In the coming months, the Nevada legislature will decide if they want to fund Education Savings Accounts. Essentially Nevada’s version of a voucher program, ESAs would provide about $5,000 in public funds for families to send their kids to private school. When it was passed during the 2015 legislative session, it was hailed as a victory by Nevada conservatives who felt that the program would go a long way to fix what is ostensibly a broken public education system.
Everything was put on ice last year after a Nevada judge issued an injunction in January. A few months later, the Nevada Supreme court weighed in against the ESA, finding the concept valid, but the funding formula — which used state money already allotted for public schools — unconstitutional.
This is ultimately for the better. Nevada’s public school system is routinely ranked among the bottom in the nation among most national surveys, and we on the editorial board are unconvinced that ESAs will solve the problem. Using public money to subsidize private schools — many of which are religious schools — cannot be the way to fix a cash-starved school system.
Gov. Brian Sandoval’s proposed budget for the next two years totals about $8.1 billion, roughly 11 percent larger than the last budget passed in 2015. Within that budget is about $60 million for private school vouchers, and it’s money that may be unable to solve the state’s school crisis.
First, there’s the matter that this move doesn’t benefit students who need the help most. There are multiple states across the U.S. that utilize some form of school voucher programs and there isn’t evidence that any of these programs help poor students.
The National Education Association, the nation’s largest teachers union, has tracked voucher programs since their emergence in the 1990s. They found that the programs don’t improve school choice, don’t increase student achievement, and often cost states more than if they funded public schools. And while the NEA isn’t exactly a neutral organization in this fight, its numbers are nothing to sneeze at.
Second, there’s the matter that state money is needed in areas other than ESAs, and it’s needed urgently.
For instance, take the issue of school district break-ups and weighted funding. The Clark County School District, the fifth-largest district in the nation, is currently knee-deep in the herculean process of reorganization (a process mandated by the legislature two years ago). What the deal doesn’t include is a fix to the way weighted funding works.
Weighted funding is simply the idea that some students, like special needs students, need (and therefore receive) more state funding than the average student. Under the 2015 reorganization rules, that state money moves with students through the system. The problem here is that weighted funding change is partially unfunded by the state, leaving a roughly $350 million hole that will be felt hardest by the highest performing schools. That’s according to Sylvia Lazos, of the group Educate Nevada Now, who was interviewed on the subject last week on KNPR’s “State of Nevada.”
Ultimately, Republicans will fight for vouchers because it’s the ideological thing to do, and Democrats will fight back for the same reason. In a way, it’s already begun as senate Republicans refuse to bargain over the budget unless the Dems include ESA funding. At the end of the day though, the legislature must side with reason, and side against vouchers.