Nevada’s Gamble On School Choice

With the passage of Senate Bill 302, Nevada lawmakers approved what’s being called the most comprehensive school choice program in the country. Basically, families can apply to have the state subsidize their child’s private or homeschool education through what’s called an education savings account or ESA.

Each child will receive roughly $5,000, but not every Nevada child is currently eligible under the law’s so-called 100-day rule, requiring that applicants attend a public school for at least 100 days. That rule is causing the most controversy, but critics are also questioning the program’s accessibility and constitutionality, along with its potential effectiveness for repairing K-12 education in Nevada.

Reno Public Radio is exploring all of these issues for our series Nevada’s Gamble On School Choice.

Nevada Experiments with Universal School Choice

Anh Gray

Nevada lawmakers recently passed SB302, a landmark education bill. As part of our series “Nevada’s Gamble on School Choice” Reno Public Radio’s Anh Gray explores the unforeseen consequences the new law could have on the state. [Click here for an audio version of this story.]

Eighth-grader Annika Dixon is playingConcerto in A Minor by Vivaldi. She typically starts her day practicing violin before sitting down at the family’s dining room table with her mother for a homeschool lesson. This morning, the subject is writing.

“After you write that narrative, the second step is you’re going to write a brief description of the poem structure,” Yvonne Dixon says.

Yvonne Dixon has four children and her three younger ones were just bussed off to their local public school. Annika is her oldest and has only been homeschooling for about a year.

“I don’t know at this point if I’ll be homeschooling the rest of my children,” Dixon says. “I think you have to look at each child individually and decide as a family which option is best for them.”

For Annika, homeschooling alleviates social pressures.

“And if I finish early,” Annika Dixon says, “I have extra time to do what I want during the day.”

Homeschooling is just one education option, along with charter schools, private schools, and distance learning. State Senator Scott Hammond authored SB 302 — also known as the universal school choice bill. Last June, Nevada legislators passed the bill which subsidizes schooling alternatives for eligible students.

So far, Hammond says too much focus has been placed on students leaving public schools and taking state funding with them.

“It was never about just taking public money and transferring it to private schools,” Hammond says. “It was always about what’s the delivery of education and how it’s going to change in the future.”

Hammond says the goal is to spur even more innovation in education.

But, since the program is so new, it’s not possible to say how it’ll affect the state’s lagging education system. Russ Whitehurst is a researcher at the Brookings Institution. He studies school choice and says Nevada is now a trailblazer.

“This is a universal program, every family in the state who has a child who’s been attending public school is eligible to get this money, and that’s not the case anywhere else,” Whitehurst says, “in that sense, that’s revolutionary.”

The law allows the state to deposit money in an education savings account — or ESA. The amount parents will receive is roughly $5,000 or 90% of the state’s spending per student. Families below federal poverty level and special needs students will receive 100% of the state’s funding.

But Whitehurst says there’s a problem with those amounts.

“It leaves the tuition payment for a private school out of reach for a low-income parent and that’s a bad thing if you’re interested in choice as a mechanism for equity,” Whitehurst says.

“This is going to be a huge failure for the students of Nevada,” Ruben Murillo says.

Ruben Murillo heads the Nevada State Education Association which represents about 28,000 education professionals. His agency opposed the bill citing a lack of equity and accountability.

Murillo expects the majority of ESA applicants will be suburban middle-class families. He’s also worried that the state doesn’t have a way to adequately measure student success, since participants can choose from several standardized tests.

“If parents can choose what test to take, how do we know if that test will give the result or give an accurate account of student’s capabilities or how much they learned,” Murillo says.

On top of that, there’s no minimum score tied to receiving the money. Even with that potential flaw in the program, Russ Whitehurst, the researcher we heard from earlier says school choice would at least shake up public education in Nevada.

“That disruption can lead to improvements,” Whitehurst says. “Imagine now that the public schools start losing a fair amount of students, they would think we’ve got to get better, we’ve got to compete and do some things differently.”

“I definitely think it could and will challenge the status quo. Whether or not it improves things, we’ll just have to wait and see,” Kim Metcalf says.

