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School Vouchers for All? Nevada Law Breaks New Ground

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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 public school parents near total control over the way state education dollars are spent on their children.

Why? Because the level of school choice this law will permit in Nevada is unprecedented: All parents of public school students will be allowed to use state funding earmarked for their child toward tuition or other expenses related to a nonpublic education.

That includes religious private schools and even home schooling.

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

Under Nevada's new law, which was passed by the legislature last week and signed by Gov. Brian Sandoval on Tuesday, 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.

How It Works:

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. 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.

Five Makes a Party

Nevada is only the fifth state to offer an education savings account program, following Arizona, Florida, Mississippi and Tennessee, and the first to create a "universal" ESA.

It's difficult to overstate the importance of this law to private school choice advocates.

To quote a few press releases: "This is what the future of education should look like for students all over the U.S.," Jonathan Butcher, the education policy director at the Goldwater Institute, said in a statement.

"Nevada now becomes a leader of that movement," the CEO of the Foundation for Excellence in Education, Patricia Levesque, said in another press release.

In many respects, a universal ESA program is the fullest realization of the school choice movement's ideas: near total parental control and customization, while, theoretically, lowering the cost of educating students by encouraging parents to save money.

Both the Goldwater Institute and the Foundation for Excellence in Education, along with the Friedman Foundation, were involved in crafting the Nevada bill.

A Bit of History:

The original idea for education savings accounts came from the Goldwater Institute, and Arizona was the first testing ground, as I wrote in February article for Education Week:

"Created in 2011, Arizona's ESA program was, in many ways, the outcome of a protracted legal battle over the state's original voucher program, which was ruled unconstitutional by the Arizona Supreme Court in 2009 because it provided public dollars directly to private schools, and to private schools only. In that decision, the court left open the possibility that a voucher-like program could be structured to remove that conflict.

'They left us a trail of breadcrumbs to follow,' said Matthew Ladner, who worked at the Phoenix-based Goldwater Institute, a conservative public policy and advocacy organization whose legal arm also helped defend the ESA program. 'I took the hint from that, and we published a new paper at the Goldwater Institute basically calling for an account-based choice program for special needs kids that would have multiple uses including private schools,' he said.

Florida followed suit, launching its ESA program at the beginning of this school year, while this spring Mississippi and Tennessee passed laws creating their own ESAs.

The latter three programs are reserved for students with disabilities. Although that was originally the case with Arizona, ESAs there have since expanded to allow numerous other groups, including students attending failing schools, students who are in foster care, and those from active-duty military families. This most recent legislative session a Democrat-sponsored bill extended program eligibility to cover students living on American Indian reservations.

Potential Pitfalls

Nevada's entry into this brave new world could unearth new kinds of challenges. Potentially among them: 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 the impact on local school districts be?

"With a voucher program, you don't know how much funding you're going to have throughout the year," said Ruben Murillo, the president of the Nevada State Teachers Association. "A student could hit the 100-day mark and decide to go to a private Catholic school. ... It's very difficult to have the best resources and staff if that money can be diverted to private schools."

He's also worried that the most disadvantaged and toughest-to-teach students will be left in public schools. In addition to some private schools having selective admissions policies, they may be too hard for some students to get to—especially if their parents work multiple jobs or don't have their own cars.

"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," he said.

Finally, the legality of the education savings account 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.

How those legal tests would shake out is hard to predict, Cunningham said, but he pointed to another kind of test to keep an eye on: whether competition created by school choice improves 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."

Related:

Why Private Schools Are Opting Out of Voucher Programs

Union-Backed Court Challenges to School Choice Hit Snags in Florida, Louisiana

Some States Put Parents in Charge of Student Spending


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