November 17, 2015; Las Vegas Sun and Education Week

In June, Nevada enacted the nation’s most sweeping school choice initiative. According to Education Week, under Nevada’s approach:

Students with disabilities and those from low-income families will get 100 percent of the state’s per-pupil funding. Everyone else will receive 90 percent, or about $5,000 annually. The money will be deposited into an education savings account (ESA). Parents can then use that money toward expenses approved by the state’s treasurer’s office, such as tuition, textbooks, tutors, test fees, transportation, and therapy for students with special needs. Money left unspent rolls over and can even be saved to pay for college tuition. In terms of oversight, the state treasurer’s office will audit the accounts and participating students will have to take a nationally norm-referenced test in math and English/language arts every year and submit the results to the Nevada Department of Education.

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 students in the state will be eligible for the new program, according to the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice.

“Nevada is the first state to make the vision of dollars following every child to the school that works best for them a reality,” Robert Enlow, the president and CEO of the Friedman Foundation, said in a statement.

With court cases challenging the program’s legality because it allows state funds to be utilized in parochial schools and directly violates provisions of the Nevada constitution still under way, supporters have begun to mobilize support from the program and get families ready to participate if the law is found to be legal. Supported by School Choice advocates like the American Federation for Children and the Friedman Foundation, the Las Vegas Sun recently reported on a “grass-roots effort” aiming to “raise awareness and build support for the program in low-income neighborhoods that need it most:

“A lot of people in our community are linguistically isolated,” said Coco Llenas, founder of Nevada School Choice Partnership. “They don’t read the newspaper, they don’t follow the legislation, so they don’t know these things are happening.” Llenas has spent a lot of time canvassing neighborhoods and helping individual families navigate the state treasurer’s application process. The ultimate aim, says Llenas, is to build “a coalition” of families and organizations that will stand behind ESAs.

Those who support this aggressive attempt to implement market-based principles see it as a way to ensure that every student has the opportunity for quality education. They see it as unfair that choice in Nevada is limited to only the children of the wealthy:

The state has one of the lowest rates of private school participation in the country, with only around 20,000 students. Many of those students are in the wealthy suburbs of Las Vegas, which counts among their ranks the largest and most prestigious private schools in the state, including Bishop Gorman, Faith Lutheran and the Meadows School. But in the inner city low-income areas where Llenas works, there are far fewer options. “I found a lot of pain and frustration from parents who didn’t have resources to pay for a tutor or remediation when their student wasn’t doing well at school,” she said. “When I talk to families (about the ESA) they say, ‘Hey, this is good news!’”

While few would disagree that every child should have an equal educational opportunity, little in Nevada’s approach seems to ensure that this aspiration is realized. The maximum amount of the school grant is well below the average tuition of Nevada’s existing private schools, making choice limited at best for the less affluent. While students living in Las Vegas may have numerous schools to choose from, those living in Nevada’s vast rural areas will not. And with a limited number of “quality” private schools currently in the mix, it seems unrealistic to believe that unlike the national charter school experience, that schools coming online for this opportunity will outperform existing schools. And nothing in the law seems to address what will happen to public schools, which do not have the ability to close or choose their students, who will be forced to operate with severely restricted funding.

The Nevada experiment is drastic enough to really test the merits of the marketplace to improve education, but the risks are great and, as with many reform efforts, those who are at risk are our children.—Martin Levine