Frequently Asked Questions about Nevada’s Universal Private School Vouchers
In June 2015, the Nevada Legislature enacted the most expansive private school voucher program in the nation. The law, Senate Bill 302, requires the State Treasurer to transfer public education funds to private bank accounts – called “Education Savings Accounts,” or ESAs – for families to pay for private and religious school tuition, homeschooling expenses, private tutoring and other private education services. The only condition to qualify for an ESA voucher is that the child must attend a Nevada public school for 100 days. The voucher amount is based on the funding appropriated by the Legislature for the public school district. In this biennium (two-year) State budget cycle, the voucher amounts are $5100 per pupil for general education students and $5,700 per pupil for low-income children and children with disabilities.
As of August 20, 2015, over 2,000 parents had signed up for a voucher. Starting January 1, 2016, parents will be able to officially apply. Children who qualify could receive their vouchers as soon as April 1, 2016. Public school districts will see their education budgets reduced as students leave the public schools with a voucher starting the fourth quarter of the 2015-16 school year.
1.What will be the impact of Nevada’s new voucher program on public school budgets?
The Legislature had not commissioned any studies about the impact of the voucher program on public school budgets when it enacted the voucher law. The ESA law does not allocate new state monies for vouchers; instead, it requires the State Treasurer to transfer funding from public school budgets for each child that leaves the public school and qualifies for a voucher. Proponents of the law argue that the public schools will not suffer from the transfer of funding to private entities because the schools will have fewer children to educate.
This reasoning is seriously flawed:
- Nevada’s current level of public school funding is not based on what it actually costs to educate a child to meet State standards. Nevada continues to use an archaic funding formula – the Nevada Plan, developed in the 1960s, – when the state was predominantly rural and highly homogeneous. The Legislature itself has found that the Nevada Plan is woefully inadequate because it does not reflect the current educational needs of Nevada’s significant population of low-income, minority, immigrant, gifted, and special education children. The Nevada Plan formula is largely based on historical expenditures and is weighted in favor of the kinds of expenditures made by rural schools districts. No allowance is made for the additional costs of educating poor, immigrant, gifted or special education students. According to a February 2015 update of a 2006 education cost study commissioned by the Legislature, Nevada underfunds its public schools by over $1 billion per year.
Also, while enrollment declines will reduce some costs, other fixed costs – including professional development, maintaining buildings and buses, offering rigorous curriculum to meet “college ready by graduation” goals, etc. – must be provided and will continue to require sufficient funding.
- Vouchers will make public school budgets unstable and unpredictable. Public school budgets must now be adjusted on a quarterly basis, and, under the voucher program, children also may enroll and qualify for voucher payments quarterly. Public schools may see an influx of children who enroll in order to meet the 100-day requirement, but, within less than a year, those students will leave the school, reducing funding in the next quarter.
- With few restrictions on usage, vouchers will drain ever-increasing amounts of funding from public school budgets. Twenty thousand children currently attend private and religious schools, and an unknown number of children are homeschooled. These children may enroll in public schools to meet the 100-day requirement, or they could qualify simply by taking two or three courses offered by a charter school through long distance learning.
If 20,000 children qualify for vouchers, Nevada public school budgets will be reduced by at least $100 million annually. As more schools and educational services are offered in the new “private market” opened up by vouchers, even more funding will be diverted from the public schools. The voucher law has no limit on the number of children who could qualify or on the amount of education funding that can be taken from the public schools. Over time and very quickly, the voucher program will cause a substantial loss of funds necessary to operate Nevada’s already underfunded public schools.
In sum, ESAs will introduce instability and a loss of critical funds into an already underfunded public school system. Budgeting will no longer be for the entire school year, but instead will become a chaotic, quarter-to-quarter process, distracting administrators, principals and teacher from the most important business at hand: making sure all students are academically successful.
