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Nevada leaps forward nationally with education savings accounts

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by Glenn Cook
Las Vegas Review-Journal
June 7, 2015

Nevada as a trailblazer in education? Underachieving, Third-World Nevada setting a new national standard in school policy that other states are destined to follow?

Believe it. And it never, ever would have happened if a Republican Legislature and governor weren’t in power.

The sweeping education reform agenda passed by Nevada lawmakers and signed by Gov. Brian Sandoval included a groundbreaking school choice provision: nearly universal education savings accounts, or ESAs. Starting next year, parents will be able to withdraw their children from public school, gain control of the tax revenue that funded their enrollment, and spend that money on an educational program that’s best suited for them. ESAs are much better and more flexible than school vouchers for two reasons.

“First, the ESAs move from school choice to educational choice. Not all learning takes place in a classroom. By changing the education funding mechanism to reflect that reality, Nevada will allow parents to better tailor their children’s education to meet their unique learning needs,” said Jason Bedrick, policy analyst for the Cato Institute’s Center for Educational Freedom.

“Second, whereas the entire amount of the voucher had to be spent in one place at one time, the ESA funds can be spent on multiple educational products and services, and families can save unspent funds for the future. … Overnight, Nevada has become the most interesting state for education reform.”

ESAs exist in Arizona, Florida, Tennessee and Mississippi, but they place restrictions on eligibility. Across the country, parents only gain the power of choice based on their income or whether their child’s school performs poorly. Nevada’s ESA law only requires that students first be enrolled in public school to take advantage.

“By not setting conditions on the types of families able to take advantage of this program, Nevada leaders are recognizing that all parents deserve fundamental power over their children’s education, regardless of their zip code or life circumstances,” said Center for Education Reform President Kara Kerwin.

How big a deal are Nevada’s ESAs? Just read the reaction of Lily Eskelsen García, president of the National Education Association, the union for more than 3 million teachers. “I am terrified that there are more and more state legislators and state governors who have bought into this very dangerous idea that school is a commodity,” she told The Washington Post. “It’s not profitable for very good private schools to allow in children who are disabled, kids who don’t speak English, kids whose parents are struggling to put food on the table.”

Oh, please. ESAs will trigger private-sector investment in education and the creation of highly specialized private schools. As more parents take advantage of ESAs, more private schools will open to meet demand. And Bedrick points out that because parents have an incentive to save their ESA dollars, schools will have to keep tuition costs down. What a concept: competition.

“The Nobel economist Milton Friedman, the father of school choice, believed that with such far-reaching school choice, public schools would be forced to compete to retain their customers — parents and students. Studies are showing benefit to public school students with just limited school choice programs in other states. Imagine how much change will come if any child can leave for another educational setting,” said Robert Enlow, president and CEO of the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice.

“Going forward, the focus will be on matching children to schools based on their unique needs, not their address.

“We hope the rest of the nation is taking notes. We are about to see how children flourish when monopolies disappear. This is what educational freedom is all about.”

The bill’s chief sponsor was Sen. Scott Hammond, R-Las Vegas, a longtime Clark County School District teacher who is taking a job with a charter school. If Democrats controlled even one chamber of the Legislature, ESAs would not have passed. There is no bargain Democrats would have accepted, no policy trade-off, that would have compelled them to support such broad school choice — not even a doubling of taxes.

Anyone who thinks Sandoval’s national political prospects were ruined by his support of record tax increases is about to be proved wrong. Sandoval is now a school choice superstar. And so is Nevada.