COMMENTARY: Private school vouchers would drain money away from Clark County’s public schools, and largely benefit Nevada’s richest students and families.

As we approach the 2017 Legislature, I hope we can get one fact clear: Private school vouchers drain money away from public schools, and they largely benefit our state’s richest students and families.

One untrue argument put out by voucher supporters is that vouchers actually increase funding to public school districts. In a recent column, “Democrats oppose plan to increase per-pupil funding,” the Review-Journal’s Victor Joecks argues that public school districts get to keep some state and local funding when students go to private schools.

Here’s why that argument doesn’t hold water:
* School districts have fixed costs. As vouchers take students and money out of public school systems, the cost of educating the remaining students — providing teachers, maintaining buildings, offering rigorous curriculum — must still be covered. More vouchers means fewer teachers, larger class sizes, and cuts to gifted and talented programs, art and music classes and other essential resources.
* Vouchers also create instability in budgets because districts don’t know how much of their budget will be removed from year to year — and therefore how many teachers and staff to hire, whether to fix buildings in disrepair, etc. The current mechanism does not allow school districts to effect cost savings.
* Mr. Joecks argued that districts could keep up to $4,600 of state and local funds, even if a student goes to a private school. I have consulted with many education funding experts, and we can’t figure out where he gets this number. Perhaps he is counting federal money that is allocated for students, but both the state and federal government fund only students who are actually enrolled in public schools.

It’s troubling to see the misinformation distributed by voucher supporters.

Another example is a recent poll conducted by an arm of the Clark County Education Association (CCEA), the local teachers union that now says it may be willing to accept vouchers in pursuit of its larger legislative agenda. In a recent Review-Journal article, the association’s executive director claimed the majority of Nevadans support Education Savings Accounts, the mechanism set up during the 2015 Legislature to create vouchers.

Here’s how the CCEA’s poll worded the question: “Do you support Education Savings Accounts, which give parents $5,000 to spend on their child’s education in any way they want?” So, yes, the majority of people would like to get $5,000 for their child’s education. Wouldn’t you? The poll fails to mention that a parent must withdraw their child from public schools.

Moreover, vouchers would strip the Clark County School District of an estimated $40 million a year in funding. So vouchers negatively impact public education. And the private schools, which would benefit, are not beholden to any accountability measures.

Perhaps our biggest concern is that vouchers largely will benefit students who already have access to high-quality education, but school vouchers aren’t that helpful to low-income families. The $5,000 voucher would cover tuition at only seven private schools in Clark County. Almost all are parochial schools, and only one is located in a working-class neighborhood.

An analysis from Educate Nevada Now found that 80 percent of parents who “pre-applied” for the Education Savings Account program live in Nevada’s most affluent ZIP codes, where their children can attend almost all four- and five-star public schools, plus numerous excellent charter schools.

The Nevada Supreme Court has already struck down Nevada’s failed voucher plan, and we applaud Democratic leaders who have said they won’t spend precious time in the 2017 Legislature trying to find a fix for a bad idea.

Here’s one thing most of us can agree on: Choice can and should be part of how Nevada moves education forward. These should be quality choices in every instance.

More than 80,000 children in Clark County need better choices because they are locked into one- or two-star neighborhood schools where they have less chance to graduate from high school.

Nevada has already made investments in strategic programs such as Zoom and Victory Schools, and the Read by Three program that ensures students can read by the end of third grade. These initiatives have started to show promise.

Let’s build on that momentum by focusing efforts in 2017 on creating a weighted school funding formula that provides more funds for students who cost more to educate, such as special education students and English language learners. And let’s tie that formula with accountability measures to ensure our taxpayer dollars are well spent.

All of our children should have the choice to attend a quality school. Let’s not distract ourselves with political issues such as vouchers that would benefit a tiny, yet outspoken, segment of our families.

Sylvia Lazos is the policy director of Educate Nevada Now, powered by The Rogers Foundation.

This article originally appeared in the Las Vegas Review-Journal on January 14, 2017 and can be found here.