Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval (R) signed the nation’s first nearly universal education savings account (ESA) program into law on June 2.
On May 29, the Nevada State Assembly voted to create the most inclusive ESA program for K–12 students in the country. Since Sandoval signed Senate Bill 302 into law, parents will now be able to opt their children into the ESA program and use funding for a variety of approved educational options, including private school tuition, tutoring, textbooks, and therapies.
Most students will receive 90 percent of the per-pupil funding allotted to students statewide, which is a little more than $5,000. Low-income and special-needs students opting in would receive 100 percent of the state’s per-pupil funding. To be eligible for the ESA program, a child will have to attend public school, including either traditional public schools or charter schools, for at least 100 days before using funding granted through the ESA program.
Nation’s Most Expansive
This is the nation’s fifth ESA program, but it is by far the most expansive to date, according to Leslie Hiner, vice president of programs and state relations at the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice. Other ESA programs are restricted to low-income families and/or special-needs students, whereas the Nevada law allows any parent to opt their child into the ESA program, as long as the child has attended a public school for 100 consecutive days.
State Sen. Scott Hammond (R-Las Vegas), who wrote the Nevada ESA legislation, says the school choice program will be accessible to approximately 93 percent of school-age children in Nevada, some 453,024 K–12 students.
“The governor of Nevada gave me a signed copy of the bill, and he wrote on it the word ‘history,'” Hammond told School Reform News. “That’s how most of us feel right now. We made history with this bill. We believe in putting the power back into the hands of the parents. We believe in school choice. We are making a loud statement.”
This is Hammond’s first time serving as a state senator and his third legislative session in office. Hammond was a public school teacher for 16 years, teaching Spanish and government in Clark County before becoming a legislator.
Need for a Change
Nevada ranks at or near the bottom in most categories of education achievement. In 2012, when the average graduation rate hit a record high of 80 percent nationally, Nevada had the lowest rate, 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, some Nevada education officials have attempted to hide schools’ poor performances by lowering the cut scores used to determine whether students pass math and are eligible to graduate.
What makes this law so potentially transformative is exactly what makes its critics nervous. The flexibility of the ESA offers opportunities never before available to families. It provides an opportunity for greater parental involvement and control of education, the possibility of an individualized education not only for special-needs students or low-income children, as many choice programs provide, but for every single student whose parent opts his or her child into the ESA program.
In addition, the program saves taxpayer dollars by capping the ESA, for students who are not special-needs or low-income, at 10 percent less than the current per-pupil spending in traditional public schools.
Hammond says Nevada legislators are committed to making sure the ESA program is successful for parents, teachers, schools, and taxpayers.
“It’s really important to have good public schools but also school choice programs,” said Hammond. “They have to push each other. They have to keep pushing each other. This really puts pressure on the public schools to provide a good education to students.”
Encouraging Parental Engagement
“This is monumental,” said Hammond, explaining school choice options such as the ESA help students “caught in generational poverty” break out of forced attendance at failing schools based solely on their ZIP code. “We want parents engaged. They are disengaged. This program puts parents in control.”
“Nevada is leading the way in creating innovative programs and approaches to educating its students,” said Matt Frendewey, national communications director for the American Federation for Children. “We applaud Gov. Sandoval and the Nevada Legislature for their commitment to students and providing each and every one of them with a quality education.”
Hiner, of the Friedman Foundation, testified before Nevada legislators in support of the ESA program. Hiner says the ESA law should serve as model legislation for the rest of the country.
“Nevada legislators said they were determined to create world-class educational opportunities for children in their state,” said Hiner. “Empowering parents of every public school student in the state with the ability to access a diverse array of educational choices, both private and public, makes Nevada the nation’s leader in school choice and is a giant step forward toward their goal of world-class education for every student. May their courage and goodwill inspire the nation!”
Heather Kays ([email protected]) is a research fellow with The Heartland Institute and is managing editor of School Reform News.
Image provided by Leslie Hiner of the Friedman Foundation.
Michael Chartier, “Everything You Need to Know About Nevada’s Universal ESA Bill,” The Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice: http://www.edchoice.org/Blog/May-2015/Everything-You-Need-to-Know-About-Nevada-s-Univers
Trevon Milliard, “Education board lowers math test minimum passing score,” Las Vegas Review-Journal: http://www.reviewjournal.com/news/nevada-and-west/education-board-lowers-math-test-minimum-passing-score
Paul Takahashi, “Nevada’s high school graduation rate is worst in the nation,” Las Vegas Sun: http://lasvegassun.com/news/2014/apr/28/nevadas-high-school-graduation-rate-worst-nation/