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EDITORIAL: ESA law key to improving schools

Of all the new state laws that took full effect this month, none is more important or will be more closely watched than Nevada’s Education Savings Accounts.

Last week, a legislative subcommittee approved the regulations that will guide the operation of the country’s boldest and most inclusive school choice program. It’s full speed ahead for ESAs.

The passage of Senate Bill 302 was the most sweeping reform to come out of the 2015 Legislature. But the work of state Treasurer Dan Schwartz and his staff in writing the enabling regulations through a public process, and in accepting early applications from families without having those regulations approved, has been as impressive as the legislation itself.

For those unfamiliar with the program, ESAs give parents who withdraw children from public school control of the state funding that would have supported their enrollment. Disabled children and students from low-income families can receive up to $5,700 per year, and all other students are eligible for up to $5,100 per year.

Unlike school vouchers, which must be used exclusively to pay private school tuition, ESAs can be used for a wide variety of products and services, so that parents can customize their children’s education. Parents can spend the funds on technology, distance learning, tutoring, special therapies and other options. Nevada families already have submitted more than 4,100 applications for the flexible accounts, even though the program’s first funds won’t be distributed for at least another month.

The program has not been without controversy and strong opposition. Three lawsuits related to the program are working their way through the courts: two want the law overturned as unconstitutional and one seeks an expedited ruling upholding ESAs so parents who’ve applied for accounts have certainty. On Wednesday, a Carson City judge heard arguments in one of the cases, which alleges that the program strips funding from public schools. In fact, each time a child withdraws from school to accept an ESA, per-student public school funding increases because only state dollars exit the system, allowing districts to keep the county and federal funds that would have supported the student’s enrollment.

To obtain an ESA, a student must have attended a public school for at least 100 days. However, the final regulations included two exemptions to that rule: one for children of active military personnel and one for children ages 5 to 7. Students won’t have to start school in public school.

The competition created by school choice is a critical part of lifting overall student achievement in Nevada. No family should ever be stuck with an underperforming school. Congratulations to Gov. Brian Sandoval, SB302 sponsor Sen. Scott Hammond, R-Las Vegas, state Senate Majority Leader Michael Roberson, Mr. Schwartz and everyone who dared to rethink education in Nevada.

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