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Nevada's Education Gambit

August 21, 2015

Originally written by Jonathan Butcher for U.S. News & World Report

Earlier this month, Nevada lawmakers did something unusual: State legislators gave every public school parent the option to choose how and where their child is educated. With Gov. Brian Sandoval’s signature on SB 302, state lawmakers will find out just how badly parents want flexible choices in their child’s K-12 and post-secondary education. The recently approved legislation creates education savings accounts, now law in five states, into which the state will deposit public funds that parents can use to pay for educational products and services for their children. Parents can simply choose a school, or they can find multiple learning opportunities – including online classes, personal tutors and individual college classes – to meet their child’s unique needs.

School choice is not a new idea, but allowing every child to choose how and where they learn is unique. Consider: Lawmakers in nearly two-dozen states have made education savings accounts or private school scholarships available to families. Yet only 350,000 of the 50 million students in the U.S. are participating. (To put this in perspective, imagine you visit the reigning World Series Champions, the San Francisco Giants, for a game this summer and only 290 seats in their 42,000-seat ballpark are filled.)

Nearly all of the other laws affording parental choice in education that involve private educational providers, such as private schools and personal tutors, are restricted to certain categories of students. Take Milwaukee, Wisconsin, for example. School vouchers have been in place for more than 25 years, but for most of their history, the vouchers were only available to low-income students in the city. Only recently have lawmakers started to allow other students to participate. Another example is Arizona’s education savings accounts. Lawmakers have restricted the accounts to students that meet one of a confusing array of criteria, including students in active-duty military families, Native American students, students with special needs, and students from failing schools.

Nevada’s new law is not unique because it is another new school choice law. It’s unique because lawmakers are making the accounts available to every public school child in the state.

For those afraid that such a move will put the public school system in peril, history provides consolation.

Even though 42 states and the District of Columbia allow students to attend public charter schools, and19 states allow some sort of private educational choice, most parents still send their children to district schools. Public school enrollment in the U.S. is at near-record levels, according to the U.S. Department of Education. While charter school enrollment nearly reached 3 million in 2015, it’s still only 6 percent of the total public school population.

The critical lesson in all of this is that parental choice in education has not capsized district schools. Nevadans concerned about their local school have only to look east to Wisconsin or south to Arizona to find states with charter schools and flexible private educational options where public schools still ring the bell every August.

But there is another, more pressing question. Will parents be satisfied and students succeed if families can choose a school or even make multiple options for their child’s education? Research on Arizona’s education savings accounts finds that 71 percent of participating families were “very satisfied” with their child’s account. All participating families reported some level of satisfaction, even those that were “very satisfied” with their child’s previous public school.

“For me, using an education savings account isn’t a form of protest or an act of defiance against the school system,” Amanda Howard, an education savings account parent and mother of Nathan, told the Arizona Republic in 2014. “It’s a chance to give Nathan a better future.”



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