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School choice pioneer says Nevada has gone too far. We disagree.

• Mike Thomas

Nevada has become the first state to grant unfettered educational choice to all public school families.

There are no preconditions for income or disability classifications. All parents with children in public schools have the option of removing them. These parents can then direct the state funds designated to educate their child into Education Savings Accounts (ESAs), which they can use for other education options.

The goal is to create an open and competitive education marketplace that answers to parents.

While this approach has been sought by many choice advocates for years, there was a notable dissenter—Dr. Howard Fuller. His opposition is not surprising. The former Superintendent of Milwaukee Public Schools opposed expanded vouchers there in 2011, saying the program should be limited to low-income and working class families and not be used to “subsidize people with means.’’

His concern in Nevada is that more affluent parents will opt out of public schools, augmenting the funds in their ESAs with their own money to buy a more expensive and higher quality education. The result, he says, will be greater inequalities in public education.

As much as we admire this pioneer in the choice movement, we must disagree.

It is true that private choice options have focused on traditionally underserved student groups.

But disadvantaged children are not the only ones receiving substandard educations in Nevada. Fewer than half the state’s middle- and upper-class Anglo eighth graders are proficient readers, according to results from the National Assessment of Educational Progress.

Choice certainly is an equity tool. But for the sake of our nation’s future, it also must be a tool for improving outcomes for all student groups.

A criticism of Nevada’s program is that the Education Savings Accounts are set at $5,100, with low-income families receiving an additional $600. This amount certainly will not be enough to pay for tuition in many of Nevada’s existing private schools.

But parents whose children are trapped in failing schools can use the accounts for home schooling, online courses, tutoring or other services. They also can pool their resources and create education co-ops. At least now they have alternatives.

We point out that this is the beginning, not the end. The program is brand new, and the market has yet to respond with more efficient and effective education models. For example, the widely praised Cristo Rey network of Catholic high schools provides low-income children with a college-prep education. The schools make tuition affordable to parents by offsetting its costs with student internships in local businesses and contributions.

The ESA amounts also can be adjusted over time as the state develops more experience with the program.

When evaluating private choice programs, we should look to charter schools as a template. In 1999-2000, they served about 300,000 students. By 2012-13, that number had grown to 2.3 million students.

There are no enrollment restrictions in charter schools, and some do in fact serve affluent communities. But this lack of restrictions has led to widespread support for charters, including long waiting lists to get in, laying the groundwork for more expansion. The students who have most benefitted academically from this expansion are low-income children.

By comparison, middle and upper-income parents are not engaged on the private choice issue because they do not have access to the option. This has put a potentially powerful constituency for choice on the sidelines.

Meanwhile, the teachers unions, their political allies, many in the media and powerful school districts fight these programs with voluminous amounts of money, legislative hurdles and never-ending lawsuits. They are emboldened because those who suffer the consequences are families that have little if any political power.

Nevada’s program also will lead to more innovation, something most school districts do poorly. Choice has created new approaches to education, and many are centered on the use of digital technology. These include online schools, course choice, blended learning, flipped learning and free MOOCs offered by the nation’s top universities. Digital technology gives students 24/7 access to rigorous academic coursework, top instructors from around the country and an almost unlimited number of classes. It also can significantly reduce the cost of education.

Education is transforming from the Industrial Age to the Information Age, allowing personalization on an unprecedented scale. Expanding the market increases the number of innovators attracted to that market. This benefits all children, regardless of family income.

Lastly, it is important to note there already are significant inequities in Nevada’s public education. While state funding is constant across school districts, communities add to those state dollars with local contributions. The result is that more affluent communities often spend considerably more per student than lower-income communities. For example, per-pupil funding at Incline High School near Lake Tahoe is $13,248, about $5,000 more than the statewide average.

This funding inequity extends to academic inequality. Results from the National Assessment of Educational Progress show that Nevada schools have made little progress in closing the achievement gap between disadvantaged and advantaged students since 1998.

For example, in 1998, fourth graders eligible for free and reduced priced lunches (an indicator of poverty) scored about two and a half grade levels below their more affluent peers in reading. In 2013, even while the scores of both groups increased, that gap widened.

Tinkering with old approaches is not the solution. An entirely new direction is required.

We believe that making universal school choice available to all families and creating a transparent marketplace that answers directly to parents will expand the benefits for all children, particularly those for whom Dr. Fuller has so valiantly championed for so many decades.

About the author

Mike Thomas @MikeThomasTweet

Mike Thomas serves in the communications department, writing editorials and speeches. Prior to joining the Foundation, Mike worked for more than 30 years as a journalist with Florida Today and the Orlando Sentinel. He has written investigative projects, magazine feature stories, humor pieces, editorials and local columns. He won several state and national awards, and was named a finalist in the American Society of New Editors’ Distinguished Writing Award for Commentary/Column Writing in 2010. As a columnist for the Orlando Sentinel, he wrote extensively about education reform, becoming one of its chief advocates in the Florida media. Mike graduated from the University of Florida with degrees in political science and journalism. His wife is a teacher and he has two children in public schools. Contact Mike at