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Aggressive new Nevada law puts private schools in reach of all

Published: Tuesday, June 16 2015 5:00 a.m. MDT

First program to target general population regardless of special needs or income levels

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Nevada went all in on school choice this month, with the new GOP legislature passing and the GOP governor signing a sweeping bill offering parents direct access to the money used to educate their children.

The new Nevada law, the most aggressive private school choice program yet, allows parents to treat education as an a la carte menu, including mixing and matching public, online, private and home school options.

Most parents will be able to take 90 percent of the state funds allocated to their child and put them in a restricted-use education fund. Children with special needs or from low-income families can take 100 percent.

That means between $5,100 and $5,700 annually can be used to pay for private school tuition, online learning, special education services, books, tutors and more.

The new law is easily the most aggressive school choice laws to date, leapfrogging Arizona's 2011 program, which still restricts access to certain categories of students.

Not surprisingly, skeptics of school vouchers are about as upset as advocates are thrilled.

"Nevada's new law is a step backwards," said Halley Potter, a research fellow at the Washington, D.C.-based Century Foundation. "The biggest losers in this model will likely be the most disadvantaged children, whose families lack the information and resources to access high-quality opportunities."

"We need to stop treating parents like children," countered Adam Peshek, state policy director of School Choice for the Foundation for Excellence in Education. "We need to stop saying that low-income families can't handle the options."

Skeptics react

Potter, who like many education reformers supports public school choice in the form of charter schools but opposes vouchers, argues Nevada's private schools will be exempt from requirements to teach the more challenging students, including those with disabilities or those from poor families.

"By allowing public funds to flow to private providers, Nevada's voucher law abdicates this public responsibility to ensure quality education for every student — and exposes families to greater educational risk," Potter said.

Nevada's bold leap stems from the 2014 elections, notes Nevada State Education Association president Ruben Murillo, Jr. The state twice voted for President Barack Obama and is now seen as relatively blue territory. Prior to 2014, the legislature was controlled by Democrats. Now, the Senate is narrowly held by Republicans and Assembly is solidly held by the GOP.

"Democrats didn't come out to vote," Murillo said. "We knew with that change that anything was possible."

Murillo fears the new program could have devastating consequences, leading to disruption of funding and uncertainty for administrators who will not know how to plan their budgets.

"This gives a carte blanche to any resident to take their kids to private schools," Murillo said, "and it could devastate programs that are providing innovative programs for inner city schools and high-poverty schools."

Murillo said in recent years, Nevada has allocated special funds in programs known as "zoom schools" and "victory schools," both targeted at low-income or English as a second-language students. The state commitment to funding such innovations will be undermined by the revenue lost to private schools, he argued.

Murillo also objected that wealthy parents whose children are already in private schools will now be able to "supplement their salaries." He argued there are currently very few private schools in Las Vegas, and these are situated in well-off areas. The most immediate beneficiaries, he argued, will be those who can already afford to put their kids in private schools.

Pushing forward

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