Nevada has been the talk of education policy circles since it passed the country’s first universal education savings account program earlier this year.
Like similar programs recently created in Florida, Arizona and elsewhere, it’s considered part the next wave of parental school choice programs. But Nevada’s program raises a new set of questions. If every student is eligible, can the program work for low-income kids?
Seth Rau is the policy director for Nevada Succeeds, a business-backed education reform group, and he’s looking at that question as state officials hammer out rules that will govern first-of-its kind school choice program.
We recently talked with him about making the program more equitable, the politics of school choice, and the proper way to pronounce “Nevada.”
Rau, whose on-the-ground insights and bold analogies recently won wonky recognition from the Thomas B. Fordham Institute and its audience, says at first, the program is likely to help subsidize private-school tuition. That in itself could have merit in a state where the population is growing faster than schools can be built. But the real promise of the program may lie a few years down the road, when new, specialized providers start to emerge.
These aren’t conventional vouchers. They’re accounts that parents can use for a range of educational expenses. What kind of micro-schools, virtual courses or private tutors might emerge in the new marketplace?
“It’s going to take some time for people to figure that out,” Rau says. “My question is: Is $5,100 enough to create that level of innovation?”
That’s the amount of money the program will place in the hands of parents to cover costs associated with public, private, virtual or home schooling. For upper-middle-class students whose families have the means to use some of their own funds to top off their accounts, it might be enough.
Low-income and special-needs students will receive roughly $600 more, which Rau says raises another question: “Are we actually doing enough to ensure equity?”
Ideally, he says he would like to see larger amounts set aside for low-income students. How could that happen? It might be feasible if a coalition comes together to raise funding for all the state’s education options, including public schools.
That would likely require winning over Democrats, who did not support the program in a Republican-controlled Legislature, but might be drawn to efforts to increase equity.
Meanwhile, Rau says low-income students in Nevada will likely benefit from another new policy: The establishment of a “harbor master” to help attract high-quality charter schools to the state.
The hope is that the state can learn from places like New Orleans, which have created magnets for education talent from around the country.
“This is the Wild West,” he says, and he means that in a good way. “You can still have opportunities. You can create new options here.”