Kim Metcalf is the Dean of the College of Education at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. Metcalf says there is no proven formula that guarantees academic success.

“If people knew with certainty how to effectively educate children in urban settings, they would do it,” Metcalf says. “It’s not that people know how and they refuse to do it.”

Metcalf describes implementing school choice as similar to a clinical drug trial — that it’s an experiment to collect evidence on what works and what doesn’t.

“The best we can do is to continue to try and improve what we’re doing,” Metcalf says, “and I think the danger is when we believe we have discovered an answer and hold so fast and uncritically to it that we fail to see where it may not be working.”

It will take some time to see if Nevada’s gamble on school choice pays off. But, waiting for a solution remains critical for the nearly half-a-million students enrolled in the state’s public school system.

Nevada $1.6 Billion Short Of Providing An Adequate Education

Amy Westervelt

Listen to this story.

Public schools have a lot of things to pay for. Buses and drivers. Buildings. Electricity. Teachers and administrators. Supplies. Maintenance. And that’s the bare minimum. Adding support for English language learners, or providing lunch for kids living in poverty adds more dollars to the tab. And if you want teachers specialized in educating kids with developmental disabilities, or programs that challenge gifted students? That’s gonna cost you, too.

Right now, Nevada schools are struggling to meet minimum requirements.

“Nevada is about $1.6 billion short of providing an adequate education,” says Dr. Magdalena Martinez, Director of Education Programs with The Lincy Institute at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. “And that does not include, of course, weights for specific program areas such as gifted and talented programs, free and reduced. It’s just the basic, base funding level.”

Attempts to increase the state’s education budget, and to introduce funding weights to The Nevada State Plan, which would help schools provide extra services for kids with special needs, have largely failed. That’s left legislators with no choice but to create separate spending programs, like the Victory Schools plan for low-income kids and the Zoom Schools plan for English language learners. Victoria Carreon, with the bi-partisan think tank The Guinn Center, explains.

“The issue there is that the funding is being given out for specific schools. Usually when you have weighted funding, the funding is targeted at a specific population, a specific demographic. So at the Zoom schools, all the services are for every student, not just English learners. Similarly, all of the services at Victory Schools are for every student at that school.”

Although the Nevada Plan may fall short on equity these days, Carreon points out that it was originally created to make education funding more fair across the state.

“The idea was to equalize funding somewhat between the counties, because some counties had much more local funding per pupil than others, and so this was supposed to establish a basic support guarantee, and whatever the local funding could not fund, the state would come in and fund that difference,” she says.

Nevada counties still get local funding, and that funding varies wildly across the state depending on everything from the number of pupils to the industries active in a given county. In some parts of the state, mineral rights taxes help to foot the bill for education, which ties school funding to the vagaries of the commodities market.

“So for districts like Eureka and Lander in the past, they have not received any state funding because their local funding is so much that it is higher than the basic support guarantee. In other years, for those same school districts when mining taxes are not as strong, they have far less funding. So it can really vary quite a lot,” Carreon says.

Just last year, Eureka County schools spent a whopping $41, 173 per pupil. Washoe and Clark Counties, the most populated in the state, always have the lowest per-pupil funding, between $8,000 and $9,000, on average.

But does spending a particular amount per student ensure equality?

Seth Rau, policy director at education nonprofit Nevada Succeeds, says that while money is important, there are other factors that go into creating a high-quality education system, including standardized testing and great teachers. And on the equity front …

“Look at suspension issues, look at bullying issues,” he says. “Is there too much disproportionality? Are we sending too many kids on the school to prison pipeline? Especially for black men, or black boys, the suspension rates are far higher than they are for any other demographic subgroup.”

In the last legislative session, policy makers took the first step in creating a funding weight for special education students. Next year, instead of getting funding for one special-ed teacher, public schools will get funding that’s based on the actual number of special-ed students they have. On the docket for the next legislative session?: Bringing the Nevada State Plan into the 21st century.

Nevada School Choice: 100-Days Rule Vexes Private School Parents

Julia Ritchey

Cheri Wulforst has a daughter in fourth grade and a son in first. They both attended private school in Reno, but that all changed this school year after she found out about the state’s new voucher-like program that subsidizes private school tuition.

