Confronting years of seriously overcrowded schools where far too many of them failed to give children the education they deserve and need, Nevada legislators and Gov. Brian Sandoval have enacted the nation’s first universal school choice program.
By giving parents access to education savings accounts (ESAs), Nevada is allowing them to customize their children’s education in a way not imagined only 10 years ago. These accounts will be funded by state dollars that otherwise would have been spent on their children in a traditional public school. Parents can used them to pay for other options such as private schools, online courses, tutoring or a combination of such services.
Nevada is fulfilling its role as a laboratory of democracy. It is creating a new model for public education that will allow for the kind of innovation and customization we are experiencing in every other aspect of our lives. Education dollars will follow children and be controlled by parents, creating an alternative to the one-size-fits-all approach of traditional school districts.
The Washington Post has been a longtime supporter of school choice for low-income families, calling it a “precious freedom.’’ We share that perspective and that priority. However, it is important not to leave the middle class out of the equation, particularly since its inclusion will create a more robust program for all.
Imprisonment in mediocre or failing schools is not just a low-income problem. The middle class is under serious financial stress, as has been well documented, with many families living paycheck to paycheck. When their children are not getting an adequate education in an assigned public school, they often have no escape options either.
And the dismal performance of American students on international assessments indicates that the poor aren’t the only ones sitting in substandard classrooms.
Simply put, we need to shake up the education status quo, which will require going beyond the piecemeal and limited reforms of the past. The ESA program will attract and create new education providers and new learning models into the market. With digital technology, no longer does a child’s education have to be limited by the courses and curriculum offered in his or her school. Any student in any zip code can access the most rigorous coursework available anywhere in the nation, and do so 24-7.
However, this goal requires a robust marketplace, which requires all families be included in the program.
The Post is right to question whether funding for low-income families is adequate under the program. We don’t dismiss the concern. By piecing together an annual allotment of $5,700 from an ESA with funds from a tax scholarship program, these families certainly would have sufficient funding for many private schools. However, the scholarship money is limited as is the existing supply of private schools.
The takeaway here is that current funding formulas are not etched in stone. The state can adjust them as it gains more experience with the program. It also is very reasonable to expect the private school options available to low-income families will grow as the ESAs attract more providers into the state.
As an example, consider the Cristo Rey network of high schools. Run by the Jesuits, Cristo Rey brings in revenue from corporate work study programs, giving students entry-level jobs and bringing down tuition costs to about $2,400, which is less than half the ESA amount.
This is the kind of innovative approach we believe ESAs will encourage.
The people of Nevada want such options. In an August poll of likely Nevadan voters, 72 percent supported educational choice. That support crossed class, party and racial lines.
The Post is concerned that extending choice to middle and upper income families will negatively impact lower income families. In fact, this approach only broadens the support for choice, which will broaden options and better protect the program from political and legal attack.
We applaud Nevada for its bold action, which now must be followed up with smart implementation. If this ESA program reaches its potential, all Nevada children will be better off and the rest of the nation will take notice.
Greg Brock is the Executive Director of the American Federation for Children, a leading national advocacy organization promoting school choice, with a specific focus on advocating for school vouchers, scholarship tax credit programs and Education Savings Accounts. Learn more at FederationforChildren.org.
Patricia Levesque is the CEO of the Foundation for Excellence in Education, an organization that is transforming education for the 21st century economy by working with lawmakers, policymakers, educators and parents to advance education reform across America. Learn more at ExcelinEd.org.