Nevada Falling Short on Helping Its Poor Access School Choice

Nevada’s new nearly universal  education savings account (ESA) program has been thrust back into the headlines amid new evidence that demonstrates the majority of applicants to the program are not from low-income families, people who could benefit most from these resources. While disappointing to many, this should surprise no one. In fact, according to the bill’s  sponsor, the intent of the law was never to target this program towards low-income students, but rather to serve “a different segment of the population.” This should raise some eyebrows about what exactly Nevada’s new law means for educational equity in the Silver State. Because while the ESA program is proving to be a powerful law for encouraging school choice, that power has not reached those students and families who need it most. To those of us who support school choice in large part because we believe it can be an important lever for reducing educational inequity, these early returns on ESA enrollment are frustrating. They are yet another example of disadvantaged students being left behind. And they demonstrate that come next school year, many of Nevada’s schools will likely be even more socioeconomically segregated than they already are.

Putting on the Pressure

Frustration aside, these enrollment figures should encourage all of us to work even harder to ensure Nevada’s ESAs empower, rather than gloss over, low-income families. Central to accomplishing this goal is putting much needed pressure on the state to give low-income families timely, accessible and actionable information about how the ESA program can work for them. The proposed regulations include some meaningful mechanisms for making sure that participating private schools are accredited and other service providers are appropriately licensed, which are good first steps for screening quality.

Factoring in Accountability

But the recommendations fail to dig deeply into ways to hold these entities accountable. Something as simple as requiring the state treasurer to deny ESA funds to providers that deliver subpar educational services would go a long way. Now, while guaranteeing the quality of education that students in the ESA program receive is critical to the program’s success, it will admittedly do little to help low-income families access school choice if the current enrollment trends continue. To date, Nevada has not made a concerted effort to educate low-income families about the ESA program as to how to enroll their children, what the ESA can purchase or how it can assist low-income families looking for better school options. For example, too many needy families in Nevada don’t know they can get up to $13,000 to pay for tuition at a participating private school if they combine ESA funds with an Opportunity Scholarship. Coupled with the fact that ESAs can be used to help cover the costs of transportation, the ESA program could open up schools to low-income families that are normally out of their reach. If the ESA program is to be successful in helping to stem the tide of educational inequity, the state must do more outreach to low-income communities. As reflected in the recent release of the 2015 NAEP scores, Nevada has remained stagnant in fourth- and eighth-grade growth, and continues to show stark achievement gaps between low-income students and their wealthier peers. The ESA program was never intended to serve only Nevada’s low-income families, and these changes will only go so far in helping to mitigate this gap. But for those of us committed to making school choice a part of the solution to help poor students and their families, we can move closer to ensuring Nevada's ESA program makes a big difference for those who need it most.  
Tracey Weinstein is the national director of policy at StudentsFirst where she oversees the organizations policy and legislative analysis units.
Tracey Weinstein, Ph.D, is the national director of policy at StudentsFirst where she oversees the organizations policy and legislative analysis units.

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