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Education Savings Accounts: Can They Work In Nevada?

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Are education savings accounts the right way to provide school choice to Nevada students?

We got a first look last week at who is taking advantage of the new Education Savings Accounts. The program is aimed at low-income students at under-performing schools.

The state wants to give those kids a choice in schools, including private schools. To do that, the state is giving them $5,700, which is equal to the per-pupil spending, to help them pay for tuition.

So, where are families coming from? Well, most of them come from Zip codes where the median income is above $70,000 a year. Of the 10 Zip codes with the most students, only one of them has a median income of less than $60,000.

Sylvia Lazos is the policy director for Educate Nevada Now, which is one of two parties suing the state over the accounts.

She said she is not surprised that most of the students taking advantage of the law are affluent.

"When you looked at who was attending the public hearings held by Secretary Schwartz that room was really filled with affluent parents who felt that the voucher program was not sufficiently expansive and that they were entitled to either $5,100 or $5,700 to subsidize their private school educations," Lazos said.

Support comes from

According to Lazos, parents who are more educated will be more informed about the system and feel more empowered to take advantage of the savings accounts. In addition to that, parents who are more educated often have a higher income. 

However, ESA proponents argue that since the first state payments don’t come out till February, the only people right now who can take advantage of ESAs are people who can afford to be reimbursed. They say that lower income families will follow, if we give it time.

Coco Llenas works for Nevada School Choice Partnership an organization that is working to sign people up for the education accounts.

She told KNPR's State of Nevada that while reforms to Nevada's education system are underway those changes could take years and parents in low-income areas need help now.

"Our families that are low-income families are stuck in situations where they need solutions now," she said, "If they have solutions right now at their finger tips, they should take them."

She also believes that allowing people to choose will create more competition and more competition will make public and private schools better.

According to Llenas, the families she has worked with are extremely positive about the idea of private school for their children, but they are worried that two lawsuits will stop the law from being implemented.

Lazos' group is behind one of those lawsuits. They say the law should be stopped because it is against the state constitution, which says the Legislature should provide sufficient funds for a public school system to benefit everyone.

"So, the idea in our original constitution is the state should provide common schools for common people so the citizenry as a whole can be lifted up from poverty," Lazos said.

Educate Nevada Now has filed an injunction that would stop the ESA program.  

Lazos also said taking away money from a school district the size of the Clark County School District on a quarterly basis, like the law allows, would cause chaos and "totally destabilize the education system" that is just now getting out of a recession.

Plus, she questions whether students in lower income neighborhoods in Las Vegas could really access private schools because most of them are in more affluent neighborhoods. She believes transportation would be an added expense for a lot of families. And, she points out that the $5,700 students would be getting will only pay for a fraction of the tuitition at most private schools.

One of the private schools that does not fit into that category is the Mountain View Christian School on Bonanza Road.

The school superintendent Dr. Crystal Van Kampen McClanahan told KNPR's State of Nevada that elementary students at her school pay about $6,000 in tuition, $7,000 for middle school and about $8,000 for high school.

She believes the education savings accounts are constitutional.

 "We believe it's constitutional because parents are going to have a choice and especially in my area, an area that is fairly low income," Van Kampen McClanahan said.

She believes a quality education is a game changer for kids and this law allows kids who may not have access to a quality education get it.

Seth Rau former director of Nevada Succeeds said he understands why parents want another choice.

"I understand why parents are looking at a private school when the school down the street has 19 teacher vacancies," Rau said.

However, Rau believes charter schools and magnet schools are constitutional solutions for many parents. 

Llenas said many parents just don't know about the choices and more should be done to inform them.

"My agenda when I talk to parents is not having them drop public schools but finding what choice is right for them," she said. She said parents should find the program that is the right fit for them and their child.

Lazos also supports parent choice. In fact, her kids are in private school, but doesn't believe everyone should pay for it.

"What we're saying is that right to choice should not be subsidized at the cost of a public education school system," she said. 

Guests

Sylvia Lazos, policy director, Educate Nevada Now; Seth Rau, former director, Nevada Succeeds; Coco Llenas, Nevada School Choice Partnerships; Dr. Crystal Van Kampen McClanahan, superintendent, Mountain View Christian School 

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