The $5,000 Question

A new state-sponsored voucher program is supposed to help address Nevada's ongoing education woes. But will it prove to do more harm than good?


The state of public education in Nevada has long been the subject of fiery speeches, fervent debate and contentious legislation. It’s also the subject of less public but equally impassioned conversations in homes across Southern Nevada.

At some point, it seems every parent looks at their growing child, then looks at our public schools and starts to worry. They worry about overcrowding and underfunding. About their child being lost in the shuffle of the fifth-largest school district in the nation. About the ongoing messes that are the Common Core and standardized testing. About our much-publicized dismal ranking when it comes to graduation rates and test scores.

As they worry, they wonder: What other options do I have?

Cognizant of this ongoing parental angst, the 2015 Legislature made a variety of bold (and many would say long overdue) moves: It passed a tax increase targeted for education, expanded kindergarten and English Language Learner initiatives, and adopted the Education Savings Accounts (ESA) program. As much as the right and left have bickered about the merits of the tax increase, the real battle that’s brewing involves the latter program, with some questioning whether it might compound the state’s education problem rather than solve it.

The savings accounts will allow parents to take the “statewide average basic support per pupil” monies allocated to their child—about $5,000 annually—and apply them to other forms of schooling. While a number of other states have instituted voucher programs—that’s essentially what the ESA program is—none have gone as far as what is being attempted here, where every single student is eligible, regardless of their family income or what school they currently attend. “It’s a big unknown, because nowhere else in the country can you look at it and say ‘How did it work there?’ because there’s no other [ESA] program in America as expansive as Nevada’s,” says Grant Hewitt of the Nevada State Treasurer’s Office, which will administer the program.

Some, like Michael Chartier from the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice, view ESAs as “the first step in truly creating an educational system that works for every individual child.” Stavan Corbett, director of outreach for Educate Nevada Now, sees it differently. “How is it going to impact an already malnourished system?” he asks. “Our state ranked 49th in the nation for educational funding, and now you have a mechanism that exacerbates that.”

Here’s how the Education Savings Accounts will work: After the program’s launch in January, there will be four enrollment periods annually. Most families will receive $5,100 each year, but low-income students and those with disabilities may get as much as $5,700. Students can only qualify for funds after being enrolled in a Nevada public school for 100 days, although the Treasurer’s Office is still hammering out exactly how those days will be counted.

How far does that five grand go? Well, there are a handful of Las Vegas-area private schools whose tuition is close to what parents can get through an ESA, but the vast majority cost from $8,000 to $12,000 a year. “We’re not really seeing the benefits—even just the price structure as it relates to the private schools here in Nevada,” Corbett says. “For the most part, low-income students are not being included in this type of opportunity.”

Chartier acknowledges that the vouchers won’t be enough to give every child a direct path to private school, but he adds that there are opportunities to make up the difference. “[The schools] themselves have aid they can give out,” he says. “For the most part, those schools will either pay full rides for the most destitute students [or] they will pay for a portion.”

Even if such aid through a specific private school isn’t available, there are other means. The Opportunity Scholarship program is another of the education bills passed by the most recent Legislature. It offers tax credits to businesses that contribute to scholarship programs that help Nevada students attend private schools; these scholarships are need-based and supply $7,500 a year to students from families making less than 300 percent of the federal poverty level. However, the program is capped at $5 million this year and $5.5 million in 2016. A quick calculation shows that only 650 kids will be able to receive the Opportunity Scholarship this year and 700 next year—this in a state with more than 450,000 public school students.

“The proponents of this [ESA] bill advocated that the poor and disadvantaged who have been recipients of poor education in public schools will now have the opportunity to go to the private sector and get a better education,” says John Vellardita, executive director of the Clark County Education Association. “The five grand won’t be enough to get that education. But the [students] who will access it … will be those who are already in a position to afford it; this is just additional money they get from the public trough.”

Of course, even those who can afford to cover the gap between the voucher amount and the actual cost of a private education may find themselves stymied by a basic rule of economics: When the market is flooded with more consumers and all of those consumers have more money to spend, prices rise. More providers will naturally enter the market, but schools aren’t built overnight.