“We did not make the decision to try to qualify until 14 days ago, so literally right before school started,” she says.

To qualify for the money, roughly $5,000 per child, Wulforst had to first enroll her children back into public school for 100 days. This 100-days rule, a statutory requirement, has many private school parents upset.

Wulforst says her daughter was still at camp in New Hampshire and didn’t know she’d be attending a different school until the plane ride home. The transition, she says, has not been easy.

“When I asked my daughter how school was going, she said through tears, ‘Mommy, it just doesn’t feel like home,’” says Wulforst. “And it’s very hard for us to ask a nine-year-old to make this choice.”

Wulforst was one of three dozen private and homeschooling advocates who gave emotional testimony at a recent state hearing, criticizing the rule as discriminatory and unfair toward private school parents.

She says just because she sends her kids to private school doesn’t mean she and her husband can easily afford it.

“We are not wealthy; we both drive old cars,” she says. “I have a 1999 Toyota, he drives an ’02 Subaru. When we drop our kids off at school there’s definitely a procession of nicer vehicles. But like so many have said, it was a sacrifice that we made. “

State Senator Scott Hammond, who co-authored the bill, says the number of parents who are protesting the rule are a small but vocal minority.

“They’re the ones saying, ‘How come we weren’t included in this’? And the answer is quite simple, when they withdrew their child from the public education system, we no longer included them in the budget,” he says.

He says including private school children in the program would’ve created a $200 million hole in the budget. Hammond doesn’t see this being the case forever…

“But right now the immediate need is on students who don’t have access to another alternative,” he says.

To make matters more confusing, the state wrote a small loophole into the rule. Basically, any private school child who enrolls in one regular public or charter school class — like P.E. or another elective — can qualify for the money.

But many private school parents say this loophole is nearly impossible to fulfill because most schools are already overcrowded or don’t offer these one-off classes.

“Yeah, there is confusion without question because we’re hearing, ‘This is the answer, now this is the answer…”

That’s Kristopher Dahir, director of enrollment at Excel Christian School in Sparks. He’s watched as all the rule changes have left many parents scrambling.

“It’s kind of hard because we’re hearing all of our stuff from the newspaper, which isn’t bad, but the newspaper doesn’t always get it exactly,” he says. “So we keep having to go back to the treasurer’s office to make sure what’s being said is accurate.”

His school has an enrollment of about 270 students. About 25 students withdrew over the summer in order to fulfill the 100-days rule.

Between the increased interest from public school parents and the anticipated return of a few private school kids, he says the school could easily surpass 300 in enrollment this year.

“I do anticipate having a full school within the next two years,” he says. “We also anticipate building again, which we were going to do anyway.”

Some parents worry if private schools will be able to handle the influx of students come April, when the first checks are cut.

Wulforst says she’s not sure if she’ll pull her kids out in the spring or wait until the school year is finished. She just wants to make the best choice she can for her kids.

“The intention for our family is to return to the school where they’re comfortable — where my daughter feels at home,” she says.

Like other private school parents, she will be counting down the days until they qualify for the new program — 84 to be exact.

Does Nevada’s School Choice Program Violate the Constitution?

Esther Ciammachilli

The Nevada State Constitution says, “No public money of any kind…shall be used for sectarian purposes.” But some say once parents are given an account, the money in it belongs to them, similar to a tax refund.

“It’s your money,” Kristopher Dahir, the director of Excel Christian Academy in Sparks, says. “No one can come and tell you that you couldn’t donate that. You can spend it however you want. And that’s what they’ve done with this account. A parent doesn’t necessarily get this money, but it sits in an account where the treasurer will put it wherever the parent says because it’s their money, no different from a tax refund.”

Earlier this month, however, the American Civil Liberties Union and two other organizations filed a law suit on behalf of several parents, clergy and tax payers on the grounds that Nevada’s Education Savings Account program violates the Nevada Constitution.

Erik Herzig, Nevada Constitution expert and chair of the University of Nevada, Reno political science department, delved into the issue in detail here.

