This past June, thousands of families and students in Nevada were thrilled to hear the news that the state passed the nation’s first universal school choice program in the form of an Education Savings Accounts (ESA) program. The program would have expanded educational choice starting this year, giving parents an increased opportunity to select the schools that they deem best for their child. When early enrollment closed, the Nevada Treasurer’s Office reported over 4100 savings accounts had been set up.
Unfortunately for these families and students, the sweeping school choice program they were so hopeful for has now been delayed in the courts. Opponents of the new program filed lawsuits questioning the constitutionality of the savings accounts. A state judge agreed, and granted an injunction to the opponents, effectively putting the program on hold and placing over 4,000 students in uncertainty over their educational future.
For Hispanic students in the Silver State, these developments are especially disappointing as increased school choice in the broad sense has a proven record of benefitting minority students in particular. Hispanics make up 40 percent of those attending public schools in Nevada, most of whom would have been eligible to take advantage of the ESAs.
And some students currently face an uphill battle with no choice but to attend either low-performing schools or schools that might not be best suited to their individual needs. Nevada education officials recently released a list of 78 underperforming schools. Of those, 49 include Clark County School District campuses or independent charter schools. And access to quality of education is often difficult for students, and specifically Hispanics. The Hispanic dropout rate ranked as the highest among any group in the United States, at 11.7 percent.
Under the new law, parents would have the option to opt out of public school, and instead transfer the funds that would have originally been allocated for their student to an Education Savings Account. The parents would then have been able to choose to spend that money to send their child to a private school or an online school, or purchase materials for homeschooling. Those enrolling in a private school will have access to funds that equal up to 90 percent of what the state spends per student in public schools. That amounts to between $5,100 and $5,700 annually. The funds can be used to cover private school tuition and additional educational needs. Understandably, these reforms would go a long way to addressing some of the dropout and achievement gaps that currently stand in the state.
The Nevada law is significant in many ways, and it remains especially important because it is the nation’s first school choice program of its kind. But clearly, lasting reform is not going to come easy. Fortunately, supporters of the innovative Education Savings Accounts have vowed to defend the program in court. The Education Savings Account program in Nevada was created with students in mind – students whose needs were not being met in their current public schools. If we continue to keep students’ needs front and center of the public debate, it will become clear that the ESAs in Nevada should be here to stay.