When Gov. Brian Sandoval signed legislation earlier this month allowing families to use state money for private schools, Nevada became the country’s poster child for school choice almost overnight.
It’s also been touted as a huge victory for conservative groups like the Friedman Foundation, Goldwater Institute and Republican presidential candidate Jeb Bush’s Foundation for Excellence in Education. Bush even took to Twitter to congratulate Sandoval for signing into law the “first universal” voucher program and proclaim “more choice yields greater results.”
The education savings account law eliminates a number of provisions that have traditionally constrained voucher programs. In other states, it’s usually only low-income families, families with disabled students or students in failing schools who can receive the money. In Nevada, everyone can claim state cash, from the richest parents to the poorest.
Proponents argue it will help families on all ends of the economic spectrum, but will be felt most by low-income families, who have traditionally been excluded from private schools due to cost.
Here are three obstacles that could prevent that and a few ways the state might overcome them before the law goes into effect.
More private schools
With only 20,000 students in private schools, Nevada currently ranks last in the country for per-capita private school enrollment.
No matter how you slice it, right now there simply aren’t enough private schools in some parts of the state to support a lot of new students.
Clark County accounts for more than half of the state’s private school enrollment, but most of those schools are located in the wealthier parts of Las Vegas.
The city’s three most popular private schools by enrollment, Bishop Gorman, Faith Lutheran and the Meadows School, are all located in Summerlin. Many more are located in Henderson.
“There cannot be a mass exodus [from public schools] without more private schools coming on board here,” said Dr. Crystal Van Kempen-McClanahan, principal of Mountain View Christian School, one of the largest in the east valley. “We just don’t have the seats available.”
Where private schools aren’t is in the inner city — which includes the poorest parts of downtown, North Las Vegas and the eastern valley — where many low-income students live.
“They’ll get the lower end of the market,” said Henry Levin, a professor at Columbia University who has researched school choice. “In some cases, they are going to get much worse schools than the [public schools] they are going to in the inner city.”
The problem is even worse for students in Nevada’s rural communities, where private schools are next to non-existent. The only option for rural families who want to avoid public schools would be to use the funds to homeschool their children or pay for online education.
Supporters hope the new law will encourage competition for tax dollars and lead many more new schools to open up throughout the state, including in poor neighborhoods, bolstering parents’ choice of where to send their children.
“Schools will move in to serve those students, because there’s a need and an opportunity,” said Michael Chartier, state programs director for the libertarian Friedman Foundation, a main sponsor and architect of the Nevada law.
The best private schools in Las Vegas are out of reach for most low-income families.
Tuition at Bishop Gorman is $12,700 a year, not including hundreds of dollars in fees. At Faith Lutheran, it’s $11,100 each year, not including fees. At the Meadows School, tuition reaches higher than $20,000.
For families not lucky enough to qualify for the newly created state Opportunity Scholarships that could supplement their state money, financial aid is the only other option. The scholarships allow businesses to pay into a scholarship fund for low-income families in lieu of paying certain taxes. Current figures estimate about 600 scholarships will be available in the law’s first year.
There’s also a question of whether low-income families would have the ability to get their children to and from the school every day.
“Our urban minority students are already at a disadvantage,” said Angie Sullivan, a teacher at Stanford Elementary School and a progressive activist who testified against the law. “Those parents are in survival mode. Many are still trying to get their [citizenship] papers.”
Chartier said prices would drop as time went on, and noted that not every private school charges an exorbitant amount.
An editorial in the Las Vegas Review-Journal argued that the $5,700 many poor families would receive could easily pay for tuition at inner-city Catholic schools like St. Francis de Sales and St. Anne’s.
Tuition at those schools can be as low as $3,600, easily affordable with money from the ESA.
But skeptics say focusing on affordability misses the point.
“Not all private schools are created alike,” said Guinn Center director Nancy Brune. “They’re not all Meadows quality.”
The state of Nevada has virtually no oversight of private schools, and the new law does little to change that.
That’s not the case for the state’s public and charter schools, which are required by federal law to keep meticulous records on not only achievement in reading and math, but also the racial and socioeconomic makeup of the student body. Hence the state’s star-rating system, which allows each parent to see exactly how well a school is doing and the progress (or lack of it) they’re making each year.
“Public education has been under the microscope of accountability for the last several years, this is one of these moments where that’s going to shift,” said John Vellardita, director of the Clark County teacher’s union. “What comes with more influence, is more accountability.”
The law does require that private schools test ESA students using an existing state test. But it doesn’t set out any consequences for private schools that don’t show better results than their public counterparts.
That was by design, said Scott Hammond, the Republican state senator who sponsored the law.
“I didn’t want to overburden them with a lot of regulations,” he said.
A layer of new regulations could come this summer when the treasurer’s office, who will manage the savings accounts, decides how to implement the law.