Nevada State Treasurer Urges Special Session To Revise School Choice Law

Michelle Bliss

The passage of Senate Bill 302 last spring has brought the nation’s most comprehensive school choice law to Nevada by allowing families to use state funds to help pay for their children’s private or homeschool education. Through the program, eligible kids will get about $5,000 a year.

“The view from 50,000 feet,” Nevada state treasurer Dan Schwartz says, “is that we’ve spent billions of dollars on education, we don’t have a lot to show for it, so we’re going to give the parents a chance to make the education decisions for their kids.”

Schwartz’s office has received nearly 3,000 applications from families so far and interest remains high. One sticking point, though, is the program’s so-called 100-day rule, which requires students to attend public school for 100 consecutive days before they can receive the funds.

“Truthfully, I just think the bill was poorly drafted,” Schwartz says, “so I’m not sure the legislature or even the governor really thought through the implications.”

Schwartz says a lot of kinks could be ironed out if Governor Brian Sandoval decides to hold a special session on this issue. There are rumors that Sandoval could call lawmakers into a special special any day now to discuss tax incentives for electric car company Faraday, and Schwartz says revising the ESA law could be added to that agenda.

Listen to the extended interview here.

Is Universal School Choice Leaving Low-Income Students Out?

Amy Westervelt

Although some in the state legislature are selling Nevada’s new education savings account program as a benefit for low-income students, many Washoe County families don’t see it as a realistic option for them.

I wanted to see if parents and students at Reno’s low-income public schools had heard of the ESA program, and what they thought of it. So I hit the streets just as school was letting out. [Listen to the story here.]

“Have you heard about the Education Savings Account program in Nevada?”


“No, sorry me no.”

“Have you heard about the Education Savings Account program?”

“Uh, no.”

That’s Helen, a senior at Earl Wooster High School>; Maria who has two kids at Veterans Memorial Elementary; and Wayne, whose daughter attends kindergarten at Roger Corbett Elementary. None of them had heard of the ESA program. But for Seth Rau, with the education nonprofit Nevada Succeeds, that’s not a big surprise, considering where applications have been coming from so far.

“Up here in Washoe County, the applications are mostly coming from Spanish Springs and South Reno, the most affluent parts of this county,” he says.

In addition to using the ESA payment for private school tuition, parents could apply it toward various other alternatives, like homeschooling or setting up a co-op.

“There’s just a lot of information that needs to be parted on to people right now so that parents can make the best decisions.Some of these parents aren’t even connected to the internet, and even if they are, it’s still a really resource-poor environment right now.”

Even if the state gets the word out, there are still several roadblocks, starting with cost. Private school tuition in Washoe County generally exceeds the $5700 payout. In fact, the only private schools covered by the ESA are religiously affiliated, and the six secular options would cost $3,000 to $14,000 extra a year. None are in or near a low-income neighborhood, which could be another obstacle.

At the McDonald’s on Plumb Lane, kids are hanging out after school while Wayne, the manager, watches over the place. When I ask him how he likes Roger Corbett, he starts out positive.

“I like her teacher,” he says. “She’s really good.”

Still, Wayne’s worried about what will happen next year and says if he could find a school that the ESA would cover, he’d consider it.

But in some cases, low-income public school kids may be financially better off staying put. Compared to the $5700 offered through the ESA program, Washoe County spends about $8,500 per student.

Helen, the Wooster high senior, is glad to be in public school, and plans to attend the University of Nevada, Reno next year to major in psychology.

“I think it’s a pretty good school,” she says. “It’s very diverse. It’s an school also, so the curriculum … at least since I’m in IB … is really advanced, and challenges me. And even for the kids who aren’t in IB, it’s like everyone gets a well-rounded education. ”

Close to half the kids at Wooster qualify for free and reduced lunch, but it’s also the only International Baccalaureate (IB) high school in Reno. That means it offers an advanced program in the final two years aimed at preparing students for college.

There are four other states that have either enacted or are pursuing ESA programs — Arizona, Florida, Tennessee and Vermont. While ESAs in these states are only available to special needs or low-income students, Nevada is taking a universal approach, opening ESA access to all public school students. Now education reform advocates say Nevada’s challenge will be ensuring its universal program doesn’t leave anyone out.

Originally published at

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