Blog: The Educated Reporter

Ten Questions to Ask on Nevada’s New School Choice Law

The Nevada Legislative Building in Carson City. The Silver State's newly approved school voucher law is attracting national attention for its breadth and depth. (Flickr/Ken Lund)

Nevada this week drew national attention after Republican Gov. Brian Sandoval signed legislation creating a universal school choice program that appears to be unprecedented in scope.

It’s what’s known as an “education savings account” program, though it’s similar in some respects to voucher initiatives. Or, as one analyst said, it’s akin to “a voucher on steroids.”

Most Nevada families would be eligible to spend about $5,000 per child each year (slightly more for some) of state dollars on private school tuition or a variety of other educational expenses. Typically, voucher and ESA programs are focused on a particular population, such as students with disabilities or low-income families. (For details and analysis, check out these stories from The Washington Post, Education Week, and the Reno Gazette-Journal.)

Early coverage has focused — understandably — on what the legislation entails, how it came about, and the potential national implications. But if the new Nevada law withstands an expected legal challenge, the actual implementation raises a whole host of important questions. And while some of these questions might be unique to Nevada, others apply in many respects to school choice program across the nation.

At the Education Writers Association, we’ve recently been paying closer attention to covering school choice initiatives on the ground, given the rapid growth in this sector, from charter schools to vouchers, tuition tax credits and yes, education-savings accounts. How are they working? Are the choices meaningful, and equally accessible to all — especially low-income and minority families? Are they achieving the stated goals? Ultimately, are they good or bad for families and students?

School choice advocate Neerav Kingsland wrote Thursday in a blog post that Nevada education leaders need to “sweat implementation” and “protect against worst-case scenarios.” He also suggests it may end up being “a race between educators and charlatans.”  

At EWA’s recent national seminar in Chicago, we highlighted school choice in several panels, including one (featured in our Covering School Choice on a Deadline blog post) of four smart journalists discussing how they are covering the issue in their communities. In February, we hosted a daylong seminar on charters and choice.

So, drawing on the expertise of the journalists, researchers, educators, and advocates at our recent events, here are 10 questions to consider as this new Nevada program gets under way:

1. Who is participating? Is it mostly middle-income or more affluent families, or will this program really work for children from disadvantaged backgrounds? With most families eligible for only about $5,000, those who wish to use the money to attend a private school may well have to kick in some of their own cash, not to mention transportation to get there. Many private schools have selective admissions, so will low-achieving students even be welcome? Also, will this end up being mostly used by families in the Las Vegas and Reno metropolitan areas? What about students in rural areas?

2. What is the quality of the providers? Will most private schools in Nevada participate? Will a new crop of schools be created in response to the law, as we’ve seen recently in places such as Florida and Milwaukee? What about tutoring providers that step forward, both existing and new, to capitalize on the state dollars? Will the providers be evaluated, and if so, by what standards or metrics? Finally, will more families home-school their children with the resources? Will they be equipped to do this successfully?

3. What assistance, if any, will the state and others provide to help families navigate the choice landscape? The law requires participating students to take a standardized test each year. But t it’s not clear what exactly the state will do with that data. Many school choice advocates have begun to conclude that choice alone is not enough, that families need better information, and more help, to make smart choices in schools. And they also need assistance to overcome barriers like transportation.

4. How will families use the money? Is it mostly for private-school tuition or other educational expenses allowed under the Nevada law (textbooks, tutoring, distance learning, special instruction or services for students with disabilities, for example)? Which schools will attract the most students, or turn them away due to space constraints or lack of interest in participating in the state-funded program? Which tutoring providers or online offerings will be the most popular?

5. Is the state money enough for good educational options? Tuition at The Meadows School, one of Las Vegas’ premier private schools, runs about $24,000 per year. Even parochial school tuition is likely above the amount available under the new law. (For low-income families and students with disabilities, the maximum amount is $5,700. For all others, it’s about $5,100.)

6. What, if any, research is planned (and will the state pay for) to understand how the program is working? Most people would probably agree that for an ambitious program of this nature, it’s critical to carefully study the effects and outcomes, academic and otherwise.

7. What financial and academic implications does the program have for local public schools? Critics of the Nevada law worry that the initiative could undermine public schooling, if a lot of families — especially those of greater financial means — start to abandon public schools en masse. What effects will this have on schools in particular communities?

8. To what extent will the state, over time, take steps to ensure accountability for the quality of offerings AND protect students and families from bad actors and inequitable practices? Yes, this is an age of accountability in education. This issue has become of greater concern across both charter and voucher initiatives lately. Will academically poor schools and programs be allowed to continue getting the state dollars over time? What about the potential for mismanagement, cronyism, and corruption? How will the state protect families and prevent the inappropriate use of state funds? It appears there’s little in the way of accountability in the state law beyond the requirement that test results be reported to the state. (The Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice, which worked aggressively to support the Nevada legislation, offers details on the program, including the regulation of providers.)

9. Will students with disabilities be treated fairly under the program? Charter schools have increasingly faced scrutiny for their practices when it comes to students with disabilities, given their under-representation in this sector of public schools. In some cities, such as Denver and the District of Columbia, education leaders are taking more assertive steps to ensure charters do right by such students (such as a “mystery shopper” program in the nation’s capital to ensure the schools are not inappropriately turning away applicants with disabilities). At the same time, they’re taking steps to help charters better serve such students.

10. What will be the experience of children and families who participate? Perhaps above all, this is where the power of the press can really come into play. Enterprising reporters can follow families along as they navigate the process, from getting initial information to enrolling their children in a school or program and beyond. Are students welcomed with open arms by high-quality schools? Are some subtly, or not so subtly, discouraged from attending particular schools? Is transportation a barrier to good choices? What is the school experience like over time? How does it compare with their prior school?

This list of questions is by no means comprehensive. But it’s a good starting point for enterprising journalists and others who want to take stock of the new program in Nevada, as well other choice initiatives in their own states and communities.