A Nevada senator who sought to bring school choice to his state scored a victory after lawmakers passed and the governor signed the most far-reaching program in the country this week.
Nevada became the fifth state to offer educational savings accounts (ESAs), but the state went further than other states by making it a universal program open to all public school students. The other four states offering ESAs are Arizona, Florida, Mississippi, and Tennessee.
SB 302 was authored and sponsored by state Sen. Scott Hammond (R.), who told the Washington Free Beacon the program was what many in the state wanted. Hammond said after knocking on doors in two elections he heard from voters that they wanted "more accountability" and "competition" in the school districts.
"A lot of people at the doors said they wanted a school choice program," Hammond said.
Hammond studied ESAs and attended a seminar by the Friedman Foundation, a strong proponent of school choice. He said he then realized ESAs were what he wanted to offer to families in Nevada.
"The fact that it’s universal is so different from Arizona and Florida," Hammond said. He said it was important to make the program universal because "that’s what drives competition and makes people better. Competition makes everything better."
Hammond said the law will help children in all socioeconomic groups.
"My biggest drive was to end generational poverty that exists for those kids who can’t just move to another area for a better school." Nevada’s new ESA program will allow students to go to a school that fits them, according to Hammond, who is a public school teacher by trade. He said there are multiple levels of learners including low-level, high-level learners. Other students do well with lectures. Under the current program, one teacher currently teaches them all.
Hammond said with this new law, schools can be structured for a specific learner.
"This puts the choice in the parents’ hands," said Hammond, who added that some of the bill’s detractors included Assembly Democrats who said, "parents can’t make these decisions" and "how can we allow parents to make that choice."
Other detractors included the Nevada State Education Association, which posted a link to a Washington Post story on its Facebook page Thursday. The president of the National Education Association, Lily Eskelsen Garcia, was quoted in the story and said, "I am terrified that there are more and more state legislators and state governors who have bought into this very dangerous idea that school is a commodity."
Under the ESA, students will be given a portion of their share of state education funding to spend to customize their educations. The funds can be used on private school tuition, textbooks, tutoring, distance education tuition, and online curriculum, among other expenses. Funds can also be saved from year to year so that when a student graduates high school, they can use their funds for college tuition.
All Nevada public school students will be eligible for the accounts, worth approximately $5,000 per school year. Students with special needs and students from low-income families will receive 100 percent of their share of state funding, while all other students will receive 90 percent.
The Friedman Foundation, the Nevada Public Research Institute, and the Foundation for Excellence in Education together worked to craft the bill.
"The Nevada Education Savings Account law is an astounding victory in the move toward educational freedom," said Robert Enlow, president and CEO of the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice, in an email.
"This law levels the playing field between public, private, and charter schools as dollars now follow all Nevada children," Enlow said. "Now, the focus will be on educating children and what's best for their individual needs."
Enlow said since students won't be forced to attend just one school—assigned to them by their address—public schools will have to compete for their customers and will have to find creative ways to improve. He added he expected to see the market change as new, innovative schools open their doors to deliver children a host of education choices from online opportunities to schools across the private spectrum.
"Nevada’s education savings accounts give every child in the state the chance at a great education. All children are unique, and for students that have struggled to succeed at a local school, the accounts provide the opportunity for them to pursue a bright future," Jonathan Butcher, education director at the Goldwater Institute, said in an email. Goldwater is another strong proponent of school choice.
Lawmakers in Nevada are now beginning to realize the implications of the historic legislation and what it means for schoolchildren’s futures.
"On the last day of the session, one colleague said to me, ‘It’s just now hitting me just how big this bill really is,’" Hammond said.
"Yes, it really is," Hammond replied to him.