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COMMENTARY: Nevada families deserve educational choice

Anyone who doesn’t think a quality education makes a difference in the life of a child should look in the eyes of Zuleika Parra. Mother of four, she had to go back to work after four years as a stay-at-home mom, just so her children would continue to have access to a good education. Parra’s story, and those of so many parents like her, demonstrates the thirst that Nevada families have for school options.

School choice works to empower parents such as Parra so that they can select the best option that meets their children’s unique needs. In Nevada, school choice takes many forms. Parents can select open enrollment, in which students attend public schools outside their assigned neighborhood boundaries. Parents can choose charter schools, funded by taxpayer dollars but with more autonomy than traditional district schools. Families can also select from several online learning options, selective magnet programs and home schooling.

Parra chose to enroll her oldest son in Nevada’s Opportunity Scholarship Program. Created in 2015, the program allows businesses to contribute to organizations that offer scholarships. These scholarships, provided to children in families of modest means, allow students to attend the school that their parents believe will work best for them, whether public or private.

Demand for the Opportunity Scholarships soared in the program’s short life span. The number of scholarship recipients increased more than fourfold, from 541 in 2016 to 2,306 in 2019. That rising demand speaks to the desire parents have for quality educational options — options they cannot afford without the scholarship program.

Unfortunately, changes made by the Legislature last year will limit the growing promise of this important program. The changes added budgeting restraints, making it difficult for scholarship organizations to accept new students into the program — even siblings of program participants. Because of the uncertainty surrounding the program, one scholarship organization will fund only scholarships for high school students, further reducing the program’s reach. More than 800 students lost their scholarships this past year.

The Legislature’s changes meant that Parra had to go back to work, despite the added burdens on this struggling mother of four. Because her three youngest boys wouldn’t qualify for Opportunity Scholarships — they were too young to enter school before the Legislature froze new enrollees in the program — her new job as a secretary at a Christian school means all her boys can receive discounted tuition.

Parra says that when she learned of the new restrictions on the scholarship program, “My first reaction was to cry. How do you explain to a child that you don’t have the money to pay for the school that he wants?” She admits that she changed her life to ensure her children had access to great schools — “many times we sacrifice for what our children need” — but recognizes that not all parents can do so. In her role as a school secretary, she sees fellow parents worried about losing their Opportunity Scholarships: “Parents come in desperate, crying. I had the advantage of getting a job, but there are parents who don’t.”

Families across Nevada support school choice, from the thousands of Opportunity Scholarship recipients, to the locked-out families desperate to join the program, to the hundreds of supporters attending National School Choice Week rallies. All these families — and all Nevada children — deserve the hope that educational opportunity can provide. Let’s hope our state’s leaders bring it to them.

Valeria Gurr is Nevada state director for the American Federation for Children.

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