Guest Column:

Arizona offers glimpse into threat ESA bill poses to Nevada schools

Wed, Apr 19, 2017 (2 a.m.)

Gov. Brian Sandoval is pressing lawmakers to revive the private school voucher program blocked last September by the Nevada Supreme Court. The court ruled the program was unconstitutional because it would deplete funds earmarked by the Legislature to operate Nevada’s public schools.

The governor’s bill, SB506, carries forward most features of the prior law. Sandoval wants the per-pupil amount spent on public school students, roughly $5,700, to be deposited into education savings accounts to subsidize private and religious school tuition and pay for other private education expenses. The governor also wants vouchers for any household, even the wealthy. And like the prior law, 100 days of public school enrollment is the only eligibility requirement.

To get around the Supreme Court ruling, SB506 changes the way vouchers are funded.

The funding will not come directly out of public school budgets. Instead, Sandoval proposes a separate appropriation of $60 million over the biennium.

At that level, approximately 2,500 vouchers can be awarded each year, not enough for everyone who signed up under the prior law. So the vouchers will be given out on a first-come, first-served basis.

Lawmakers should flatly reject the governor’s bill. And they need look no further than to Arizona for the reasons why.

In 2011, Arizona enacted an ESA voucher program limited to students with disabilities. Once it got rolling, vouchers were expanded to include students in low-performing public schools.

This year, 3,200 vouchers were funded by Arizona taxpayers, totaling $49 million. The vast majority of the voucher funds are used to subsidize tuition, fees and other expenses charged by religious and private schools.

But Arizona voucher proponents weren’t satisfied. Cheered on by U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, Gov. Doug Ducey recently signed legislation expanding vouchers again, this time making all 1.1 million public school students eligible. To pass the bill, proponents accepted a cap of 5,500 new students per year and 30,000 students over the next five years. The cost to taxpayers and the public schools could quickly swell to over $100 million or more.

But make no mistake: Voucher proponents are already aiming to lift the caps and throw the program open to everyone.

As in other states, Arizona’s voucher law lacks accountability. Private schools don’t have to administer the same tests as public schools, so there is no way to know if student outcomes are better.

Oversight of voucher accounts is lax. A recent audit uncovered payments for groceries, games and gift cards using voucher funds.

Like those who signed up for Nevada’s vouchers, most Arizona voucher recipients are from affluent neighborhoods, according to an investigation by the Arizona Republic. As a state senator who opposes vouchers noted, the expansion of vouchers will only spur the exodus of affluent white parents from the public schools, leaving those schools to educate students of color, poor students and English language learners with less money.

And public school funding in Arizona, like Nevada, is among the lowest and most inadequate in the country.

So Nevada legislators beware. Gov. Sandoval’s voucher bill is a Trojan horse. His $60 million for vouchers is just the start.

Once voucher proponents get their foot in the door, they will follow the Arizona playbook, demanding expansion in the next biennium session. And, led by DeVos, they will not stop until they achieve their goal of taking down our public schools, without regard to the educational damage inflicted on the children left behind.

David Sciarra is executive director of the Education Law Center and co-counsel in the lawsuit against Nevada’s vouchers. ELC is a founding partner of Educate Nevada Now.

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