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Private School Parents Want to Be Included in Nevada's New Choice Law

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Remember that "groundbreaking, historic, sweeping" school choice law Nevada passed back in June that allows public school parents to use state dollars for private or home schooling

Well now comes the hard part: making it work in the real world. And it appears the new law has already hit some stumbling blocks which, to be fair, should be expected, given that there's really no precedent for this kind of program.

Among the questions cropping up as the school year approaches: Will there be enough private schools to meet demand? How will parents who've already been paying out of pocket for private tuition react? What will the impact be on both private and public schools?

But before we get into those details, let's recap the law. 

All parents of public school students in Nevada will soon be allowed to use state funding earmarked for their children, which the state will place in education savings accounts, or ESAs, for tuition or other approved education-related expenses. 

That includes tuition at religiously affiliated private schools and materials for home schooling. A parent could even use the money to mix and match courses and services from private and public sources to create a truly boutique education for their child.

But for right now, a lot of the focus is on private schools.

The only eligibility requirement is that students must have attended a public school full-time for 100 consecutive days before applying for an ESA.

Will Private School Supply Meet Demand?

More than 1,200 families have applied for ESAs, and school choice supporters are hoping that new private schools start opening up in the state. Otherwise, reports the Las Vegas Sun, Nevada may not have enough private schools to support a wave of new students, especially in inner cities and rural areas. More from the Sun:

"Nobody knows exactly how many seats are currently available, mostly because the state education department doesn't keep those statistics. An informal survey by the Treasurer's Office and the Friedman Foundation estimated there were around 6,000 empty seats statewide.

... Six thousand seats should be more than enough, but it could all come down to how many families end up applying for the program. A thousand applications have been submitted in the last week and a half, and the enrollment period lasts through November."

However, the Treasurer's Office believes a sizable chunk of ESA applicants will opt instead to home school—a group the department is calling 'opt ins' (and will be considered separate from traditional home schoolers under state law). That could ease the pressure on private schools. 

"I think we're going to get more than 6,000 people who are interested in education savings accounts this year," says Grant Hewitt at the Treasurers' Office. "But they will be a mixture of private school and opt-in students."

Current Private School Families Want in on the Program

Since the legislation was passed, some parents who are already footing the bill for private school tuition are demanding to be included in the program, reports the Associated Press. And they let their feelings be known during a public meeting last month.

They argued that since their property taxes go toward funding public schools, they also have a right to get state money for private schooling.

"I've been funding public schools in Nevada since 1982, and I will continue to fund public schools whether my children attend or not," Ron Nelson, whose children attend a Catholic school in Las Vegas, told the Reno Gazette-Journal. "My children should be eligible."

The Nevada State Treasurer's Office, which is overseeing the ESA program, has been trying to hammer out various ways that students can become eligible without completely dropping out of their private school and enrolling for a little over a semester in a public school.

Initially, some private schools were worried they wouldn't be able to weather financially a 100-day exodus of students from their schools.

But students will be able to take a single class at a district or charter public school while remaining in private school or home school and have that count toward the 100-day eligibility requirement.

Virtual school courses, however, will not count.

How Will Nevada's Education Savings Accounts Affect Public Schools?

I posed this question to Nina Rees, the president and CEO of the National Alliance of Public Charter Schools at its annual conference in New Orleans in June.

"It seems to me that it is a program that will probably benefit middle-class families more than others, so in that sense I don't see it as a threat to the chartering movement because charter schools primarily serve, especially in Nevada, the needs of low-income students," Rees told me.

However, some traditional public school advocates are worried that the ESA program will hurt districts.

Ruben Murillo Jr., the president of the Nevada State Teachers Association told me last June when the law passed that he's concerned public schools will be left with the most-disadvantaged and toughest-to-teach students—specifically the one's that can't pass selective admissions tests or don't have the resources to get private transportation to school.

Most students who sign up for ESAs will get 90 percent of the state money allocated to them, while low-income students and students will disabilities will get 100 percent, which will be around $5,700. Similar to Rees, Murillo doubts that will cover tuition at many private schools and he is skeptical low-income families will be able to make up the difference.

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