In 2015, the Nevada Legislature passed SB 302 as part of Governor Brian Sandoval’s “Education Session” reform agenda. This established the Education Savings Account (or ESA) program where parents with school-aged children can apply for state funds that would otherwise go to public schools. These are basically “vouchers on steroids.” Yet for the time being, the state can’t implement them.
Why not? And why could the upcoming legislative session be critical for the future of public education in Nevada?
“Nevada’s Education Savings Account (ESA) Program, enacted in 2015 and launching January 2016, is the nation’s first universal ESA program. It allows parents to remove their children from their assigned public schools and access a portion or all of their children’s public education funding to pay for services like private school tuition, curriculum, learning therapies, tutoring and more.”
So who benefits from this “free money” from the state to be used for a wide array of educational “services”? ESA proponents claim vouchers benefit the working poor and communities of color the most, as they’re the ones most prone to have children who are “stuck in failing schools.” While public schools in the urban core tend to be the most strained for various reasons, school vouchers have generally not been proven to fix inequality in public education. To the contrary, evidence points to vouchers exacerbating inequality in public education.
For proof of such, we need not look further than right here in Nevada. In 2015, the Las Vegas Sun looked into the initial ESA data. The Sun discovered that parents in whiter, wealthier communities produced the bulk of ESA voucher applications. If ESA vouchers are meant to provide “school choice” for students who need it the most, why are most of the applicants the ones who theoretically need it the least?
Last month, the Sun analyzed 2016 ESA application data to uncover that those who seek to take advantage of ESA vouchers are still the ones who theoretically need them the least. Just as in 2015, high-income zip codes are producing the lion’s share of ESA applications. These zip codes are generally zoned for the highest performing public schools in the state.
Take for example my zip code: 89074. In the past 15 months, the number of ESA applications has more than doubled to 122… Even as my neighborhood is zoned for top performing schools, including the high school with the highest Great Schools rating in the Las Vegas Valley.
In stark contrast, only 29 ESA applications combined have been filed in all the neighborhoods closest to the Las Vegas Strip. These are areas zoned for schools rated poorly by both Great Schools and the official State of Nevada Report Card.
Voucher proponents often argue ESA vouchers are truly meant to benefit lower income communities of color. If so, why aren’t parents in these very communities clamoring for vouchers? Why are the most applications instead coming from parents in whiter and wealthier communities who don’t need them?
And then, there’s the issue of who the private schools seeking ESA funds intend to serve. Who’s most likely to receive the “choice” of using a voucher to get into a private school?
In a statement provided to Nevada Forward late last month Amy Rose, Legal Director of the ACLU of Nevada, said: “Many of the ESA eligible schools engage in discriminatory practices on a daily basis. Private schools in Nevada will reject or dis-enroll a student who is LGBTQ, or whose parents are LGBTQ. As one ESA eligible school puts it, students must ‘refrain from participating in. . . homosexuality or other sexual perversions.’ Another will refuse admission to any student for simply ‘supporting or condoning . . . homosexual activity.’ Moreover, many of these schools refuse to accommodate students with special needs, and will not accept a student unless they adhere to a certain faith.”
This is one of the reasons why SB 302 was one of the bills from the 2015 session that was taken to court. The Nevada Supreme Court allowed for some form of ESA vouchers last September, but the Court slammed the door on the funding mechanism devised in 2015. That set the stage for the current legal and political battles over ESA vouchers.
At a Nevadans for Judicial Progress event at UNLV earlier this month Former State Senator Justin Jones (D-Enterprise), an attorney who worked on one of the suits challenging SB 302, provided in overview on where the voucher statute stands in court.
Regardless of what happens in court in the coming months, the ESA voucher program will likely be among the hottest of hot potatoes in the Nevada Legislature this spring. Senate Republicans have already begun threatening to block passage of the state budget if it does not include funding to implement SB 302. Meanwhile, progressive education activists are pressing #NVLeg Democrats not to allow the voucher program to begin siphoning funds away from public schools. Both sides have drawn the battle lines in Carson City in this high-stakes fight over the future of public education.
As the politicians wrangle over ESA funding in the state house and the lawyers duel over the constitutionality of the statute in state court, teachers, parents, and students are going to school. As their schools have become the epicenter of Nevada’s latest political battle, they’re just hoping for more resources so teachers can teach and children can learn. For them, there’s still unfinished business in terms of fully funding public education.
This is why the stakes are so high with ESA vouchers this year.