. Brian Sandoval signed the legislation Tuesday – Nevada has made itself, in some ways, the educational-choice capital of the nation. And it has added new layers to the long-standing debates about whether funneling public dollars to private school options is a catalyst for improvements or damaging to public schooling.

“This is a voucher on steroids.... This is something many school choice advocates have been pushing for many years, this notion of universal school choice, and no state has come close to going as far as Nevada has,” says Michael Petrilli, president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, an education policy think tank.

Nevada is not the first state with ESAs, but it is the first to offer them not just to select groups of students. Nevada is giving them to all who have been enrolled in public school for at least 100 days – about 453,000 children, or 93 percent of school-age students in the state.

The law offers 100 percent of state funding (about $5,700 annually) for students with disabilities or whose families are below 185 percent of the federal poverty level, according to a summary by the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice. For all others, it offers 90 percent. Participants will have to account for expenses and take an annual test in math and English that is nationally norm-referenced, meaning their score can be compared with peers around the country.

The universal aspect is groundbreaking, but the fact that Nevada chose ESAs, instead of vouchers and tax-credit programs, “makes it even more innovative and monumental,” says Lindsey Burke, an education policy fellow at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank in Washington. “This is the way the school choice movement is moving.”

For parents, the appeal is that they can combine online, private, and even some public courses to tailor an education that suits their child. For state policymakers, it’s attractive because parents are incentivized to spend wisely and carry over savings, and that “puts downward pressure on prices,” Ms. Burke says.

ESAs, like vouchers and tax-credit programs, are often opposed by teachers unions and other advocates for strong public school systems.

“We’re very concerned that it would divert funds from public education ... for students to attend private schools,” says Ruben Murillo Jr., president of the Nevada State Education Association.

While the Nevada Legislature has passed a number of recent bills to improve education, schools are still short on funds in the aftermath of budget cuts during the recession, Mr. Murillo says. He also questions whether participating parents and educational service providers will be held to high enough standards to show they are benefiting students.

These new varieties of vouchers still represent “an organized effort to weaken public schooling,” says Kevin Welner, an education professor and director of the National Education Policy Center at the University of Colorado, Boulder.

Proponents of vouchers, ESAs, and other school choice policies say they set up competition that forces public schools to better respond to families’ needs. Professor Welner disagrees: “It’s not a good idea to create a highly regulated system of public schools and an almost entirely unregulated system of taxpayer-funded private schools and then pretend that we’ve set up a system of fair competition,” he says.

Arizona was the first state to set up such accounts when it launched its Empowerment Scholarship Accounts in 2011. It has been followed by Florida, Mississippi, Tennessee, and now Nevada. The other states allow parents to use any saved dollars for college tuition as well, while Nevada allows spending only for college courses that students take before finishing high school, Burke says.

At first, Arizona’s ESAs were only for students with disabilities. But they’ve expanded to include students in failing public schools, foster-care adoptees, active-duty military families, and native Americans living on reservations.

While some opponents might worry about a steady stream of students leaving public schools, that hasn’t been the case in Arizona. Out of about 250,000 students who are eligible, about 1 percent applied for the 2014-15 school year, and currently there are about 1,200 participants, a spokesman for the Arizona Department of Education told the Monitor.

For parents like Holland Hines of Gilbert, Ariz., the program has made all the difference. Before her son, Elias, was 10 months old, he was exhibiting signs of autism, she says. At 3, he had the expressive language of a typical 11-month-old but the reading and comprehension skills of an 8-year-old. He has a complex range of diagnoses.

As a first-grader, Elias struggled in a special-needs classroom in a public school. His anxiety went up at home, and when Ms. Hines visited the class, she saw him rocking back and forth under a desk, covering his ears as some of his classmates screamed. She was often called to pick him up and found that he was learning little because so much time was spent trying to get him to fit into the group schedule.

When she heard about Arizona’s Empowerment Scholarship Accounts, she applied right away and began receiving the money just before his second-grade year.

“When I got the contract, it was like Christmas,” she says of the agreement she signed with the state.

With the money, she’s been able to get a curriculum and to work with him at home on academic subjects, including geography and foreign language. In the afternoons, she sends him to a private school for electives like music and science lab, enabling him to socialize with mainstream classmates. The ESA has also nurtured her son’s piano talent.

“I’ve been able to see him evolve into the child he is capable of being instead of constantly trying to fit him into the box of the expectations of the school system he was in,” she says.

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