It’s also important to note that ESA funds aren’t just designated for private school tuition. The legislation states that the money can also go toward “books, fees to enroll in a virtual school, curriculum materials, specialized services or therapies for a student with a disability, transportation and tutoring.” Parents of students who are home-schooled also will have access to the $5,100. “We’re working to put in place means to check expenses that are being paid out,” says Hewitt, who notes that all entities must be accredited and approved. “Some people might want to come in and make a quick buck. … We have to find ways to protect the system and ESAs as a whole from fraud.”

That may be easier said than done. “This is like a lighthouse in the middle of the ocean: The light goes on, everyone will see that $5,000 and it’ll be like a magnet [for] that sector of profit-making,” Vellardita says, offering up the health care industry as an example where not every penny of every dollar goes to services provided.

Another reason parents may choose to go the ESA route: Their private-school or home-school kids won’t be subject to the barrage of standardized tests inflicted on public school students. Those students receiving state funds will be required to take a norm-referenced test at the end of the school year, but that exam can be chosen from a set of approved assessments. “The point of choice,” says Chartier of the Friedman Foundation, “is to offer parents different options that are best for their kids.”

However, being able to choose the test can affect attempts to accurately judge a student’s progress. For instance, ESA parents can research which assessment best suits their child; conversely, public school students are required to take the same test (well, these days, tests). “It’s not going to be apples-to-apples by any stretch of the imagination,” Vellardita says.

Still another unknown is how the voucher program will affect students who remain in public school——whether by choice or not. “The financial impact concerns everybody,” Vellardita explains. “If you’re giving $5,000 per pupil and let’s say 6,000 students statewide participate, that’s a $30 million hit” to the bottom line of Nevada’s school districts.

Grant says the plan is for the Treasury to give schools advance warning about departing students. “There will be a 30-day notice on who’s leaving,” he says. “We’re trying to set up a system where we can talk to the school districts and say ‘Be advised this is what’s happening.’ It’s not like they show up on Monday and bodies are not in the classroom.”

Districts will also receive partial compensation for students who attend public schools for a portion of the year then opt to go the ESA route. However, teachers have yearlong contracts; computers and textbooks cannot be un-bought; and facilities cannot be un-built when the students using them leave.

And there’s yet another potential hurdle to clear: legal challenges, which might stall any rollout of the program. Florida recently survived a lawsuit, but in June, the Colorado Supreme Court overturned that state’s voucher program, declaring it a violation of the separation of church and state. Nevada’s Constitution declares that “No public funds of any kind or character, whether state, county or municipal, shall be used for sectarian purpose”—language that is similar to the section of the Colorado Constitution that resulted in their voucher law being overturned. However, Chartier is confident that there will not be a similar outcome in Nevada: “The beauty of this legislation is that it’s difficult to say that money will be used for sectarian purposes—the money is clearly [earmarked] for educational purposes.”

That may be true, but it’s worth nothing that ESA money can be used to enroll in schools whose stated goal is “to graduate Christian leaders” who “will transform the world for Jesus Christ,” or schools that require church attendance by students’ family members as a condition of enrollment. For parents who aren’t religiously affiliated, only Washoe and Clark counties offer secular K-12 brick-and-mortar private school options. “There’s going to be a legal challenge,” Vellardita says. “And it’s going to be precisely around that crossover.”

Should the ESA survive such a court battle, Vellardita says he believes the program will eventually prove less than successful. “As we see the experience and the outcome, I think the narrative that’s going to hit home is ‘Boy, what we were told this is supposed to do isn’t happening … especially for the poor and disadvantaged,’” he says.

Not surprisingly, Chartier is more optimistic. “Just because there’s a lack of options for one family doesn’t mean the program itself is bad,” he says. “But it needs time to grow and offer more options.”

Right now, it’s unclear which side will prove to be correct. But this much we do know: Our current educational system inspires more concern than confidence, and Nevada needs to climb out of the cellar of those national rankings. So the primary goal of those charged with leading the way should be working together to figure out the quickest path to the surface—for the sake of every student.