There are plenty of issues worth debating about private school choice programs. But in a recent article on Nevada’s education savings account program, The Guardian’s U.S. edition highlighted one that seldom stands up to scrutiny, especially in fast-growing Sun Belt states: The idea that they hurt public school finances.
“It’s a drain of public education funds,” said Sylvia Lazos of Educate Nevada Now, an organization coordinating ESA opposition. “I call it a reverse Robin Hood. We would be using public dollars to encourage our more affluent and mobile parents to move to private schools. This will sharpen the [class] divide and make it even more difficult for those schools that are struggling.”
The trouble with the first part of her critique is that, rather than hurting public education in Nevada, the ESA program could help their bottom lines.
Nevada is adding students faster than it can build new schools to house them. By 2018, its largest school district, Clark County, plans to build a dozen new elementary schools in the area around Las Vegas, as part of a 10-year, $4 billion capital program. By encouraging families to teach their children at home, or enroll them in private schools, ESAs could help absorb this growth and spare taxpayers greater expense. They would also save public schools operating costs, since students would receive less than $6,000 each, a fraction of what the state would spend annually to educate the same students in public schools.
But the second part of Lazos’ critique raises a real issue. The near-universal program may wind up drawing relatively well-to-do families into private schools and home education programs with a little more than $5,100 in financial assistance. If Nevada’s program survives a pending legal challenge, and winds up mostly benefiting students who are already better off, it would raise a question first broached by social justice-oriented school choice advocates like Howard Fuller, and later explored more deeply here. Yes, it would save taxpayers money. No, it wouldn’t hurt public schools. But can it help the students who need help the most?