Las Vegas, NV – Proponents of the new “education savings account” (ESA) law, enacted in June by the Nevada Legislature, are touting ESAs as beneficial for public school children. On closer inspection, it is clear that ESA’s, the transfer of potentially large amounts of public funding to pay for tuition at private and religious schools and other entities, poses a grave threat to the 450,000 children enrolled in Nevada public schools.
The new law requires the State Treasurer to transfer public school funding to an ESA for any student who leaves Nevada’s public schools. These transferred public funds are similar to a “voucher” that can be used to pay for all or part of private or religious school tuition. But the Nevada ESA law goes beyond private school vouchers, allowing the public funds deposited into an ESA to pay for an unlimited array of services, fees and other expenses provided by any for-profit or non-profit “participating entity.”
The ESA law is intended and designed to divert millions of taxpayer dollars from public schools to pay for private and religious schooling. Moreover, it could support an unlimited variety of other services, with little or no accountability for education outcomes and the use of those dollars.
ESAs will impact Nevada’s public school children in three critical ways:
Reducing public school funding and resources,
Increasing student segregation and isolation in public schools,
Limited or no accountability for the private schools and other entities accepting ESA funds.
The ESA law requires the “statewide average basic support per pupil” — $5,100 per student and $5,710 for low-income, and students with disabilities — be deposited into each ESA from local district budgets, a process that will divert, over time, substantial resources from the public schools. Studies have shown that Nevada substantially underfunds K-12 public education. For example, calculations by the Guinn Center show that Nevada K-12 funding is over $3,000 per pupil, or $1.5 billion, below the amount determined adequate by a 2015 education cost study. A recent ENN analysis shows that, even after the Legislature increased funding in the biennium budget, most Nevada school districts, including Clark County, are once again facing shortfalls in their operating budgets for the 2015-16 school year.
ESAs will trigger an outflow of funds from already inadequate school district budgets, beginning in the 2015-16 school year. This loss of funding to ESAs will further impede districts’ ability to provide sufficient qualified teachers, reasonable class size, English language instruction, and gifted and talented programs. Furthermore, services for students academically at-risk and special education, will undermine the opportunity for public school students to achieve and graduate ready for college or the workforce.
As children leave public schools with ESA funds, some of the costs to educate those students, will leave with them. But, ESAs will cause a deficit for the local district, given the fixed costs of operating the school system for all children. As ESAs take funds out of the school system, the cost of educating the remaining students – e.g., providing teachers, maintaining buildings, offering rigorous curriculum – must still be covered by the district. As more ESAs are established, the budget deficits in the districts will increase, resulting in fewer teachers, larger class sizes, and cuts to gifted and talented, art and music, and other essential resources.
ESAs also create instability in district and school budgets. Districts will not know how many students will exit and how much money will be taken out of the budget during the school year. This unpredictability will make it difficult to manage public school budgets, as local administrators won’t know how many teachers and staff to hire, whether to fix buildings in disrepair, or how to allocate funds to provide sufficient resources to schools throughout the school year. It is also difficult for districts to increase or lower the teacher workforce during the school year, as hiring is done in the spring and summer before the start of the school year. Teacher vacancies and reliance on unqualified substitutes – already a major problem – could rise, impeding the recruitment and retention of effective teachers.
Student Isolation and Segregation
ESAs, by design, will increase segregation of students by disability, economic status, and other factors. The ESA law does not require the private and religious schools and other entities accepting ESA funds to educate students with special needs, does not prohibit discrimination, and does not ban selective admissions practices, such as pre-testing. Similar to the current record of Nevada charter schools, ESA schools will serve disproportionately fewer students with disabilities, students in poverty, and students learning English, than many public schools serving the same communities and neighborhoods.
Because the ESA per student amount does not cover the full cost of tuition at private and religious schools, families must have the personal means to cover any remaining tuition. This will also include the cost of fees, uniforms, books, transportation and other expenses associated with private and religious schooling.
The ESA law has no limit on the income of households that can obtain ESA funds. There is only a handful of private schools in Nevada with tuition low enough to be covered by $5,100 or $5,710, the annual ESA amount. ESAs are designed to be a “subsidy” by more affluent families who can already afford to send their children to selective private and religious schools. Conversely, ESAs are insufficient for students from low-income families, and those who need more costly English language instruction or special education services. At-risk students will stay in the public schools, therefore, increasing the segregation of students based on race, socio-economic status, disability, English language proficiency, and other factors in those schools.
The ESA law is vague, allowing ESA funds to pay for tuition, services, fees and other expenses, not just to private schools, but to any “participating entity,” including for-profit businesses. ESAs can be used not only for private or religious schools, but also online education, a tutor or tutoring facility, or, as one lawmaker testified, reimbursement for home schooling. The law also allows ESAs to buy textbooks and curriculum, pay for transportation, and even to reimburse financial institutions to manage the voucher “savings account” itself. Any ESA funds not spent on K-12 can be reserved for post-secondary tuition or fees.
In enacting this law, the Legislature cites no evidence that private and religious schools, online schooling – or the unlimited array of services offered by for-profit and non-profit providers – paid for by ESA funds, will produce better education outcomes for Nevada’s public school children.
The ESA law has virtually none of the accountability measures imposed by the Legislature on public schools. The law requires student tests in math and English language arts, but the tests can be any “norm-referenced achievement exams.” They need not be comparable to Nevada public school tests. There is no requirement that private school teachers be qualified or offer a curriculum based on Nevada common core standards. The law provides no way to know whether students are achieving sufficient outcomes, and there is no protection for parents and students from being victimized by low-performing, under-performing and non-performing schools or other “participating entities.”
The ESA law has no meaningful mechanism for state oversight or review, let alone the type of rigorous fiscal and education standards public schools must adhere to. For example, there is no mechanism for investigating and closing schools or sanctioning “participating entities” that fail to properly educate students.
Unlike Nevada public schools, the private and religious schools accepting ESA funds are not prohibited from discriminating based on race, gender or disability. Although they will receive funds appropriated by the Legislature for public education, the private institutions, businesses and other organizations that participate in the ESA program are exempt from the most basic protections that prevent discrimination of disadvantaged and vulnerable student populations.
Finally, the private for-profit or non-profit education providers that accept ESA funds can use their admissions rules, including competitive pretesting, transcript evaluation and letters of recommendation. These schools and entities are free to select students based on who they decide fit their religious or secular mission, culture and program. In contrast, Nevada public schools have a constitutional duty to educate all children, including those with disabilities and other special needs, and those children whom private and religious schools choose not to admit or decide to remove from school.
ESAs Harm Public Schools and Students
ESAs, by design, will weaken Nevada’s public education system and undermine the efforts of public schools teachers, administrators and parents to improve outcomes for all students, including at-risk children. Over half of Nevada public school students are economically disadvantaged. Nevada has the largest percentage of English language learner students in the nation. ESAs will further concentrate and isolate those students in the public schools while taking away critical resources necessary for a quality education.
ESAs are a serious setback for Nevada public schools and students. ESAs will erode already inadequate funding and budgets, reduce essential education resources, widen achievement gaps and increase segregation. Most important, ESAs will impede progress in ensuring that all students have a meaningful opportunity for a sound basic education as guaranteed by the Nevada Constitution.
For more information contact: Stavan Corbett, Director of Outreach at 702.657.3114