Nevada Senate Unanimously Approves Choice for Special-Needs Students

Published September 1, 2007

Nevada’s Senate made state history in May when its members unanimously approved a measure that would offer scholarships to special-needs students to attend the public or private school of their parents’ choice.

Senate Bill 158 is the first school choice bill to win either Assembly or Senate approval in the Nevada Legislature.

According to bill sponsor Sen. Barbara Cegavske (R-Las Vegas), the new program is a much-needed response to the problem of meeting special-needs students’ individual needs.

“Traditional public schools are failing countless children with individualized education plans,” Cegavske said. “These children deserve a viable alternative that their parents simply cannot afford without financial assistance.”

The bill remained in the Assembly’s Ways and Means committee without action at the close of the regular session on June 4.

State Solutions

The bill is part of a small but growing trend among states to introduce more parental control in special-needs education. In May, Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue (R) signed a bill giving parents private options for their special-needs children. The new scholarship program is similar to the touted McKay Scholarship Program in neighboring Florida, where close to 17,000 special-needs students receive scholarships to attend private schools.

Still, the state Senate endorsement was a surprise to many in Nevada–a state where school choice has not been a major part of the public dialogue.

“This is the first time it’s really been on the radar,” said Joe Enge, an education policy analyst with the Nevada Policy Research Institute, a nonpartisan research center based in Las Vegas. Enge expects to see a higher level of public interest in the issue now that the Senate has unanimously approved legislation.

More Needs

Over the past few years, most states have seen a rise in the number of students identified as “special-needs” under federal law. But Nevada’s rate of growth since 1990 is the highest in the country at 149 percent, according to U.S. Department of Education statistics.

Grappling with these increases, the state’s public schools may not be best equipped to meet the needs of all special-needs children.

In a June letter, the U.S. Department of Education’s acting director of the Office of Special Education Programs, Patricia Guard, informed Nevada Superintendent of Public Instruction Keith Rheault that the state “needs assistance in meeting the requirements” of the Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act, the federal law governing special-needs education.

Nationwide Problem

Nevada is not alone in this shortcoming. According to the U.S. Department of Education Web site, only nine states are currently meeting the requirements of the law.

“[Special-needs scholarships] are needed in every state in the country,” said Chuck Muth, a Nevada resident and executive director of Citizen Outreach, a national organization based in Washington, DC. Muth said when states allow parents of kids with special needs to choose their schools, markets will rise to the occasion and better serve the children.

Robert Teegarden, director of state projects at the Alliance for School Choice, a national school choice advocacy organization, said SB 158 “is likely to return.” Teegarden hopes to see more bipartisan support for the bill during Nevada’s next scheduled legislative session, in 2009.

Matt Warner ([email protected]) is director of the American Legislative Exchange Council’s Education Task Force in Washington, DC.

For more information …

Nevada Senate Bill 158: