The state known for flashy neon, quickie divorces and Wayne Newton shows is now ground zero for private school choice.
On its website, the Nevada State Education Association informs us that vouchers (and other private school options) are unworthy because, among other things, they offer “no real ‘choice’ for the overwhelming majority of students.” This statement makes as much sense as saying, “We can’t save all the passengers on the sinking ship so we might as well let everyone drown.” But unlike other choice programs, Nevada’s new Education Savings Account (ESA) law, as signed by Governor Brian Sandoval last week, is revolutionary because it’s universal – nearly every student in the state is eligible to participate.
Whereas vouchers give parents the freedom to choose a private school for their children, using some public funding, ESAs – now a reality in five states – are more expansive, typically allowing restricted but multiple uses of the money. Nevada’s version covers tuition at approved private schools, as well as textbooks, tutoring services, tuition for distance learning programs, fees for special instruction if the child has a disability, et al. Money will be dispersed to students’ ESAs on a quarterly basis, and there will be two tiers to the program. As reported by the Friedman Foundation’s Michael Chartier,
For those children with disabilities or students from families with incomes less than 185 percent of the federal poverty level ($44,863 for a family of four), students will receive 100 percent of the statewide average basic support per-pupil, or around $5,700. For families with incomes exceeding 185 percent of the federal poverty level, the funding amount is 90 percent of the statewide average basic support per pupil, or around $5,100.
So because the new law covers all children who have been enrolled in a Nevada public school for at least 100 days, you’d think NSEA would be happy, right? Well, hardly. In a tepid letter to Nevada’s Senate Finance Committee (HT/Victor Joecks), the union’s president Ruben Murillo weighed in against the bill, trotting out the usual arguments about how taxpayers “should not be required to afford for (sic) private school interests.” Then he really stepped in it, making the claim that class sizes are too big in the state’s public schools and that the new law does not address this. But of course it does, Mr. Murillo. When parents start taking advantage of the private school option, class sizes in public schools will shrink considerably.
National Education Association president Lily Eskelsen García, seemingly on the verge of the vapors, trembled “I am terrified that there are more and more state legislators and state governors who have bought into this very dangerous idea that school is a commodity.” She also dragged out the tired argument that the gap between rich and poor will be exacerbated by “giving a public subsidy to affluent families that choose elite private schools, which are unlikely to admit students who struggle academically or cannot afford tuition even with a voucher.”
Eskelsen García has it backwards. Affluent families hardly need the $5,100 voucher to send their kids to elite private schools. The ESA law will have a minimal – if any – impact on them, but rather it will be a boon for the 99 percenters. As pointed out by Scott Hammond, the Republican senator from Las Vegas who sponsored the ESA bill, “We’re talking about individualizing the landscape of education.” Mr. Hammond, who doubles as a public-school teacher and was Educator of the Year at Indian Springs High School in 2001-2002, added that the new accounts will allow parents to spend taxpayer dollars to best fit the specific needs of their kids. “You’re going to see schools develop to help students out. It could be an all-girls school or an all-boys school or whatever it is, we’re trying to find that nirvana for that child.”
The NEA website is also dead wrong on the entire issue. The union claims that privatization encourages economic and racial stratification of our society. Addressing the economic angle, researcher Greg Forster reports that choice invariably improves student outcomes, leaving students more likely to lead a productive life. He also looked at eight empirical studies that have examined school choice and racial segregation in schools, and reports, “… seven find that school choice moves students from more segregated schools into less segregated schools. One finds no net effect on segregation from school choice. No empirical study has found that choice increases racial segregation.”
In addition, NEA insists that privatization tends to be a “means of circumventing the Constitutional prohibitions against subsidizing religious practice and instruction.” But this, too, is fallacious. In 2002 the Supreme Court ruled in Zelman v. Simmons-Harris that because educational funding goes to the parents and not the school, it in no way breaches the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. Forster adds an historical note:
Our country can never fully live up to its commitment to freedom for diversity until we undo the monopolization of education. Part of the reason we created the government school monopoly in the 19th century was bigotry and a childish fear of religious diversity. It’s long past time we, as a nation, grew up. Let’s leave those fears behind us, in the nursery of our national history.
The teachers unions are monopolists and indeed enemies of choice and diversity. As such, it will be a major surprise if NSEA, with an influx of cash from NEA, doesn’t take to the courts in an attempt to undo Nevada’s ESA law. But in the meantime, those of us who are in favor of choice and diversity are celebrating. As Friedman Foundation president Robert Enlow says, “It’s just a huge victory for the children of Nevada and all of us who have been working on this for so many years. What this will do is continue to spread ripples across the country. . . . This bill shows that you can actually politically get it done.”
Enlow is right. The Silver State’s bold move could provide a golden opportunity for the rest of the country to follow suit. Good job, Nevada!
Larry Sand, a former classroom teacher, is the president of the non-profit California Teachers Empowerment Network – a non-partisan, non-political group dedicated to providing teachers and the general public with reliable and balanced information about professional affiliations and positions on educational issues. The views presented here are strictly his own.