Nevada is one of our nation’s 24 one-party, all Republican states. Writing for the Washington Post, Lyndsey Layton and Emma Brown note that, “In January, Republicans took control of the Nevada legislature and the governor’s mansion for the first time since 1929, generating the political momentum to enact the country’s most expansive voucher plan.” “Starting next school year, any parent in Nevada can pull a child from the state’s public schools and take tax dollars with them, giving families the option to use public money to pay for private or parochial school or even for home schooling… Nevada’s law is singular because all of the state’s 450,000 K-12 public school children—regardless of income—are eligible to take the money to whatever school they choose.” A child must be enrolled in a public school for at least 100 days in order to qualify.
Layton and Brown report that the new Nevada voucher bill was developed with the assistance of the Foundation for Excellence in Education, the foundation Jeb Bush launched in 2008, but from which he resigned at the end of 2014 to prepare for his Presidential candidacy. The Foundation’s chief executive Patricia Levesque describes Nevada’s new voucher bill: “This is the wave of the future. In all aspects of our life, we look for ways to customize and give individuals more control over their path and destiny…. This is a fundamental shift in how we make decisions about education.”
The Education Law Center recently circulated an analysis of Nevada’s new school vouchers from Educate Nevada Now, a statewide organization that promotes public education: “The ESA (Education Savings Account) law requires the ‘statewide average basic support per pupil’—$5,100 per student and $5,710 for low-income and students with disabilities—be deposited into each ESA (Education Savings Account) from local district budgets, a process that will divert, over time, substantial resources from the public schools. Studies have shown that Nevada substantially underfunds K-12 public education… ESAs will trigger an outflow of funds from already inadequate school district budgets, beginning in the 2015-16 school year… As children leave public schools with ESA funds, some of the costs to educate those students will leave with them. But ESAs will cause a deficit for the local district, given the fixed costs of operating the school system for all children… ESAs also create instability in district and school budgets. Districts will not know how many students will exit and how much money will be taken out of the budget during the school year. This unpredictability will make it difficult to manage public school budgets, as local administrators won’t know how many teachers and staff to hire… or how to allocate funds to provide sufficient resources to schools throughout the school year.”
Nevada is making the vouchers for over $5,000 available to any family, while most other states with voucher programs reserve the vouchers for students living in poverty. The worry is that beneficiaries of this new program may well be upper income families who will use the vouchers as partial scholarships for expensive private schools. Educate Nevada Now explains: “The ESA law has no limit on the income of households that can obtain ESA funds. There is only a handful of private schools in Nevada with tuition low enough to be covered by $5,100 or $5,710, the annual ESA amount. ESAs are designed to be a ‘subsidy’ by more affluent families who can already afford to send their children to selective private and religious schools. Conversely, ESAs are insufficient for students from low-income families, and those who need more costly English language instruction or special education services. At-risk students will stay in the public schools, therefore, increasing the segregation of students based on race, socioeconomic status, disability, English language proficiency, and other factors in those schools.” Expansion of school choice very often operates by providing escapes for able children and leaving the students with greatest needs in what become public school districts of last resort.
The law was passed without attention to racial or economic discrimination and without any protection for equity: “Unlike Nevada public schools, the private and religious schools accepting ESA funds are not prohibited from discriminating based on race, gender or disability…. (T)he private institutions… that participate in the ESA program are exempt from the most basic protections that prevent discrimination of disadvantaged and vulnerable student populations. Finally, the private for-profit or non-profit education providers that accept ESA funds can use their admissions rules, including competitive pretesting, transcript evaluation and letters of recommendation. These schools and entities are free to select students based on who they decide fits their religious or secular mission, culture and programs.”
The Education Law Center’s national 2015 school funding analysis, Is School Funding Fair? A National Report Card, ranks Nevada’s public school funding level 40th of the 50 states, and awards Nevada an “F” grade for its highly inequitable funding distribution. In a recent post, Jennifer Berkshire, who blogs as EduShyster, commented on the likely impact of Nevada’s voucher plan on Nevada’s already poorly funded public schools: “Speaking of overcrowding and deterioration (note that I’m bolding these for emphasis), it seems like building new off-ramps for kids who are fortunate enough to have more than $5,700 in their backpacks won’t only leave problems like overcrowding and deterioration unaddressed, but will actually leave the majority of kids in Nevada’s schools worse off.”