Out With ESAs, in With Opportunity Scholarships

The Largest Program in the Nation

When the Nevada legislature went blue last election, it created a roadblock for Nevada’s proposed Education Savings Account program. Commended by President Donald Trump’s secretary of education, Betsy DeVos, the program was supposed to make Nevada the first state to have a universal Education Savings Account program. Unlike in other states where vouchers are only available to disadvantaged students, ESA funds would have been available to all Nevada public school families. “Would have” because the ESA bill did not make it out of the 2017 legislative session. But when one door closes, another one opens—in this case, that other door is an expansion of the Opportunity Scholarships program.

First, a clarification of terms: “voucher” and “ESA” are often used interchangeably, but they are not the same thing. Vouchers are state-funded scholarships that go toward a student’s private school tuition. ESAs are also state-funded, but allow parents to use the money for things other than private school tuition—such as tutoring, online courses, transportation, homeschooling and other approved expenses. In addition to these two categories of private school choice, there are tax-credit scholarships, which Nevada’s Opportunity Scholarships program falls under.

After two lawsuits and a Nevada Supreme Court ruling that the proposed model of funding for the program was unconstitutional, the Democratic-majority legislature killed the ESA bill. Reactions varied, from the high of opening a good report card to throwing a tantrum in timeout. In a press release, Educate Nevada Now policy director Sylvia Lazos thanked legislators for standing strong against the program, which the nonprofit opposes on the grounds that it will further harm already disadvantaged students. On the other hand, supporters of school choice reeled at the decision to defund the program, citing the loss of opportunities for children who had already applied and/or been approved for ESAs.

Many parents were irate at having the rug pulled out from under them, and legislators pointed to Treasurer Dan Schwartz’s office, which urged parents to apply for ESAs before funding for the program had been approved. A public letter from the treasurer’s office issued January 20, 2017, said they had received a total of 6,414 applications, of which 243 had been processed by the time the letter was sent. State Sen. Aaron Ford pointed out in a February budget review that the treasurer’s office had not been forthcoming in regard to how much work it had done for the program.

“A couple of weeks ago, someone from [Treasurer Schwartz’s] office, maybe a [public information officer], sent a newspaper in Las Vegas information about demographics. I’m a little confused, and I want to offer the context that we’ve been asking this office for a year and a half for that demographic information,” Ford said. Furthermore, shortly after the demographics were released, the Las Vegas Sun’s analysis revealed that affluent ZIP codes that already have access to high-performing schools (like Henderson, Summerlin and some Reno suburbs) had more ESA applications than those zip codes with lower incomes and worse schools.

Opportunity Scholarships

After the would-be ESA program was defunded, Assemblyman Paul Anderson told The Nevada Independent 2,700 Nevada students had been approved for it. And of the ESA applicants who had been approved, Anderson figured about 40 percent are eligible for Opportunity Scholarships. While those scholarships will not be available to every single family who wants them, the program focuses on the families who most need them.

The major distinction between the Opportunity Scholarships program and the ESA program is that Opportunity Scholarships are neither universal nor publicly funded. Students must meet disadvantage, disability or low-income criteria to be eligible; and, in addition to the one-time $20 million infusion to fund the scholarship program, businesses can donate to the program in exchange for credits on their Modified Business Tax bill. The scope of what Opportunity Scholarships can be used for is also smaller than ESAs—the funds may only go toward tuition, fees for distance education and dual-credit programs in public schools. The State Department of Education reported 1,153 Opportunity Scholarships awarded last year.

Dinosaurs and Roses is one of the four Nevada nonprofits certified to process applications for the scholarships. “We follow the [state] guidelines [for processing applications], and last year, we sent more than 300 children to school,” says Michele Morgan, executive director of Dinosaurs and Roses. “You should see the letters that I got from some of these kids, thanking us for being part of the program and telling us how much they’ve learned, and photographs of them wearing their school uniforms so proudly. Can’t put a price on that.”

Given our state’s place at the bottom of national rankings in pre-K–12 education, there doesn’t seem to be much to be proud of when it comes to Nevada public schools. But a universal ESA program will not be the way our state pulls itself up. With Opportunity Scholarships, the door opens for the most disadvantaged students while also allowing continued focus on improving public education.