This month, Nevada’s governor signed the nation’s first universal school choice program into law. This program will dramatically expand educational choice for all families, including the thousands of Hispanic families living in Nevada who, starting next year, will have the opportunity to send their children to better performing schools regardless of their zip code. Nevada’s universal school choice enactment comes at a time when Florida and Texas, two states with a large share of Hispanic students in the k-12 system, recently failed to expand educational choice.
Nevada’s new program will give families access to «universal education savings accounts» (ESAs). These accounts will enable any parent in the state to withdraw their child from their assigned public school and seek enrollment in a public, charter, or private school. Those enrolling in private school will have access to funds equal to 90% of what the state spends per student in public school. The funds may be used to cover tuition as well as pay for an educational program that better fits their child’s specific educational needs. ESAs already exist in Arizona and Florida, but they are limited to families that meet certain eligibility requirements. By contrast, Nevada’s ESAs will be available to all parents whose children are currently in the public school system, allowing them to pay for a variety of education-related services: private-school tuition, online learning, special-education services and therapies, books, tutors, and dual-enrollment college courses.
In addition to giving families a wide range of educational options, Nevada’s ESAs will also help curb the growth of educational costs. This is because under the Nevada ESAs’ structure, families can roll over unused funds from year to year, and as highlighted in a National Review article, this system puts a downward pressure on the price of education-related services. In fact, since parents have the ability to use the rolled-over funds to pay for future education services, they have a strong incentive to evaluate both the quality and the cost of the education their children receive.
This dynamic stands in sharp contrast with how public funds are spent in our traditional public schools, where such parent-driven cost-controlling incentives do not exist, mainly because per-pupil expenditures are often fully understood only after navigating an intricate web of financial reporting forms»”something that most families do not have the time or the accounting savviness to do. This situation makes families generally unaware about how much money goes towards teaching as opposed to other expenses – such as paying for the salaries of school administrators. This is important, especially since between 1950 and 2009, the number of K-12 public school students in the United States increased by 96 percent, while the number of full-time school employees grew 386 percent according to the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice, a pro-school choice education reform organization. Moreover, according to the organization’ analysis, «public schools grew staffing at a rate four times faster than the increase in students over that time period. Of those personnel, teachers’ numbers increased 252 percent, while administrators and other non-teaching staff experienced growth of 702 percent, more than seven times the increase in students».
ESAs lets parents decide where to use their education funds, whether in schools that invest in teacher’s professional development and innovation in education or in schools focused on growing the number of administrators. This decision power effectively turns parents into well-informed and influential education stakeholders, capable of driving education policy change at the local, state or federal level through their purchasing power.
But not everybody is enthusiastic about giving parents this type of power. Nevada’s universal ESAs have already alarmed the leadership of the largest labor union in the U.S., the National Education Association. In a recent Washington Post article on the Nevada universal school choice program, the President of the National Education Association was quoted saying this: «I am terrified that there are more and more state legislators and state governors who have bought into this very dangerous idea that school is a commodity.» His resistance towards the ESAs expansions are based on the risk such programs present to unions and their priorities. Undeniably, because ESAs grant such a vast decision power to parents, they represent a real existential threat for those interests groups that have traditionally gained from limiting it.
Nevada’s school choice program should be an example for all those states that are serious about empowering families with the capacity to do what is best for their children. There is really no excuse for states to keep forcing children into schools that do not meet their educational needs. While it is already a leader in school choice, the Florida legislature failed to further expand school choice this year. A proposal to provide greater open enrollment policies that would have allowed thousands of Hispanic families to send their children to public school outside their district lines fell victim to political bickering among the House and the Senate Similarly, a groundbreaking school choice bill in Texas never made it out of the House committee it was assigned to because of a combination of lack of political will and backdoor politics.
Hispanics made up 25 percent of the total enrollment of our nation’s public schools in 2013 and their share is projected to rise to 30 percent by 2022. But many of these students face an education deck that is stacked against them by a system that locks them up in low-performing schools. Politicians should look to Nevada as a model and realize that lack of access to a quality education is one of the greatest challenges facing the Hispanic community at large, one that stands in the way of its prosperity and condemns many Hispanics to a future of government dependency. It is time for all states to follow Nevada’s example and enact bold school choice-oriented education reforms. It is time to empower all Hispanic families with the capacity to give their children a brighter future.