Nevada Considers Universal Education Savings Accounts

Published June 1, 2015

Nevada legislators are considering something truly amazing nowadays: giving every student in their state an opportunity for a better education.

Senate Bill 302 would create the first universal education savings account program in the nation. It would allow parents to opt their children out of traditional public schools and into an education savings account (ESA) program without requiring anyone to leave their current school if they want to stay. With the state-monitored ESA program, parents would be able to use funding allocated to their child for a variety of educational options, including school tuition, tutoring, textbooks, and other approved educational services.

Education savings accounts offer options not available in the current U.S. educational system. Legislators supporting this concept are clearly indicating they realize the traditional public education system is failing and increased parental involvement and control are desirable and necessary.

Nevada ranks at or near the bottom of most lists measuring education achievement. In 2012, although the average graduation rate hit a record high of 80 percent nationally, Nevada had the lowest rate in the country, at 63 percent. Newer figures from the Nevada Education Department, released in January 2014, indicate the state’s graduation rate rose to 71 percent in 2013. However, one way some Nevada education officials have attempted to cover up the failure of the state’s public schools has been to adjust the cut scores used to determine whether students are passing or failing in math and able to graduate. This is an unfortunately common practice, but it is certainly no solution for students, parents, teachers, and taxpayers, present or future.

The Senate Finance Committee passed an amended version of SB 302 on May 26, and the state Senate passed the bill on May 27. The measure, sponsored by Sen. Scott Hammond (R-Las Vegas), would create ESAs, giving most students a grant equal to 90 percent of their per-pupil state and local funding allotment, a little more than $5,000 per pupil. Low-income and special-needs students who opted in would receive 100 percent of funding. Parents could use the funds to pay for tuition, textbooks, tutoring, and therapies. The amended version of the bill would not allow use of the money for college as previously proposed.

What this bill does is something education advocates, teachers, parents, and taxpayers across the country dream of. It provides an opportunity for greater parental involvement and control of education, the possibility of an individualized education not only for special-education students and low-income children, as many choice programs do, but for every single student whose parent opts their child into the ESA program. In addition, it saves taxpayer dollars by capping the ESA per-pupil spending for most students—those who are not special-needs or low-income—at 10 percent less than current per-pupil spending at traditional public schools.

Nevada newspapers have published few articles about this bold, potentially groundbreaking piece of legislation, and in those that have appeared, an anti-choice bias has been evident. One such story was falsely headlined, “Panel to vote on bill putting state money to private schools,” when in fact the money will go to parents, not schools. A fairer statement would read, “Taxpayer dollars will be spent by recipients as they see fit.”

Unless you work for a public school or are a member of a teachers union, it’s easy to see education funding is for schools rather than students. The opposition from teachers unions arises from a fear of a mass exodus of students once parents have a choice. That, however, is an indictment of the public schools and a powerful argument for choice. Keeping children in abysmal public schools in order to placate incendiary teachers unions is tantamount to kidnapping.

There is a growing ESA trend nationally, with about a dozen states considering legislation, and Arizona, Florida, Mississippi, and Tennessee having already enacted limited programs. ESAs have been available for years in federal government programs, such as Coverdell Education Savings Accounts, and state-funded programs are just an extension of that concept.

The bill still must pass in the Assembly and gain the signature of Gov. Brian Sandoval (R) before becoming law. The hopes of thousands of Nevada students rest in the hands of these lawmakers, and Nevadans in favor of educational options and real progress should let them know they support this game-changing reform bill. Nevada can move from the bottom of academic achievement lists to become an education leader and a model for the rest of the country. The chance to be so bold and do so much good is as rare in politics as in other realms of life. Seize it, Nevada.