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ESAs can cover private school tuition

Nevada’s new school choice initiatives are national news. Editorial pages and education writers everywhere are pointing to the state’s new education savings accounts and other reforms as the nation’s gold standard for parent empowerment and academic competition.

Which means the disingenuous and misleading attacks on school choice won’t be far behind. Among the most common: Vouchers, education savings accounts and state-run scholarships help the wealthy but don’t help the middle class or the poor because lower-income households can’t afford private school tuition, even with assistance.

It’s not true.

First, a recap of education savings accounts, which I wrote about last week.

ESAs will allow parents to withdraw their children from public schools, gain control of the state tax revenue that funded their enrollment and spend that money on an educational program of their choice. The money can be used to support home schooling, pay private school tuition, fund tutoring or other special instruction or therapy, and buy technology. Parents can save what they don’t spend for educational costs in future years. And because parents have control of the funding, not the state, ESAs can be used to pay for tuition at religious schools.

School choice opponents — led by national teacher unions and Democrats — are expected to challenge Nevada’s new ESAs in court by claiming they’ll violate the state constitution’s ban on the use of tax dollars for religious purposes. But similar programs have been upheld by the courts because parents choose where the money is directed and close the transaction, not the state.

As that challenge plays out — and rest assured, it’s coming — families shouldn’t expect to hear much support for ESAs from the entrenched defenders of the sorry status quo. The criticism will focus on the amount of money available to families. When ESAs open in 2016, the most any student can receive is about $5,700 for the year. That figure represents the state’s share of average per-student funding for the coming school year. Low-income households or families with disabled children qualify for the full amount. All other families can receive up to 90 percent of that figure, or about $5,100. And that’s nowhere near enough for anyone living paycheck to paycheck to pull a child out of public school and enroll in private school, is it?

Yes it is. In fact, it’s more than enough money for a handful of inner-city Catholic schools. Annual, nonparishioner tuition at St. Francis de Sales elementary school is $5,520. At St. Anne’s, it’s $4,990. At St. Christopher’s, it’s $4,650.

At Calvary Christian, tuition costs about $6,000 per year. At First Good Shepherd Lutheran, nonparishioner tuition costs $6,350 per year. At Lamb of God Lutheran, it’s $6,950 per year. A handful of Montessori schools charge less than $7,000 per year. And most private schools offer need-based financial aid.

Low- and middle-income families can qualify for even more aid by applying for one of the state’s new opportunity scholarships. The scholarships, also signed into law this year by Gov. Brian Sandoval, are funded by business donations. The maximum scholarship award for next year is $7,755, and between 800 and 1,000 scholarships are expected to be available.

Combined, an ESA and an opportunity scholarship could give a child more than $13,000 toward private school tuition, offering parents even more choices.

Remember, to take advantage of an ESA, a student must be enrolled in public school for at least 100 school days. Students enrolled in private school will have to move to public school for more than half the academic year to gain access to ESA funds. Think “the rich” will pull their kids out of a $20,000-per-year private school like The Meadows or Alexander Dawson to gain access to $5,000? Not a chance.

What ESA opponents also won’t bring up: the fact that school districts get to keep all local funds attached to a student who exits. That means school districts’ per-student funding increases every time a student’s family opens an ESA.

Opposition to ESAs is rooted in fear of competition. More competition is coming. The state created a fund to recruit proven charter schools to low-income areas, and the state soon will take over persistently underperforming schools and hand them over to charters. And competitively priced private schools with all kinds of specializations will open and expand once ESAs create demand for them. Many families won’t choose a remotely traditional school.

More money alone would never improve Nevada’s underperforming schools. The system had to be turned upside down, and families needed options. They’re about to get them.

Glenn Cook (gcook@reviewjournal.com) is the Las Vegas Review-Journal’s senior editorial writer. Follow him on Twitter: @Glenn_CookNV.

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