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."
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.
School choice advocates are enthusiastic about recent trends. In the past 15 months Mississippi, Tennessee, Florida and now Nevada have all adopted new programs that dramatically expand public school funding for private school options, Peshek said.
Altogether, five states now provide educational savings plans to students in varying degrees, with most currently restricting access either to those eligible for free and reduced lunch or those with specific disabilities or individualized education plans.
Arizona, which started its program in 2011, has been steadily expanding its reach, Peshek said, now covering roughly 25 percent of Arizona students. The expanded reach now includes certain disabilities, students in schools that have received a failing grade, children of active duty military and students in foster care.
The new school choice funding allows parents to customize their children's education. They can pay for tutoring or get supplies. Parents can also use Kahn Academy to teach their children math, and use other online programs to mix and match.
"In all other aspects of our lives we can do this, but for some reason we have people who want to cling to this idea of one-size-fits-all in education," Peshek said.
Peshek stresses a key distinction between "vouchers" and "educational savings accounts."
An education voucher is essentially a scholarship that goes directly to the private school by way of parental decisions. In contrast, educational savings accounts are like health savings accounts, allowing parents to choose from a variety of options to fit their child's specific needs.
It's a difference that sounds niggling but matters for legal reasons, said Josh Cunningham, an education policy specialist with the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Thirty-eight of the state constitutions have "Blaine amendments," Cunningham said. These prevent the state from funding schools that have any religious affiliation. Those amendments mostly came in a wave of anti-Catholic sentiment toward the end of the 19th Century, in reaction to an immigration wave of Irish and then Italian and Polish Catholics. But over time, the Blaine Amendment has come to be seen not as prejudice but as a bulwark against the mingling of church and state.
Educational savings accounts are an end run around that challenge because they offer the funds directly the parents, who can then use them in a variety of educational expenses, including tuition, tutoring and school supplies.
State courts in Arizona and elsewhere have held that savings accounts used to pay for religious schools do not violate the Blaine Amendment because parents decide what to do with the funds, rather than the state sending money directly to the school.
Arizona's legislature got around the voucher barrier by implementing a program in 20TK that allows eligible families to opt out of public schools and use the money the state would have used to educate them to pay for private school tuition, homeschool curricula, private tutoring, education therapy or other educational expenses.
Even vouchers, per se, were held as constitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2002 in a 5-4 decision that laid out a five-part test. To pass the test, the program must have a legitimate secular purpose, offer aid directly to parents, cover a broad class of students, be neutral on religion, and there must be enough nonreligious options available for those who want them.
But the U.S. Supreme Court decision does not require state courts to approve vouchers if they hold that their constitutions stand in the way.