Opinion Editorial By Stavan Corbett
The State Treasurer’s Office is implementing Education Savings Accounts (ESA), and it is clear this program will cause serious harm to the 450,000 children attending Nevada’s district and charter schools. The ESA law, rushed through the Legislature in early June, directs the State Treasurer to transfer public school funding to an ESA for any student who leaves a public school after a minimum enrollment period of 100 days. Those funds can then be used to pay for private and religious school tuition or an unlimited array of educational or educationally related services, fees or other expenses provided by non-profit or business “entities.”
Parents whose children already attend private or religious schools dominated a recent hearing held by State Treasurer Dan Schwartz to gather input on ESAs. Their chief complaint is that they have to enroll their children in a public school for 100 days to qualify for ESA funds. These parents demanded the Treasurer allow them to obtain public funding to use for their child’s private school tuition without having to enroll their child in a public school at all.
The hearing brought into focus the stark impact ESAs will have on public schools and on how taxpayer dollars are used for education. Gaming the system, taking funding from Nevada’s resource-starved public schools, the lack of accountability on where and how ESA money is spent – all that and more was on full public display.
Here are some of the ways ESAs will harm, not benefit, our state’s public schools and students:
First, ESAs will take away essential resources from Nevada’s already underfunded public school system. Our state ranks 40th in the nation in the average amount spent on public education, with a funding level of $8,349 per pupil, well below the national average of $11,110 per pupil. We also have the most unequal funding formula in the nation, shortchanging schools serving high numbers of low-income students, English language learners and students with disabilities.
Every ESA diverts up to $5,700 per student from school district budgets. As the numbers of ESAs grow, there will be less money and fewer resources for the children who attend public schools, many of whom are in need of extra support. ESAs will siphon off funds needed to keep schools safe, maintain reasonable class sizes, and pay for effective teachers, rigorous curricula, support staff and other programs required for academic success.
Second, ESAs do not cover all private and religious school costs, so families able to afford full tuition, fees, books, uniforms, and transportation costs will benefit from the program. ESA’s are designed to subsidize the cost of private schooling for more affluent households. Disadvantaged students will remain in underfunded public schools, even more segregated by race, socioeconomic status and disability.
Third, the ESA law also does not require private and religious schools to accept every student. Participating entities are free to discriminate on the basis of native language, economic status, academic ability, disability or other factors. If Nevada charter schools are any indication, students with disabilities, at-risk students and those learning English will see little or no benefit from ESAs.
Finally, private schools and other entities accepting public funds through ESAs are not obligated to meet the rigorous academic standards and accountability goals that are the hallmarks of our “uniform” public school system, mandated by the Nevada Constitution. Students in private and religious schools are not required to take the same standardized exams as their public school peers; teachers in these schools do not have to be certified; and parents have no protection under the law from underperforming or non-performing private schools.
All Nevada school children are entitled to an excellent education, one that prepares them for college and career. By diverting sorely needed funding from our public schools, with no accountability for the use of those funds, ESAs are nothing more than a prescription for educational failure.
Stavan Corbett is Outreach Coordinator for Educate Nevada Now, 702.657.3114