2. Who will benefit most from Nevada’s vouchers?
Nevada’s voucher program does not impose any household or family income limit on who can qualify for a voucher. Wealthy families – even millionaires – can qualify, as long as their children satisfy the 100day public school enrollment requirement. Children of struggling families, who cannot afford to pay the full cost of private school tuition above the voucher amount, will not take part in the program.
Many Nevada public schools are in inner city areas, and only a handful of private schools are located in these neighborhoods. There are just a few private schools in Clark County where a $5,100 or $5,700 voucher covers the full tuition in a private school. Almost all of Nevada’s private schools where tuition rates match voucher amounts have a required religious curriculum. It is clear that more affluent and wealthy families, who can already afford to send their children to private schools, will benefit the most by having vouchers subsidize or underwrite the cost of more expensive private and religious schooling.
At public hearings recently held by the State Treasurer, the most vocal supporters of vouchers have been parents of private school children. Virtually every parent who spoke at these hearings made clear their children already attend private and religious schools or are being homeschooled. Their main complaint is that, in order to qualify for a voucher, they will be “forced” to enroll their children in public school for 100 days. These parents urged the Treasurer to allow online courses to satisfy the 100-day enrollment requirement.
3. Will vouchers reduce the teachers, programs and other resources in public schools?
Nevada substantially underfunds its public schools by an estimated $1.5 billion. Studies commissioned by the Legislature document the underfunding of public education, especially for students who are poor, academically at-risk, or in need of English language instruction and special education services.
By triggering an outflow of funding, Nevada’s voucher program will reduce the availability of qualified teachers and support staff, increase class sizes, and make it even more difficult to address the state’s chronic teacher shortage. Funding will also be reduced for English language instruction, gifted and talented programs, and support for at-risk students, drop-out prevention, and special education for students with disabilities. Nevada already has among the lowest student academic performance of any state. Vouchers will only make it more difficult to give all students the opportunity for school success that they deserve and that Nevada so urgently needs.
4. Will vouchers increase student segregation and isolation?
Private schools that accept vouchers are not open to all, unlike public schools. Private and religious schools are not required to accept every student. They may refuse to educate children based on language ability, low-economic status, academic ability, disability, or other factors. If charter schools are any indication, private schools accepting vouchers will serve disproportionally fewer students with disabilities, students in poverty and students learning English than public schools in the same communities.
Because the voucher amounts do not cover the full cost of most private or religious schools, only those families that can afford the remaining costs of full tuition, fees, books, uniforms, and transportation will benefit. As more affluent families qualify for vouchers and take their children out of the public schools, those schools will experience an increase in the concentration of students who are poor, immigrant, homeless and with disabilities. In this way, vouchers will foster more isolation and segregation of public school students by race, socio-economic status, disability, language and other special needs factors. Research convincingly shows that student isolation and segregation contribute to inadequate educational resources, opportunities and outcomes.
5. Will voucher schools be held to the same standards as public schools?
Public schools, including charter schools, must meet a range of State education standards and performance goals, as well as fiscal accountability measures designed to ensure effective and efficient use of all public school funds. The voucher law does not require private and religious schools, online schooling or other private services paid through vouchers to comply with the same standards and accountability measures. The voucher law expressly exempts private schools and entities paid through vouchers from meeting the rigorous education content, assessment, teacher effectiveness and other requirements imposed by the Legislature to ensure uniformity and quality in the public schools. For example, students in voucher-funded private schools and homeschooled students are not required to take the same exams or follow the same standards as public school students. Teachers do not have to be certified, and parents have no protection from underperforming or non-performing private schools and entities.
The voucher law also does not protect children from discrimination based on race, gender, disability, sexual orientation, and gender identity or expression. Private schools, entities and providers accepting voucher funds are exempt from adhering to these basic protections, despite receiving public funds. Private schools, in practice, can select or remove students as they choose. Private schools are not obligated to meet the special learning needs of any students and are free to discipline and expel students as they see fit, with no legal recourse for families.