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Nevada’s ESA program first of its kind

June 11, 2015

Originally written by Mary C. Tillotson for Nevada Watchdog

Sen. Scott Hammond, R-Las Vegas, public school teacher of more than 15 years, sponsored the bill. Hammond, who also coaches basketball, said he expects the program will help schools improve.

“I’m a big advocate for any kind of competition,” he said. “I’ve competed all my life for things. Competition brings out the best in people. I wanted the opportunity for people to go where they felt like they were going to get the best education for their child and raise the bar that way.”

Pioneered in Arizona in 2011, education savings accounts allot a certain amount of public money for parents to educate their children. Money can be spent on private school tuition, textbooks, tutoring, and other educational expenses.

ESA programs in Arizona, Florida, Tennessee, and Mississippi are only available to students who fall into particular demographics, but Nevada’s is touted as the first universal ESA program available to any student who’s spent the previous 100 days enrolled in a public school.

“From the get go, I said, let’s make it universal. We’ve learned so much from other states,” Hammond said.

The program does not require additional state money. The funds a state would normally spend on a child’s public education will simply be redirected to the student’s education savings account. It comes to approximately $5,000 per student each year.

The money goes to a debit card, which is coded to allow for educational purchases. The money rolls over year to year, giving parents an incentive to be frugal, possibly saving up for more expensive services in future years. Unlike Arizona’s program, however, the money cannot be used for college tuition after high school graduation.

ESAs can help ease the tension between individualizing and standardizing education, Hammond said.

“What we keep doing to the public school system is trying to make it as uniform as possible so everybody gets the same education,” he said. “We’ve got the uniform down, with a lot of cookie-cutter-type schools. Let’s talk about individualizing. If you love math, why not go to a school that’s predominately about math and still teachers the other subjects?”

School choice programs are frequent targets of lawsuits, often from teachers unions.

Nevada’s program is on firm legal footing, said Tim Keller, attorney for Institute for Justice, a law firm that frequently defends school choice programs.

In a constitutional analysis of Nevada’s program, Keller compared school choice to state Medicaid expenses.

“Under Medicaid, state dollars pay for medical services at religious hospitals and everybody understands that those funds are not used for a sectarian purpose, even though the hospitals are established for a religious purpose. Those funds are used for the purpose of buying medical services. Similarly, funds deposited in an education savings account are provided to parents who use them to purchase the educational goods and services,” Keller wrote in the analysis.

Many school choice advocates have praised the new program as a major turning point in the school choice movement. Jonathan Butcher, education director for the Goldwater Institute, said turning points are better judged in hindsight.

“Is it a turning point?” he said. “Hard to say. Is it significant? Absolutely. I hope that other states take the opportunity to be just as bold, just as ambitious, to provide something really excellent for kids.”



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