A controversial state law that would offer education savings accounts to all parents regardless of family income is tied up in the courts, with the state attorney general pushing this week for the state’s Supreme Court to step in and decide the law’s constitutionality.
It’s the latest battle in an expanding war of school choice. For the past 25 years, charter schools have been steadily expanding their reach, particularly in urban centers, now serving over 6 percent of K-12 students. Twenty-one states offer vouchers parents can use for private schools, and home schooling jumped 61 percent from 2003 to 2012, according to the U.S. Department of Education.
Now the two states with the most rapid school age population growth, Nevada and Arizona, have joined Florida in trying out Education Savings Accounts. ESAs give parents the option of taking a chunk of the money the state would otherwise spend on their children and using it as they see fit.
While the courts deliberate and parents remain in limbo, supporters and opponents of the law continue to battle over its merits — and some of those alignments are surprising.
For at least the past seven years, education policy debates have been marked by fractures on the left, as leading Obama administration officials and civil rights groups pushed for more testing and accountability, while their traditional allies in the teacher unions rebelled.
Now the Nevada law seems to be exposing fractures in the school choice side as well. Earlier this week, one prominent school choice advocate spoke out against the Nevada plan in a debate hosted by Education Next, an education reform journal.
"I think the focus right now should be on serving kids in the most dire need and don’t have access to good options,” Nelson Smith, a senior adviser to the National Association of Charter School Authorizers and one of the debate participants, told the Deseret News. Smith is a longtime school choice advocate but finds himself a skeptic on the Nevada law.
But Matthew Ladner, a senior adviser to the Florida-based Foundation for Excellence in Education, sees the rapidly expanding student population as a prime opportunity to experiment without putting existing schools at risk.
Ladner notes that better off families receive only $5,100 in the ESA plan, compared to $8,000 spent on pupils in public schools. This, he says, means more money for students in the system, not less.
“This is not a zero sum game,” Ladner told the Deseret News. “This is an expanding pie, and the public schools need all the help they can get.”
A bold move
Nevada’s law may not be a zero sum game, but it is a bold policy stroke. Florida limits ESAs to special-needs children, and Arizona currently opens them to 22 percent of the state’s students, using various criteria including whether the child currently attends a failing school. Nevada, in contrast, went whole hog, offering ESAs to any child.
Supporters pitched the new law partly as an answer to Nevada's exploding school age population. According to the Center for Public Education, the Silver State's school age group grew 35 percent between 2000 and 2010, faster than any other state. The next nearest was Arizona at 24.6 percent, which, not coincidentally, is also a leader in education savings plans.
Last year, Nevada's Legislature passed and Gov. Brian Sandoval signed a sweeping privatized education finance bill that would create Education Savings Accounts for all Nevada schoolchildren, regardless of their parents' income levels, allowing them to use the funds to send their kid to a private school or pay for tutoring or supplies in a home school or hybrid approach.
The new law gives those eligible for free and reduced lunch $5,700 a year, and those who were not eligible $5,100 a year. Both those sums fall well below the roughly $8,000 a year the state spends per pupil in traditional public schools.
Supply and demand
“People who live back East have never seen the kind of crushing growth that we see here in Nevada and Arizona,” Ladner said. “The reality is that there is plenty of room for growth in public, private and charter schools at the same time."
But while everyone agrees that public schools are struggling to keep up with new growth, skeptics argue that Nevada has a very small private school sector that is heavily tilted toward wealthy neighborhoods. Las Vegas, they point out, does not have the network of Catholic city schools found in major cities in the East and Midwest.
Having worked for years with often troubling charter school authorization policy, Smith says he is acutely aware of the risks of opening up a “Wild West” with an untried educational model. “You risk inviting charlatans to come in and open schools fast and cheap to take advantage of that funding,” Smith said. “You need to build in some guard rails so that you don’t invite that kind of mischief, and you have to make sure the options the kids move to are really superior options.”
Ladner is much more optimistic about what might come out of the creative chaos. “We don’t know what parents are going to do with their accounts,” he said. “This is an experiment in freedom.”
Ladner said that ESAs in Arizona currently are split with 65 percent using them as a school voucher at a private school, while 35 percent use the funds for home-school purposes, including to purchase supplies or tutoring. Skeptics fear that both directions offer hazards to parents.
Ladner did concede that something needed to be done to help inform parental choice, but he argued that an online review system similar to Rotten Tomatoes or Yelp would be adequate to guide parents.
Smith agrees that a review system would help parents, but he wants to see “guard rails” on the front end. Guard rails would include strict standards for authorizing new schools and careful review of the background and capacities of would-be school operators.
Aiming fire hoses
The new Nevada law is also controversial because, for the first time, money was being taken directly from the public school system and given to parents without any regard for special needs, failing schools or low-income status. Nevada’s law thus represents what ESA critics in Arizona have long predicted there — a steady expansion of “exceptions” until everyone is pulled in.
The expansion to better-off families is especially controversial.
Smith argues that it makes no sense to focus resources and administrative energy on a program that will disproportionally benefit better off children. Just because everyone in the community pays for fire protection, Smith argues, doesn’t mean that the “fire trucks should drive around the community spraying down all the houses.”
Smith points out that just 30 percent of all Nevada’s schoolchildren are scoring at grade level in the 2015 NAEP tests, but low-income children accounted for most of that. Fewer than 21 percent of Nevada’s fourth-graders and eighth-graders who qualified for free or reduced price lunch were at or above grade level.
Ladner counters that Smith has "made an implicit assumption that the only educational problems are among low-income Nevadans.”
Not surprisingly, Smith’s arguments for both better oversight and more resources for poorer students resonate with points made by the law’s critics on the left of center, including teacher unions.
"This gives a carte blanche to any resident to take their kids to private schools, and it could devastate programs that are providing innovative programs for inner city schools and high-poverty schools," Nevada Education Association President Reuben Murillo Jr. told the Deseret News after the law was passed last year, calling the vouchers a way for wealthy families to “supplement their income.”
"This gives a carte blanche to any resident to take their kids to private schools," Murillo said, "and it could devastate programs that are providing innovative programs for inner-city schools and high-poverty schools.”
Murillo’s chief concern with the ESAs is that they will undermine financial and political support for “zoom schools” and “victory schools,” two programs Nevada launched in recent years targeted at low-income or English as a second-language students. The state commitment to funding such innovations will be undermined by the revenue lost to private schools, he argued.
"The biggest losers in this model will likely be the most disadvantaged children, whose families lack the information and resources to access high-quality opportunities," echoed Halley Potter, a research fellow at the Washington, D.C.-based Century Foundation.
"By allowing public funds to flow to private providers, Nevada's voucher law abdicates this public responsibility to ensure quality education for every student — and exposes families to greater educational risk," Potter said.